The best piece of advice I can give you about writing your college essay is this: Know that it’s okay and totally normal if it’s hard and even scary. Struggling with your college essay is not a sign that you don’t belong in college or aren’t cut out for it. That’s just your inner critic again.
Give yourself a compassionate reality check
You have probably never written an essay quite like this before. You legit have no clue what you’re doing yet. I have worked with dozens of high school students on their college essays and I can tell you: It was hard for every single one of them to think of and finally decide what to write about. When that hard part is over, yes, it is still hard work to get it on page and make it sound good which is why you will be revising a lot, but that’s why professional writers are good at what they do because they revise – sometimes a lot.
As long as you write a solid essay with some heart, you will be fine. While the stakes are higher for much more competitive colleges, I just don’t think essays are what makes or break you. It’s just one piece of the whole pie of you when applying to colleges, so again try to take the pressure off. Being stressed will only block your ability to think of a good idea and then to write it down.
Here are five tips to help you write a college essay you can be proud of:
1. Believe that you have a good story to tell
No, you are not boring. Your life may be or feel very boring right now according to you know who (inner voice), especially as a whole year of high school happened during the lockdown, but that doesn’t mean you are boring and that nothing has happened to you. Maybe the “nothing” and “no social life” of lockdown was secretly a relief for you. That is something that happened to you. You experienced that situation. That would be an interesting essay. How forced stillness had some gifts. The opposite might be true too. How you found lockdown really hard, but managed to find new coping mechanisms.
You probably have at least two or three good stories that you can use for your college essay – you simply need to unearth them. No one can go through life and not have stories to tell. Why? Because we are all shaped by the events and encounters of our lives — big and small. It’s a matter of recognizing them.
2. Understand the point of telling your story
The point is not to be entertaining or dramatic. You don’t need a plot twist or to be a hero. You don’t need to have overcome a terrible tragedy in order to tell a meaningful story. Meaningful is the key word here. Often, the best stories are the ones that seem quiet on the surface — a moment, event or time in your life that might seem ordinary, but something happened that caught your attention in a special way, shaped you or changed how you think about something or a situation or the meaning of life, and that now you can look back on and appreciate, even if it unpleasant or painful.
What colleges are looking for in your essay is your ability to reflect on and grow from your experiences. They want you to show how and why the core of your story was meaningful to you because that shows depth, creativity and maturity.
3. Ditch the five-paragraph essay format
You’re telling a story, not writing an essay for English class. You need to unhook from the academic five-paragraph essay where you have a tidy thesis statement at the end of the first paragraph, three body paragraphs and then a conclusion that restates your thesis. That is a valid format, but not for this essay. You’re telling a story about you and you’re writing it, so yes, it’s an essay, but it’s still really just a narrative – a story. The best stories are told through action, detail and vivid description. Often the best way is to start your story is by setting a scene. Where were you? Bring it to life with detail, put your reader there. Was it hot/cold/snowy/stuffy/crowded/noisy? Were the trees ablaze in autumn color? Was the sky bold and blue or filled with black clouds? Then explain what happened, and why and how it mattered. How did you change? There’s no need to announce what you’re going to write about. Just write it.
4. Be prepared to write three or four first drafts
The toughest draft is the first one, and by first, I mean the first one you actually like. Sometimes you might write a few paragraphs or even two pages only to like: Nah, this isn’t it. It just isn’t working, and that’s okay. Try something else – a new opening, angle or a whole new story. Writing is not just showing someone what you think or know, it’s often how you find out what you think or know. Drafting is discovery.
Be prepared to revise. Once you have the “guts” of the story on the page and it feels like a story, it’s a matter working and reworking what you have – this is revision. You may need to do two or three revisions, but usually, once you nail the story you want to tell, the hardest part is truly behind you.
Read aloud. The best way to catch mistakes and to hear sentences that may be too long or don’t make sense is to print your essay out and read it aloud. Check your spell checker more than once, especially before you ask anyone else to read it. When grading, I am often forgiving about mistakes, but not when the spell checker underlined it for you.
5. Find a helpful reader or two and be open to their feedback
You will need someone to ready your essay for you to give you honest feedback. Here are some good options for readers:
- Your guidance counselor and/or English teacher. This is often your best choice as they are often excellent people to ask to read your essay and they have a lot of experience reading essays like this. But give them plenty of notice and time. If you’re going to work on your essay over the summer, let them know and ask them the best way to get in touch.
- People in your family who like to read. It’s not a guarantee, but people who read a lot tend to be good writers or at least they know a good story when they read one.
- Professionals you have access to. If your neighbor or someone from your church, mosque or synagogue is a journalist or any kind of professional writer, this could be a good person to get feedback from. Lawyers often do a lot of writing so they can be good readers too.
- Hired professional help. Professionals/high school teachers and college professor who tutor in English and writing may be able to help you.
Be open to hearing honest feedback, but you should not ask/allow anyone to rewrite your essay or to help you too much. This is your essay. It needs to come from you in an organic way. While you don’t want spelling or grammar mistakes, you want the writing to be genuinely how you express yourself. Admissions counselors know you’re still in high school. They don’t expect sophisticated writing, but they appreciate authentic stories told in an authentic voice. So, I might coach someone to add more detail in a certain spot or to make a sentence clearer, but the writer needs to be the one who adds and clarifies.
Final thought: You have a special opportunity, so make the most of it
Ultimately, if you can shut off the worry and quiet the inner critic writing a college essay is an opportunity to discover something important about yourself in a new way. It’s not every day you write an essay or story about yourself. This can be hard to understand before you start writing, but once you have done it, you just might find that sometimes the act of writing the essay like this is helps you truly understand and integrate the experience into yourself fully and consciously for the first time. It’s like you kind of, sort of knew you had an important shift or change in perspective but writing about will absolutely reveal the fullness of the experience and your growth to you.
How cool is that? You are about to become a conscious communicator in your college essay! Please let me know if these tips are helpful by leaving me a comment below. As always, try to stay out of the past and future because all the magic in your life happens in the present!