It’s time for teens to start writing write great college application essays.
The Common App went live on August 1 with more than 450 colleges using it, and many public universities are opening up their applications.
Yet so many kids get stuck just coming up with unique topics for their personal statements. That leaves so many admissions offices with general, uninteresting essays to read.
So here are some creative ways to help your high school seniors get started with writing active, engaging essays that truly communicate their stories to admissions officers.
- Write your resume. Include everything you can from high school. Categorize your activities, community service, work, internships, athletics, arts, and more. Include descriptions of your leadership and initiative. Maybe in writing the resume you will remember some key event or story that will turn into a great application essay.
- Start first with three short activity paragraphs. In writing them, make them as interesting and exciting as possible. Start with a story. Keep them to 1000 characters. Maybe one of these can turn into a long essay. Short paragraphs are easier to throw away than longer ones and are very useful for the Common Application and supplemental essays. None will ever go to waste.
- Write a list of your most quirky features. I love Stanford and BU’s supplemental Letter to Your Future Roommate. These letters are often so much more interesting than the other essays. One teen wrote about her proclivity for making lists and provided her list. Every item from her list could turn into a great essay starter. Samples from her list include: “I have the ability to create and develop different fonts in my handwriting” and “One of my favorite words is “ubuntu,” which means humanity in Xhosa.” Start with a list of what makes you, you. Make that will spark an essay topic.
- Look at sample essays posted on actual college websites. Connecticut College offers great samples. Johns Hopkins even provides admissions officers’ feedback after each sample essay. Reading these, you can see the huge range of topics. At least, you can see how they all begin with an amazing in the moment first paragraph. You can do the same.
- Read George Lyon’s “Where I’m From” Poem. Think of where you are from. Read the poem to get ideas to write your own and start an amazing essay.
- Read past and present supplemental essay topics from other colleges. The University of Chicago has great supplementary essay topics every year. A couple of years ago, one topic was: “It Isn’t Easy Being Green” by Kermit the Frog. That turned into a great long essay for several kids I know who never applied to U Chicago. This year’s topics are great as well. Go to the website and read the topics. Tufts also has great prompts at. Perhaps one of these topics will spark an idea.
- Read sample essays from older kids at your school. But don’t copy. Just get ideas. You need to truly match your writing and style to the level of school. Admissions officers are begging for gripping, non-general stories. Give them a gift.
- Follow the Into, Through, and Beyond Approach. With your INTO, grab us into the story with a moment in time. That moment must reveal a core qualify. Then go into two levels of THROUGH. THROUGH 1 provides the immediate context of the INTO. THROUGH 2 provides the overall context. End with a BEYOND that is not sappy but powerful. Think of a metaphor that guides you and weave through your story and into your ending.
- Great, great essays can take us through an event and weave in core features. Do not feel confined by any rules other than to engage and stimulate the admissions officers to see you come to life before them. And yes, you must grammar edit your essays.
- Don’t be bound by five paragraph essays. Your story will guide the form of the essay. You can use dialogue, quotes, song lyrics, poetry. Let your story and message guide you.
Dr. Rebecca Joseph is a college access and admissions expert. A tenured professor at a local university, she believes that all students should have the option of a college education and does everything she can to help students, communities, and schools empower their students to make it to and through college.
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