By Carol Barash, PhD Founder and CEO, Story To College
With less than two weeks until the first Early Decision and Early Action apps are due, there’s hype all around college admissions. Reporters dubbed it the College Admissions Arms Race, and the weeks leading up to November 1st can seem like a battle waged against your applications.
All this media attention can blind students to the fact that you have what you need to complete your application essays and the whole application – in your experiences, your perspective, and your unique voice.
The Common App essays are your chance to show admissions who you are and how you will make a difference in college and in life. The essays are the most important part of the application, after grades and SAT/ACT scores. The essays are more important than class rank, teacher recommendations, and your activities resume. Admissions officers describe the essay as a “deal breaker.” They use your essay to add nuance to the numbers and to distinguish between students whose records otherwise look alike.
So, how are you going to deal with this critical piece of your application? Take any one of the topics below and write a first draft of 500-1000 words about it. Eventually, you’ll want to prune it back to 500 words. But the idea here is to get past your usual responses, to get to the heart of what’s important to you. So just let your pen go. If you find your ideas going all over the place, that’s great; you’ll come up with a bunch of ideas by writing freely:
- My favorite pair of shoes
- If I were vice president
- The painting comes to life
- Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore
- Wacky weather
- Tea with Eleanor Roosevelt
- What I do after midnight
- A lie my parents told me
- Things I left behind
- The most important thing no one knows about me
And here are three topics that are almost always a mistake – because they make you sound smug, or privileged, and not someone who will be a positive member of your college community. Here’s how you can turn one of those around, and get your essays and yourself back on track.
- Why I don’t drink (or something else that’s pretty standard high school behavior). If you started Safe Rides at your high school, that’s important!
- My best friend. They essay should be about you, not someone else. So perhaps explore how that person has shaped you, and what you have done as a result.
- Traveling to another country and feeding my leftovers to a homeless person. To this person you are making a difference, and that is a great thing. But as JFK said, “To those whom much is given, much is expected.” If you are in the position to see the disparities and make this sort of difference in one life, what are you doing closer to home with those insights, or perhaps on a broader scale?
Good luck with your essays. Let us know what questions you have
and what obstacles you run into, and we’ll do our best to get you unstuck!
Guest post by Suzanne Raga
Senior fall is no doubt a stressful, hectic time. Between starting your last year of high school, taking a slew of new classes, and navigating your college applications, when are you supposed to take care of yourself?
The good news is that you don’t have to stay up until 2AM, struggling to stay alert enough to write the latest draft of your college application essay after a long night of homework. Working harder isn’t the answer. You can achieve balance and take care of your emotional and physical needs while you embark on the beginning of senior year.
Schedules are your new best friends. To stay focused and keep track of all your responsibilities, write a master to-do list. Think about your daily, weekly, and monthly tasks (like specific homework assignments, projects, and test prep), and add them to your list of college application deadlines. Your goal is to do your assignments as efficiently as possible – knock them out so you can move on. Don’t spend all night studying, either – decide on a reasonable time limit and set a timer.
You may want to keep separate schedules for school, college apps, and social activities, or one master schedule, but in either case don’t schedule all your time! It’s nice to have some free time to daydream, take a spontaneous weekend trip, listen to music, and watch movies.
Do fun, cool things that interest you. Have fun. Seriously – that’s an order! What do you love to do outside of school? What experiences have you always wanted to try but were afraid of in the past?
Step outside your comfort zone. Play the drums with your band for a huge audience, organize a charity event, or climb a mountain. Besides having fun and getting a break from doing schoolwork, you’ll have some pretty awesome topics to write about in your college application essays!
Keep Calm and Carry On. All your friends may be freaking out. Your teachers and counselors could be pressuring you. Your parents might stress you out. Don’t panic! Patience and perseverance can help carry you through the rollercoaster that is senior fall.
Remind yourself that this time in your life is not permanent. Senior spring is only a few months away. Having a positive attitude and showing gratitude for the opportunity to attend college will help you. You might even look back fondly on your senior fall; as Aeneas says to his crew after enduring a terrible storm in Virgil’s Aeneid: “Perhaps, one day, remembering even these things will bring pleasure.”
Suzanne Raga is the author of You Rock! How To Be A Star Student & Still Have Fun. A graduate of Princeton University, she also runs the music blog After The Show.