Most students are taught how to write persuasive essays, analytical papers, but very rarely are you taught how to write something autobiographical, which is what a college essay is all about, AND that can be digested by a reader moving through your file in 1-2 minutes.
Yep. Your life story in 120 seconds.
The Common App’s essay prompts are an attempt to help you focus your writing, but they can distract you from telling your story, as you focus on the prompt.
We tend to use the open prompt, because we want you to have a unique “thumbprint” that is absolutely y-o-u.
Honesty. It’s what makes your college essay stand out. It’s what gives you a “thumbprint” that makes you the only you in thousands of applications. Save your tales of great deeds in debate or music or on the stage for the supplemental questions, where you can discuss achievements, ambitions, and goals. There are ridiculous advisors who tell you write two or three to use. Nonsense. There is one you. Write about you and your real world right, and you are telling the admissions officers what they really want to know: How you fit into their needs for a diverse student body.
Colleges work hard to put together a very diverse “city” of people from different backgrounds and interests.
College secret: The majority of your undergraduate education is about growing up, finding out who you are as a person, on your own for the first time, than it is specifically about your major, or what you want to be when you get out of school.
They fill cohorts. Your main essay is the ONLY WAY that they have to see how you fit into that personality/social mix. It’s also the only way for them to understand you as a person, and what is going on in your world.
It helps fill in questions about the rest of the information that they are provided, like your grades, extra-curriculars, recommendations, etc.
We have a better suggestion as to how to do this. Don’t write and write and write, getting frustrated.
Start with a series of lists.
But first, two words to your parents:
I’m the father of five, and I’m very involved with my kids, so please understand, if you are very involved with YOUR kids, that this is coming from one of you: Please BACK OFF during the essay process, unless you are asked to participate by your student.
These lists may, or may not, be suitable for parents. Your kids are young adults. They are about to go off to college where, if this is your first time at the rodeo, you will find out that they have to agree to let you see any of their records, including grades, and even their school bills. They are individuating, and they sometimes have “takes” about their lives, their school, daily life, family, etc. that may not be in line with your worldview or your view of them.
In order for these lists to work for your kid, they have to be completely comfortable with putting ideas that they may share with NO ONE on paper so they can sort out what they tell the college. The more honest the essay, the better the read. College readers are REALLY good at sniffing out essays that tell them what parents and paid professional college prep people want them to hear.
So mom, dad, you are hearing it here: This is one space where if your student wants to share, great. If they don’t, forcing them to do so can actually hurt their chances of success in writing an essay that opens all doors.
THE LIFE LIST
Grab a piece of paper. Don’t try to write sentences. Make a list of events in your life that you think have shaped how you see the world. This is not a list of your classes, or the achievements in school or social clubs, although something in a class or social club could be on your list. It could be a moment with a family member or a teacher. They don’t have to be connected, or linear. Just things, for now, that you can remember that are significant. Don’t try to hide things from the colleges, either. If you had to deal with a string of foster homes, or your best friend died that is something that shaped this time of your life.
It might look like this:
- Went to All-State
- Parent/close relative passed
- Got my braces off
- Mom realized that I’m not just a kid
- Adventures in driving
- Dealing with a serious personal life challenge (Physical disability, emotional problems, social issues)
- Mr. Worther gave me a second chance
- Karaoke night with my brothers
- Surfing was not for me
- A family/living issue (Coping with substance abuse, life as a foster child, etc.)
- Stuck on the boat when the motor slipped off
- Getting right with Maya after I screwed up
- Discovering robotics
- A major family crisis (Lost a home/apt/farm; A family health crisis; etc.)
- Summer in Maine and the clambake
- TRAVEL and your experiences from it
- Study Abroad – What did you learn about your life from it?
- Going to games with Dad
- Why we all argue so much
- Julie has to be so freakin’ perfect all the time
- Working with kids at a school or summer camp
- Helping the elderly or infirm
- Helping at Sunfest
- The bowling disaster
Put it aside. Done for the day.
THE CHARACTERISTICS LIST
For the purposes of this essay, imagine, instead, that you’re writing a play or a short novel. Who is your protagonist, your character? This is probably the toughest assignment. Who are you, for real? Not the person that you put out there for the public to see, although that may be the same, but who are YOU going forward, that person that you want to project to the college. It doesn’t always have to be sunny and good either. If you are someone who is building their identity, in any number of ways, that’s a fair thing to add to your characteristics list.
The biggest thing here is to remember that this is not yet stuff for publication. This is purely for you, so there is no judgment here, and no need to worry. Write it, don’t advertise it to your friends or siblings or parents, and keep it someplace safe.
People write some amazing and pretty compelling essays when they’re honest about themselves, and, since this will be read by people who don’t share it with a soul outside of the admissions office, you should relax and really do some personal reflection.
This may be the first time that you’ve ever thought about a lot of this stuff, because you’ve been so busy living your life that you haven’t stopped to take stock of what it all means. Some of you are highly introspective and could write a book about your life already. A sentence or War & Peace, go through this exercise over a couple of days. Give it some thought.
A lot of these topics are places where you will have changed and grown over the years, and form a big piece of your autobiography.
To make a list of your characteristics that might play into the essay, consider these dynamics:
- Social – Are you outgoing or introverted? Do you like or loathe people? Are you independent or dependent? Is your idea of a great evening a party, hanging with a few close friends, or just hiding with a good book, or a tablet, or gaming?
- Intellectual – Are you a thinker or a doer or both? Does your rational side always have control? Do people come to you for help with homework, life problems, etc.? Do you feel like there is something about the world that you really “understand” and feel driven to learn more, or is knowing something less important to you? Are you the rational skeptic? The iconoclast?
- Emotional – Write down ideas about your emotional being:
- Do you find that you lead your life with your heart first and your head second?
- Are you attuned to other people’s emotions and emotional needs?
- Are you the shoulder that people lean or cry on when things aren’t going well?
- What is YOUR emotional state? Are you generally a happy person or sad?
- Are you generally fearless or fearful? How has that defined the choices that you’ve made in high school, and how do you WANT TO BE going forward into college, looking back at how you’ve been in middle school and high school?
- Physical – Write down ideas of how you are seen in the world as a physical being How do you see yourself? How do people see you?
- Are you an athlete?
- A couch potato?
- Tall, short?
- Proud of your curly hair?
- Wondering why you had to have freckles?
- Is your physical appearance something that you think about regularly, or infrequently?
- Is there something about the way that you dress that you do consciously to distinguish yourself in some way? It doesn’t have to be highly visible, like changing your hair color. It can be something subtle, like a pair of socks you wear on test day, or a hat that means something to you when you put it on (Belonged to a loved one, a memento of a time in your life).
- Is there a physical characteristic of you that it strongly tied to your identity? I read an essay by a Lebanese young man whose parents were immigrants. He was always embarrassed about his nose. People picked on him for being different in the public elementary school where his parents had put him. He used that to tie together his cultural history, his family heritage, his life as an “average” first generation American, and all of the things that he had done.
- Identity – How do you identify yourself? This crosses a whole lot of labels, but, knowing what labels you live with now, and what labels you want to live with going forward, are a big part of college life, and your growth as a person. There are no dumb or bad choices here. Write them all down.
- Do you strongly identify with your race or religious affiliation?
- Are you a huge fan of a sports team?
- Are you a member of an organization like a choir or a band or the Boy or Girl Scouts or a bowling team?
- Are you very connected to your family, your family’s heritage, even if it’s not a race per se?
- In high school, you may have been the “nerd” or the “jock” or whatever, but that does not necessarily define you as a college adult, unless that works for you.
- Is there something emotionally that you see changing as you get out on your own?
- Is your gender a big part of your life, or identification with gender?
- Do you see yourself largely staying the same, or do you think that you will identify differently in the future?
Writing down ideas will help you sort out a lot of the “who” of the character that we’re going to write about in our essays. This is FOR YOU. You do not have to show it to your parents, your guidance counselor, or a college advisor. It’s just to get your head around how to talk more honestly about yourself, and the life stories that will make up the “scenes” that give a reader a view of you.
Let this sit for a day.
HABITS, HOBBIES, TRADES & TELLS
Your school record tells people a lot about you academically, and may hint at your passions by your choices of both curricular and extracurricular activities in clubs, band, student government, etc. you can make your last list of personal things you do:
- Habits – Are you a creature of habit, or do you wing it? If you have any personal customs or rituals that you do, write them down as part of this list.
- Hobbies – Do you do anything outside of school that might tell a reader in 2-3 minutes more about you as a person? Do you break away every weekend to jump in an airboat and hit the Everglades to go fishing? Do you canoe, hike, kayak, squirrel jump, skateboard? Barbershop quartet? Collect rocks, spoons, dolls, toy cars? Build scale models? All of these things are possible to add into your essay.
- Trades – Do you hold a job on top of all of your other school and home work? This is a good one, particularly for students that are seeking scholarship money, IF your job has taught you something about life, or about your direction/focus. Just write it/them down on a list for now.
- Tells – Like a poker game, what are “tells” that people read about you? Simple things. Can someone always make you laugh by doing something? Does something about life, family, the world get you energized, passionate, mad? Write those ideas down on this list.
Set the list aside for a day.
Now look at the essay prompts for the application’s general essay. You will have supplemental essays as well for each school, but, for now, let’s focus on the primary essay. Pull out your lists, and look at the pieces of our jigsaw puzzle from the different lists. Can you pull together your life, habits and characteristics list and find some common thread that you can write about?
REMEMBER that you talk about school work, projects, APs that kind of thing ELSEWHERE. Parents and a few college advisors are notorious for telling their kids to put a wash list of accomplishments into their essays. DO NOT DO THIS. Readers can pull those from your academic files, and they are not what belong here in your essay. It’s great to be proud of your five on an AP, but that isn’t what they need to know about you. They want to know who you are as a person.
So don’t try to sneak them in, either. “I was really frightened about taking Calc A/B at the beginning of the year but by the time that I got to the test, I realized how much I had grown in my understanding of math.”
I’m your reader. I’m your audience. I have 2-3 minutes to get interested in your life enough to advocate for you if your file falls into the “Maybe” pile. To believe in you, I have to find you interesting. You may not think so, but EVERY life is interesting. Every life. Those who succeed and those who fail at this essay are separated by one big word:
The closer we get to honest and UNIQUE, your voice, your thumbprint, the better likelihood you will attract the positive attention from both reading algorithms and the human readers of your work.
write your life as…
Now we can write a short outline of what we want to do, or we can just write a first draft of our story. It’s a STORY, meant to entertain and inform, told to a reader in a cubicle or office who reads THOUSANDS of them in a year.
Just as piles of unmade scripts could build a skyscraper in Hollywood, there are tons of essays. So how do you stand out?
- Don’t be BORING – Your expository writing skills don’t help here. Pick up a good book or a magazine article. They almost always have a strong first sentence or two, called a HOOK. Make the hook great! Drama is a GOOD thing in a bio because most people write like a sleeping pill. You can cut through thousands of essays by grabbing the reader:
- “I have a big, brown, Lebanese nose. In elementary school, I HATED it, because kids made fun of me. In high school, though, my nose found a pair of Wayfarer sunglasses, and its own version of cool.”
- “When you’re little, everything looks so big and overwhelming. In high school, life can feel so stressed and overwhelming. After I graduate high school, I’m officially done with ‘overwhelming.'”
- “I pulled and pulled on the outboard engine’s starter cord. It wouldn’t kick. The shore, with its towering condos that shadowed the water as the sun sped away to the West Coast, were shrinking dots on the horizon. The tide was pulling my little boat eastward, out to the Atlantic. My cell phone? “NO SERVICE.” AT&T was not going to send the Coast Guard. Worry set in when the “Jaws” theme started playing on the theme-music channel in my head, and the sun set on the horizon.”
- To Thine Own Self, Be True – Be yourself. Are you funny? Be funny. Are you serious? Be serious. Use your Characteristics List to help you frame the tone of your essay.
- From your Life List, select an event, or series of related events, that will help you tell a story that is emblematic of you, how you handle life, that gives you the opportunity to show, rather than tell, how your habits and characteristics that you listed WORK. If you’re mellow, neurotic, funny, crazy, whatever SHOW IT THROUGH THE NARRATIVE. PUT US IN THE MOMENT OF THE STORY.
- Instead of “I’m OCD,” try: “Every brush on my dressing table has its place, and purpose. Each has to be exactly in the right place. My mom borrowed one once, and didn’t bring it back. I just stared and stared at the hole and got madder and madder at this disruption in the personal cosmos of my room.”
- Instead of “I like sports, which is direct and boring, try: “Sunday morning starts cold shower, skin-tight running gear and baaad Nikes pounding pavement, a steamy sweat-remover, then a big bowl of Cheerios and Chris Berman ESPN takes and highlight reels because mom won’t let dad pay for the game-day packages.”
ThE READ FOR SPEED
Readers will go through your essay in one to three minutes. Some things that you can do to make your read a great one:
- Hit them between the eyes with a 2×4. Your opening should be short, one to two great, clever sentences that hook them, and reference where you’ll be heading in the essay.
- Don’t indent. The Common App doesn’t let you use it anyway. Double space after each paragraph.
- Understand that long paragraphs can be split into paragraphs and sub-paragraphs. Subconsciously all readers dread long huge blocks of text. Shorter paragraphs, and supporting sub-paragraphs, let the essay “breathe” better, and make for good flow.
- Don’t repeat words or phrases in the same paragraph, e.g.: “My uncle was my hero because he took me to the park. My uncle was a special person in my life. ” Pronouns like “He” work better. Repetitive words can cause the reader’s eye to “skip” when reading in a paragraph. If they pick up a cup of coffee, and they have to figure out which of the three “My uncle” sentences they left off on, they may have to go back and re-read. That never ends well for the evaluation of the quality of the read.
- Don’t get cute. Elusive paragraphs that coyly lead up to your topic sentence are annoying to a college essay reader. “It was the kind of thing that you just don’t see. A special moment…” blah blah blah for a paragraph. I’ve tuned you out before I got to the point.
- Don’t make the reader “tense.” High school students are rewarded for writing in volume, with long, often lugubrious, pretentious, wordy sentence structure. K.I.S.S. Keep it simple, students. Avoid a lot of conditional verbs. Past and present tense work well for a speed read, most of the time. “As a matter of fact, I have thought, many times, that I would like to study how plants interact with light,” should read: “I would like to study how plants interact with light.”
THE CONJUNCTION JUNCTION DYSFUNCTION
Write, as you’ve seen in this article, and in the samples from student work chosen, in complete sentences.
You don’t need a lot of conjunctions, which are used in speech, in the written form of English. Paragraphs group ideas, not “and.”
WRONG: “I am very upset about the way that our government runs and I think that I would like to be a politician and maybe fix things because I have been very involved with student government and I think I could fix things.”
- CORRECT: “I am very upset about the way that our government runs. I think that I would like to be a politician one day, after working in campaigns, or as a staffer for a politician. I have been very involved with student government, where I was able to affect a lot of change in the way that we did things, even though people had been arguing for years about student body policy. It leads me to I believe that I could fix things in Washington, D.C. one day.”
Never start a sentence with a conjunction. Embrace the word “though” instead of “but.”
- WRONG: “But we were already heading to the mall.”
- CORRECT: “We were already heading to the mall, though.”
There are a few style issues that should also be considered when you start to write. These knock points off of essays with the scoring computers. It often ticks off human readers as well. They tend to know enough about writing to be hired to read writing.
Unless you are providing an acronym (FBI) or some short stat (3 ft.), or some quick affiliation (Class of 1990), commas should be used to express an aside, sub-thought, or point of interest.
- WRONG: John (Who was suffering from a bad stomach) hurried to the bathroom;
- CORRECT: John, who was suffering from a bad stomach, hurried to the bathroom.
If you quote someone, and you can, and you need to add a word or change its tense to put it into the context of your sentence or to fill in the subject when a pronoun was used in the quote that you need, make sure that you use a bracket:
- ORIGINAL: “It was necessary when he took office to make his independence from the party clear.”
- MODIFIED: “It was necessary when [Abraham Lincoln] took office to make his independence from the party clear.
BEWARE THE SPELL CHECKERS
Don’t always believe the spelling checkers. Google Drive, in particular, has some big flaws with wrong words, and poor even though the red line goes away, some words that are spelled correctly are still wrong in the context of your sentence.
- “High school” is still two words, even if Google’s spell checker disagrees.
- “I want to be a part of something” may correct to “apart,” but “a part” as in one piece of many, and “apart,” meaning to be separated from something.
- “I skate every day” may correct to “I skate everyday.” Everyday means ordinary, commonplace, as opposed to “every day” which means every individual day.
REDRAFTING IS 90% OF GETTING YOUR ESSAY PERFECT
New habit that your high school probably didn’t teach enough:
Redraft, redraft, redraft.
We write in stream-of-consciousness on the first draft. Get ideas out. Often times great ideas for our “hook” are buried in the third or fourth paragraph on the first pass. You are NOT professional writers. Even the best professional writers will tell you that they have to draft and redraft.
Ideas in an essay are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. So write. Take a break. Come back to it and then take a look switching from writer, to editor. Are there ideas here and there th.at should be re-organized? Fix all those in a draft.
Tighter? That’s good! Next question: Is it too wordy? Could you have said something in a sentence better? Readers are short on time. Think USA Today for length, with richer vocabulary, not Charles Dickens. As you redraft, you also gain additional focus and clarity:
- ORIGINAL: “As a student of history, I’ve found, through the years, that there are so many moments in time that have a habit of repeating themselves, which is why humans seem to be doomed to limit their ability to learn from their mistakes and change.”
- DRAFT 2: “History, I’ve found in my studies, has a habit of repeating itself, because humans don’t learn from mistakes and improve.”
- DRAFT 3: “History has a habit of repeating itself. In man’s failure to embrace change, we lose the ability to evolve.
- DRAFT 4: “Repeating the mistakes of our ancestors is a failure of humankind to embrace change, that slows our evolution.”
One in millions of you is good enough to do a single draft. If you think that’s you, then it is not you. The people who can do it are usually perfectionists and still will redraft it three or four times. Don’t be impatient. This is one of the most important pieces of writing you will ever do in your life.
Get it RIGHT.