THE ROAD TO COLLEGE
A ONE-YEAR ACTION PLAN
FOR HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS
#14 of 20: October
by Martha Green Quirk, M.A.
Picture this scenario: Your application to your #1 college is sitting on the top of the pile of 52 other applications of kids as qualified as you are to be admitted to that college. The reader is the Associate Dean of Admissions, and at midnight, he is burned out from reading applications all day long; but he says, “Just one more … then I’ll go to bed.”
That one more application is yours. All the work you put into visiting the school, seeing the admission rep at a college fair, sending emails back and forth to the coach, writing the application, and composing the essay is about to give you “your day in court.” This is the 10 or 15 or 20 minutes that will be given to your application by the admissions reader. Will the reader be glad he stayed up to read your application and your essay?
Follow these five basic steps as you write your college application essay, and you’ll be satisfied with your work.
1st Step: Brainstorm ideas
Once you have determined what each college’s essay questions ask, you are then going to “brainstorm” ideas to determine what you want to write about. Brainstorming means that you write down every idea that you think about … take a few days to ponder ideas that intrigue you. Let those ideas percolate in your head.
Think about these types of questions:
- How have you demonstrated leadership in high school?
- What makes a particular event in your life most memorable?
- Consider what is unique about you or your interests?
- What makes you a “best friend”?
- What is your favorite memory of something a grandparent said to you or did for you?
- How did that last book you read impact you or change your thinking?
- What is your most endearing or creative or strongest quality?
2nd Step: What are YOU going to write about?
Your brainstorming ideas should begin to define some topics that you are interested in that parallel the specific questions asked on the application. Ask yourself these questions:
- How are you going to write about a topic that other students may also write about, and, at the same time, make it UNIQUE—something that only you can write about because YOU experienced it?
- What is your story? What are your supporting details and examples? Can you relate the topic of your essay back to you? Remember, admissions offices want to read about YOU, and what YOU are going to bring to their college.
- Does your essay provide some insight into your character, your strength, your ability to make decisions, or your personal or intellectual passions? Does the essay say something specific about the person you are?
- How interesting is your topic? Would an admissions officer be excited to read your essay after he has already read 50 other applications that day?
3rd Step: Your voice will say it best
- You must write the essay in your own voice. That means it must sound like you – your words, your ideas, your personality. That’s why over-editing by parents nullifies the student’s voice. The topic must be something you care deeply about and tells the reader something about you that is not already stated in your application.
- Let your essay tell a story with these five elements: give it a setting (where and when); characters are important, especially with you as a main character; action makes the story more interesting; your voice must come through as the story teller; and be sure your story has a theme or captivating message. You want to leave your reader wanting more.
- Colleges are interested in admitting students who will bring something special to that campus and who have qualities of character that will impact their campus. Your essay is the place to let the Admissions Committee know just what kind of person you are and how you will make a difference on that campus.
- The first sentence in your essay is the most important one. As Ted Fiske says, “Polish your first sentence like a precious stone.” Make it memorable so that the reader wants to read more.
Here are three examples of first sentences (taken from Real College Essays that Work
by Edward Fiske):
- “There are 256 steps from my front door to my front door.” (The story of a girl living with divorced parents who live down the street from each other.)
- “On May 30, 2004, I woke up to bloodcurdling screaming that I’d only heard in horror movies.” (Her mother was waking her up because the house was on fire.)
- “Every first Thursday of each month I always look around the Van Muren Hall gymnasium looking at the sixty-and seventy-year-old men and wonder what I am doing there with them.” (A boy who built rubber-band-powered balsa airplanes and flew them alongside of many of these senior citizens.)
Remember these points:
- Use of language and good grammar is essential, but don’t resort to the Thesaurus to find words that you don’t use in everyday life. The essay is your voice, not just a story with big words that aren’t you.
- Asking questions in your essay and varying the length of your sentences can be a good way to make your story more interesting. Be selective as you do this, for too much of a good thing is often too much.
- Humor has its place, but can easily be overdone, and this can be a negative!
- College admissions officers are looking for students who have taken opportunities to grow and mature through their experiences. Let your essay show examples of this growth.
- If you tell a story about something or someone who has had an impact on your life, tell WHY. Why was the person or event significant to you? What did you learn from the experience? How has it made you behave or feel or think differently? Admiring someone who has made you more confident, for example, isn’t enough; describe how you have grown in your confidence through what you learned from that person or experience.
- Your final sentence is just as important as your first sentence. Does it make the reader smile? Does it add an interesting ending or a climax to what you have written?
4th Step: Drafts...and more drafts
- Count on writing fivie to eight drafts before you come up with a winning essay. That means you can’t do an “all-nighter” on your application essay and expect it to be the best you can do.
- Get your ideas down on paper—even if they are only random ideas at this point.
- Start with a first draft that has three elements: a lead/topic/first sentence, support sentences/ideas, and a concluding sentence or two.
- The Admissions Committee wants to learn something new about you that is not already in your application. Have you done that?
- Yes, correct spelling counts! And so does the use of correct grammar, sentence structure, subject/verb agreement, correct use of pronouns and prepositions, etc.
5th Step: The final version…perfect!
- Proofread, proofread and proofread!
- Use Spell Check (remember, the word may be correctly spelled, but incorrectly used – for example: “their” and “there” or “form” when you meant “from”).
- Read the essay aloud to see if it is saying what you want.
- Check for the correct number of words, especially when you have been given a word limit to your essay. If an essay of 500 words is requested, making it 600 words is not appropriate … yes, 515 is OK!
Martha Green Quirk, M.A., has been active in the college admissions field for over 30 years. In 2008 she founded her own independent educational consulting company, College Admissions Consulting (CAC), in St. Louis, Missouri. She is an associate member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC).
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