How do I get started on my college essay?
By Carol Barash, PhD
Founder, Story To College
Seniors, if you haven’t started your college application essays, it’s time to get going! If you are stuck, confused, down on yourself, or otherwise flustered, I can definitely empathize.
When I told my guidance counselor my first choice was Yale, she said, “No one from our school has gotten into Yale for 9 years. You will definitely not be the one to break the curse.” Thankfully my AP US teacher, Mrs. Bressler, said, “That’s ridiculous, you are a top student. Write a great essay, and show them who you are.” When I showed my essay to my mother, she thought I should not use the word “pejorative” in my first sentence (because she didn’t know what it meant).
I stuck to my guns, used “pejorative” in my first sentence, and submitted an essay about being a strong girl in a high school where “feminist” was a curse word. It was my own and I ended up breaking the Yale curse.
So if you’re stuck somewhere between all the people who push you in all the ways that parents, teachers and counselors will lovingly do, here are 4 steps to get past where you are stuck, to find an essay topic that is totally your own, and meet all the deadlines coming up this fall:
1. Refresh: Before you start writing—especially something as important as college application essays—take some time to set aside your doubts and self-criticism (just write them all down and throw the list away), so you are starting with a clean slate. Imagine you have been admitted to your top choice college, and the job of your essays is to let people know what you do once you arrive.
2. Build a Bridge: For each of those things you will do in college, what have you done in the past and what are you doing in the present that reveals your knowledge and readiness to take on the next challenge in college? If you haven’t done it exactly, what have you done that gets you close, or how else can you show you are ready?
3. Transform Scripts to Stories: Many high school students start with the same big ideas they want colleges to know about them: I’m a leader, or I’m ambitious, or I work really hard. To write a college essay that distinguishes you from lots of other students who look alike on paper, you want to get past the scripts of being a leader or ambitious and start telling stories that reveal your character and show what difference you want to make in the world.
4. Choose a Moment: Once you have explored your attributes and aspirations, and written down the experiences that reveal them to others, explore specific moments that show those attributes and aspirations in action. Committed to green energy? How did you gain that passion, and what are you doing with it right now? Want to run for Congress one day? What courses will you take in college to set you on that path?
You may be thinking, “I just want to tell them what they want, and get this thing done.” Bad news is also the good news here: There is not one essay topic that is right for everyone, or what a particular college is looking for. But the best essays flow from moments in your own life where you have learned, or changed, or made a difference—and no one knows your life better than you! Have fun, and let us know if you have questions.
Coming up next: How can I shape my college application essay to reveal my unique character? Sign up here to receive College Essay email updates from Story To College.
Story To College teaches students tools to tell their own stories and advocate for themselves in college admissions, job interviews, life and learning in the twenty-first century.