Hey rising seniors: summer is a great time to begin work on your college essay. Your schedule is not filled with schoolwork and you have more time to devote to your life outside the classroom. This gift of time gives you a unique opportunity to think about and write a thoughtful, authentic personal narrative before you head back to school.
Remember that the college essay should be considered a narrative: which means that you should tell a good story. A meaningful one. A compelling one. Writing a narrative essay means that, unlike many of the papers you have written for school, the “meaning” does not have to come in the form of a thesis statement at the end of your first paragraph.
Not sure how to begin? Here are eleven tips to get you started.
Tip 1: Give yourself time and mark your calendar.
Make sure you give yourself enough time (days and weeks) to think, plan and write. Use a calendar to mark when you will find the time to work on the essay.
Tip 2: Read the Common Application prompts.
The prompts allow an admission office to learn about you. Is there a story you need to tell? A problem you want to solve? A failure in which you learned something? A belief you have challenged? An unofficial moment in which you felt you became an adult?
Tip 3: Don’t obsess about about the prompts.
A busy admission officer won’t try to figure out which of the prompts your essay answers. In fact, the first prompt is so general that it covers any topic you could write about.
Tip 4: Think about your life stories, big and small.
Spend time thinking about the moments, people and activities that have shaped you. What have you learned from them?
Tip 5: Consider how did these stories changed you.
As you recall these stories, consider why they stick in your mind after all these months or years. Why do you remember them so vividly? How have these moments or events changed your thinking or behavior?
Tip 6: Find solitary ways to access your stories.
Dribble a soccer ball. Play the clarinet. Draw. Do something that helps you access yourself and your stories “without thinking.”
Tip 7: Think about the high point of your story.
As you consider your stories, think about the defining moment in them. If it helps, think about the moment as if you were watching a movie about it; what do you see, hear, touch, smell and taste?
Tip 8: Make a list of your stories.
Think about the different parts of your life: school, family, friends, community. Jot down a sentence or two about each or some of them, but don’t get into too much detail at this point.
Tip 9: Conduct research: personal, online and print.
Talk to friends, family members or neighbors to get ideas. Visit the admission websites of the colleges you are considering. Connecticut College, Johns Hopkins University and Tufts University publish sample essays of admitted students on their websites. If you enjoy doing print research, check out Alan Gelb’s Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps, Second Edition or Janine Robinson’s Escape Essay Hell: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Narrative College Application Essays.
Tip 10: Freewrite.
Get out a pen and paper (or your laptop) and start writing, without regard for vocabulary, sentence structure or punctuation. Fluency is key now; structure and detail can come later.
Tip 11: Find a guide.
Sometimes it’s hard to go it alone, and enlisting the help of a teacher, family member, friend or professional can be helpful in the early (as well as the later) stages of the writing process.
I wish you good luck as you write your essay. I have no doubt that you will learn about yourself in the process.
Jane Hirschhorn is a writing tutor who believes that writing a college essay can be fun at times.