College essay: two words that strike fear in the minds of high schoolers across the nation.
But they don’t have to.
Rather than a grueling, erudite self-promotion pitch, your college essay offers you an opportunity to connect to your deepest Want, your Original voice, and your Wisdom (maturity) – your WOW – and share it in writing. Some competitive universities now base 50% of admissions on what you write in application essays. I have helped countless students craft a WOW essay and have watched them get into their top choice school – not because they bragged about themselves or tried to prove how smart they were – but because they dug deep in themselves and told a unique, personal story that showed their maturity and drive to grow. Admissions officers are shoveling through applications to find this kind of student. They have names for these rare finds: the autonomous learner, the ethical student, the citizen student – someone who will use their school like their own backyard, their own lab, engage with teachers and students and forge their own education. Transcripts and test scores won’t show them that. The essay is where you WOW them.
Want: what do you want most ?
What would you get out of bed at 4 am in a snowstorm to do, or learn, or create? What could you talk about for days and days? Make a list. It could be subjects or sports in school, but it could also be life experiences like travel to foreign countries, dinner with your favorite aunt, or volunteering to teach kids. Colleges want to hear genuine enthusiasm and drive. Once you have your list, pick one of the “wants” and think of a good story in which you pursued it.
Tell your story in your voice. Don’t try to sound grand or “adult.” Write how you speak (minus the “ums” and “likes,” of course). They’ll be plenty of time to spruce in editing. Right now, focus on all the specific details from the experience that interested you – the look on people’s faces, the emotions along the way, the actual things people said; these help the story come alive for the reader. Generate more material than you need to bring out those details. Editing will come. Give the story a beginning, a middle and an end and a question or conflict that resolves at the close. How will I teach baseball to the Chinese exchange student with whom I don’t share a language? How should I respond to my friends who want me to party when I want to get lost in the books I love so much? Telling the story of how you went about resolving such tensions shows the readers how you cope with life’s quagmires using your own wits. Gee, that sounds like an autonomous learner.
What did you learn that you did not expect to learn? Mature students have more than school smarts, they see the bigger picture of their world, as if they have the Google Maps zoom out button in their minds. They connect dots and make sense of the unknowns around them. Make a list of the “ahas” and curious discoveries – big and small – you had in your story. Pepper your essay with these insights. The essay should not only show how you took on a interesting challenge in your pursuit of what you love, but how you think about it at each step. Analysis should balance storytelling. You want the readers to put together that you are not only someone who rises to challenges, but someone who interrogates themselves and their experience (that whole autonomous learner thing again).
Who are these readers, anyway?
You might be surprised to know that they are often recent college students. Yep. Admissions offices hire recent grads to read and evaluate applications because they know more than anyone what the student body should be like and whether an applicant is a good fit. (They also really want a job!) So if you think you need to impress some wizened old college dean, think again. It’s actually someone much closer to you, like a super smart older brother or sister (kinda like us tutors, in fact!) So don’t worry about throwing out obscure words or literary devices, focus more on connecting with a very smart, older peer. (For clarification, it is the dean who admits or denies an applicant, but more often than not the dean bases the decision on the evaluation, not your application itself. They do open them and take a look, too, so still do your best work.)
Alright! Warm up those pens and laptops. Get dreaming, listing and crafting your WOW.
Justin Taylor is a college application expert with more than ten years experience helping students raise their admissions prospects. Yale, Georgetown, Vanderbilt, Boston College, and NYU are some recent admits for happy students. He has taught writing at Yale University, Wesleyan University, the Sorbonne, in high schools and privately throughout New York City with all ages.