Once Chariot Learning has already helped a student achieve her best SAT and ACT scores, she often comes back for help with another challenge: the college application essay. Writing the college application essay is a daunting task–in 650 words, a student must share something striking about herself that will convince an admissions committee that she will be a worthy addition to the college’s incoming class. With so many applicants to choose from, many of whom have strong numbers, the essay becomes a crucial part of a student’s college application that can make the difference between admission and rejection. What can a student do to make her essay succeed at this highly unique genre of high-stakes writing? First and foremost, I tell my essay students, “Write an essay that nobody could write except you.”
What does that mean? Someone who knows you well should be able to read a pile of application essays with names redacted, and immediately know which one is yours. Indeed, several of our 7 Steps to an Amazing College Essay urge you to make sure that you write in your own voice about something close to your heart. Many students find this process bewildering.
Even when I was in high school, I was helping others work on their college application essays – I remember being on a bus to a ski race with a friend, and she told me that she was having a hard time writing her college application essay. She had no idea what to write about, or how to start. I remember trying to explain the process, finally advising her to “open a little compartment in your heart” and share a story or an experience that demonstrates a crucial part of who you are – something you care about deeply that affects your everyday choices and habits. As an adult who now specializes in teaching test preparation and college essay writing, I agree with that old advice, but it is not an easy task.
How does a student begin this process? How does she start writing an essay that paints a vivid portrait of some crucial aspect of who she is? I encourage my students to be patient with themselves as they consider what to write about.
Early in the process, we do free-writing exercises where students just write for 10-20 minutes, and see what comes out. Some students benefit from specific prompts, like, “What are you obsessed with? What is a defining feature of your character? What is one of the most prominent aspects of who you are? How did you discover and/or cultivate that aspect of yourself?” The self-awareness and self-inquiry involved in this task can be difficult and even frightening.
Some students benefit from a different approach to brainstorming, where we first just practice sharing stories and experiences via writing, and see what comes up. I say to my students, “If you feel stuck, just choose an activity or experience and vividly write a story describing it.” Give the reader rich sensory details. Keep writing. Let yourself shift to another experience that suddenly feels like a great one to relate, and let yourself really revisit that memory in all its sensory detail. Your free-writing may reveal a great potential topic for your essay–some vital aspect of who you are may drive you toward particular experiences you’ve had, and as you write, you may discover how to illustrate that part of yourself through the lens of this particular experience. Keep writing until you find it, or find several options!
During this first step, it’s a great idea to do multiple free-writing and brainstorming sessions where you write out everything that comes up as a possibility. You don’t need to evaluate your ideas much yet–just try to generate as many ideas as possible.