A college might ask you to write NO essays (WooHoo!!) or they might ask you to write 8. No joke. Sooo, you need to go on their application, or their writing supplement page of the Common App (if they are a Common App school) and copy/paste the actual writing prompt onto a word doc where you will draft your essay. (Do not write your essays in the little boxes because you will have much editing to do and it’s impossible to do it in the little boxes.) DO NOT put the prompt into your own words, and DO NOT abbreviate it. You need to see the actual question and be sure at all times that you are addressing the actual question they asked.
3. Copy/paste the word OR character limit for each essay
Some essays will give you a word limit, say 150 words or 500 words, and some essays will give you a character limit, say 200 characters or 2000 characters. Pay CAREFUL attention to whether the prompt asks for words or characters! There is a huge difference between 140 characters (a tweet) and 140 words (a small paragraph). There is a painfully huge difference between 500 characters (a small paragraph) and 500 words (a page long essay). Every year some poor sucker comes to me (proudly) with a 500 word essay they wrote for a college only to nearly cry when I quietly point out to them that school only asked for 500 characters. Don’t let this happen to you. It is really, really sad.
4. Before you start writing, play the Recycle Game
Ok, so it’s not a fun game (none of mine ever really are), but it IS a game that will help save you time. Here’s what you do: read your *complete* Master List of Prompts that you carefully copied and pasted from each school’s current application (not last year’s app, which is also often still on the internet, for reasons unknown to man but that do seem to strike down innocent students yearly…). Next, you think: “Who is asking the same question? Where can I recycle?” Even colleges asking similar questions can often be slightly tweaked and then recycled. DO NOT write any essay twice because that is a criminal waste of precious time. Write only what you have to. The Recycling Game can often save you from writing 5 essays–no kidding!
5. List the qualities or accomplishments you want to make sure the colleges learn about you
Perhaps list your top ten, and then as you look at all of the essays that one school is going to get, ask yourself: How can I get my top ten into those essays? Some schools ask you for 1 essay and some ask you for 5, but you want to try to figure out how to get your best selling points into *each* application, so know what your points are first.
6. Start brainstorming your ideas for each essay
Make sure you have something to say before you start writing. It sounds simple, but when you are nervous you sometimes just jump right in without planning, and that is always a mistake. Have something to say for each little essay you have to write, and know what your point is before you try to draft. This insures that each essay does in fact have a point, which is critical. Just filling up the space won’t win you any points. Saying something meaningful, and not repeating yourself and not leaving out big selling points–those are the keys to success.
Write from the heart, write it *yourself*, do not get too many editors involved, and always tell the truth but be polite. No slang, no profanity, remember your audience. Don’t be flowery; get to the point. Don’t be philosophical; tell a story that shows the meaning. Don’t be overly honest; we all have our less then finer moments but this is not a confessional and not the time to air your dirty laundry. Don’t brag; but do talk about what you love and say why you love it. The most important part of this writing process is to start early and edit a lot. Give yourself time to ponder and change things. Ask a teacher or counselor to read and give you feedback. And lastly, make sure to preserve your own voice and style and your own message. These are your college essays, and if you follow this plan of organization you will be sure to be a success!
You write one main essay of 500-650 words to apply to college, and you send this essay to most of your colleges. You can send your resume to any colleges who allow it. Many colleges require that you write about 150-200 words on your most meaningful extra curricular activity, and many schools ask why you chose to apply to their school, so it is a good idea to have this "Why School X" piece ready as well. You can keep track of all essays you need to write here on CollegeMapper. Recycle wherever you can, but always proofread to change the names!
Start writing these essays during the second semester of Junior year, lightly. Hit it hard in the summer before Senior year and try to have as many of them as possible finalized before Senior year starts. Plan to edit each piece 5-10 times. Get outside editing help; no one can be their own editor!
Guidelines for Main Essay
- 1 page single spaced; aim for 500-650 words. You will need a 500 word and probably a longer version of the same essay.
- Any topic from your life: favorite memory, a conquest, risk you took, a passion, memorable learning experience
- Tell a personal story from your life; this is not a 5 paragraph essay
- Still, have one point to the story--a central thesis
- Write about just one thing--not your life story
- Opening sentence/paragraph needs to "hook" reader; high interest
- Slightly formal; don't use profanity
- Not pretentious or forced; natural--DO NOT restate your resume. This is not about bragging at all.
- Avoid politics, travel, resume/greatness, community service, sports, Mexico missions trip, religion.
- *Let your personality shine through*--they need to hear your voice and spirit. ENTERTAIN.
- No complaining; no whining; no blaming
- You can discuss a negative topic but you must do so in a positive, strong, uplifting way, focusing on what you learned
- This is not a journal entry, not a confession, and NOT philosophical creative writing
- Show commitment/passion to/for something: hobby, family, sport
- This is a draft and you will revise it many times; don't worry about making it perfect.
- It is also OK to say, "Let's just start over."
- Tell a story about something to show your point; don't tell what your point is
- You want the essay to be memorable--ENTERTAIN!
- Don't try to be unique or radical: don't feel pressured to write something AMAZING.
- All you're doing is telling a story from your life; have fun and don't worry.
- It's ok to use humor and it is GOOD to poke fun at yourself a little bit. Show yourself in a silly light, not as the smartest person ever or the savior of humanity... In NO way can you sound conceited.
Ideas for Main College Essay
- First part-time job mishaps
- How I learned to relax and laugh at myself
- Favorite hotdog in Chicago
- A random tv show changed my life
- Teaching myself to cook--secretly
- How NPR made me who I am
- Overcoming a disability
- My brother's music and struggles shaped me
- How my summer cabin made me who I am
- Walking in Tokyo
- My role model--a biography I read changed my life
- Five airports on my own--a calamitous event
- How I fought to be able to read
- Jumping off that cliff
- Starting my business
- I got a tattoo in France
Guidelines for Small Activity Paragraph
- These essays are usually about 200 words
- Start with a hook, like an action shot of you actually doing the activity
- If your sport is really your main passion, go ahead and write about it if you want to, but is very difficult to make sports essays sound unique
- If your sport is not your main passion, then choose a brainy or cultural or volunteer event
- Don't focus on what you did (we all know what someone on the track team does)
- DO focus on what you learned and how you grew and changed
- Talk about what the activity meant to you and how it changed you
- Conclude with maybe saying something about how this will affect your future