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On writing your college essay

As we enter July, rising seniors should be giving serious thought to the college application. Many of you will not find this a happy thought, since starting the essay seems so intimidating!

There is certainly no shortage of good advice on the topic.  On the College Board‘s website, for example, Dean Schmill of MIT advises you to be honest in your self-presentation and to read the instructions.  Dean Brenzel of Yale reminds you to be authentic and to have your essays read by others who know you well. Dean Merrill of Connecticut College reminds warns that crafting a good essay takes time and you should make good use of the summer.

This last bit of advice is particularly important.  Students dream of an endless summer, but the break in your exhausting routine of homework and activities is actually short-lived. July is therefore a good time for some tips on writing your college essay:

•    On choosing a topic: For many of you, identifying the topic will seem the hardest part. The Common Application gives you six prompts to choose from, including a “topic of your choice.”  In other words, you can really write about anything under the sun because the topic is merely the vehicle for a larger story: what to tell an admission reader about yourself.  Whether you choose to write about a book, a person or an event, the admissions committee has at best passing interest in that subject, and will instead try and decipher what the essay tells them about you.

•    On controversial subjects and funny stories: Admission officers reassure students that they are free to write on any subject as long as it is honest and authentic, but there are clearly some subjects that will not work as well as others.  Few teenagers are deft enough to handle controversial subjects like their positions on abortion, presidential politics or foreign wars, with more depth than dogma.  Funny is good, but it works best if your unknown reader actually shares your sense of humor.  As with any writing, keep your audience in mind: admission officers are educated adults who are unlikely to share the social tastes of teenage girls and locker room boys, experienced enough to have read countless essays on every topic under the sun, and are above all led by the needs of their institutions.

•    On writing well: It is hard to separate what you are saying from how you say it.  With a college essay good writing is especially important since admission officers are also trying to gauge something about your academic preparation and intellectual depth.  This is not the moment to try and impress by choking out long words and unfamiliar phrases, and you are well-advised to follow the advice of William Zinsser in his On Writing Well, when he warns against the tendency to “inflate and thereby sound important.”

The American personal essay is unique in the world of university admissions. It is not as important to selective colleges as a student’s academic performance – as admission officers like to say, a good essay can help heal the sick but it cannot resuscitate the dead.  It is nevertheless hugely significant in applicant pools where many students share similarly high achievements and equal evidence of hard work. And in the process it gives young people with very busy lives a moment to reflect on the opportunities and meaning of those lives.

From junior year to college admissions

For the last few months high school juniors stood by as seniors wrestled with college applications, stressed about choices, and finally, exhaled as they picked their colleges.  Now the focus shifts and it is their turn to get ready for the wild ride towards college.  Given how early the application process happens in the academic year and the inevitable strains of that first quarter of senior year, juniors need to use the coming months wisely as they lay down the foundation for their application.

Let’s consider the different elements of that application process and the things that those of you who are juniors ought to be thinking about:

  • Transcripts: admission officers at selective schools point out the unavoidable fact that your transcripts ARE the single most important element in their assessment.  If you are applying early, your junior grades may be the last ones they see before making their decisions. Even if there are no senior grades available, they can see your senior curriculum, and this too is crucial in weighing your academic heft.
  • Scores and letters of recommendation: admission officers also weigh your academic profile by looking at your standardized test results and by the quality of letters of recommendation, and you cannot wait until 12th grade to grapple with these. At some larger schools, for example, some of the most popular teachers begin to turn away requests for letters of recommendation well before the summer. There are also few test dates available early in the senior year for you to complete the required roster of tests, much less leave time for the almost inevitable retake.
  • List of activities: while most of us quite rightly abhor talk of “resume building” when referring to high school students, the activities list is obviously a very significant part of your college application.  Admission officers ask themselves what it is you will contribute to campus life. This summer will be your last chance to answer that question. It is a good idea to draw up a comprehensive list of your high school activities outside of the classroom, in order to assess both the cohesive “story” that your application will tell about yourself as well as the potential holes in your self-presentation.
  • Summer before senior year: the summer college trip has become something of an American tradition, and for good reason.  Not only does the wonderful range of possibilities make such exploration useful and necessary, but for many colleges these visits have also become a significant way to gauge “demonstrated interest.”  As more kids apply to more colleges, those institutions are finding it ever harder to accurately pinpoint their yield (the number of students who will accept their offers of admission). Your knowledge of a school and appreciation for what it has to offer can encourage a college to read your application with a more benevolent eye.   Growing numbers of high school students will also attend summer camps on college campuses, to learn more about the college experience, about life at a particular college, or about the range of academic options that await them.  As Dean Karen Sibley of Summer at Brown, one of the largest such programs for high school students in the country, points out, the liberating summer experience “validates the student’s ability to be far from home, intensely academically challenged and able to function independently in very new surroundings.”
    • Writing the college essay: For many of you SAT testing seems the most exhausting part of applying to college, but writing the personal essay causes the biggest anxiety. There is little reason to wait too long before jumping into the writing process.  It will give you time to consider essay topics, but also leave space for rewriting and editing before the full onslaught of the senior year.  Reflecting on her own experiences this year, one senior, who will be attending an Ivy university in the Fall, encourages juniors to “start doing something concrete regarding college essays and supplements by May!  Summer is actually too short  – it’s only eight weeks.”

    The Common Application will be available for students by August 1 (and its preview is already available online). The Common Application organization has already reported that the essay topics on the application will remain the same, though the length requirements will be adjusted. For high school juniors, this is the equivalent of a long-distance runner coming into the last few hundred meters of the race: a successful end is in sight, but to get there you first you have to throw all your energy and focus into the last lap.