17 tips for starting your college essay this summer!


At last, it’s Summer!

Internships, lemonade, vacations, barbeques, camping trips, movies, beaches, mountains, your college essay…


Oh wait... your college essay?!


Fret not. The summer before your senior year could not be a better time to start brainstorming the oh-so-paramount college essay. Why? Because with all that fun and freedom, you now have the   s    p    a     c     e   to dream. The strongest essays have your original voice and point of view, which tend to come out when you are happy, relaxed and curious, and not writing under pressure. So here are 17 ways to leverage the spacious field of dreams that is your summer before senior year to spark a golden college essay.

1. Start an essay notebook now.

Yes, now. Wherever you are, grab a fresh notebook and title it “College Essay Notebook.” Keep this near you all summer. You are not going to write your essay right now. You are going to collect sparks of inspiration, observations and questions that jump at you.

2. Pay close attention to your rituals and routines.

Morning or bedtime routines, recurring family dinners, self-care routines after a stressful day, the route to your summer job… these are experiences and journeys we know intimately and can describe in detail, even with joy. When you do, your voice comes out. Make a list of your routines and rituals in your notebook.

3. Look through scrapbooks, Instagram feeds, etc.

Revisiting the photos and keepsakes of the past few years can remind you of all the rich relationships and experiences you have in your life. Take some time to look through old photos with a mind toward people and stories that are especially intriguing to you. Make a list in your notebook.

4. Do something hard.

Clean up your local beach, read War and Peace, walk across your hometown, apologize to someone you offended, live without a phone for two weeks. Doing something hard grows you and that journey of learning makes golden material for that essay. What’s on your list of hard things to do?

5. Tell long jokes.

Essays shine when they have good storytelling – scene description, dialogue, plot. Long jokes shine for the same reasons. So when you’re sitting around that campfire or cooler, try telling an extra-long joke to sharpen your storytelling chops. Make a list of good ones in your notebook.

6. Do more of what you love.

Nothing gets colleges more interested than passion. Passion or enthusiasm is the result of doing what we most enjoy, so make a list of what you enjoy – time in nature, road trips with friends, writing plays, building stuff, talking with your aunt – please spend time this summer pursuing more of those things. What makes them important to you? Write it down.

7. Ask friends and family what's awesome about you.

The essay is a place to hip colleges to what qualities stand out about you (without bragging). But sometimes we simply don’t know because we’re too busy noticing other things or we simply haven’t been told that often. Ask the people around you to share a positive quality about you that jumps out. Make a list of their answers.

8. Spend time in a favorite place.

When students take readers into their favorite places on the page, the readers instantly connect. A certain tree, a room in your neighbor’s house, a wing in a museum, an intersection. Just like favorite activities, describing favorite places will bring out your original voice and enthusiasm. What are some of your favorite places? Spend more time there and write down specific details about it – the cracks in the walls, the smell in the air, the quality of the light. The more detail the better.

9. Spend time with your favorite objects.

Paintings, instruments, sports equipment, rocks, clothes… Yes, our love of inanimate objects can elicit the same joy and originality. Make a list of objects you enjoy and study them more closely. Write down what you notice and why they are significant to you. Again, nerd out. The more details the better.

10. Hang out with your favorite person (who is not your best friend, boyfriend or grandma).

Relationships, especially complex ones, are oh-so-good at revealing how you tick. What relationships in your life are really unique? An aunt, tutee, older mentor, pen pal, teammate, clubmate, even a pet? Make a list. Such connections can reveal juicy, authentic dynamics. (Grandmas, best friends, and boyfriends don’t work as well.) Spend more time with this connection and write about it.

11. Write a first draft -- for the fun of it -- at the end of July.

By the end of July, you should have a good list of juicy stuff to write about.  Pick one topic, forget everything you know about “good essay writing” and have a good time (yes really) talking about it in two pages. Don’t worry about whether it’s the topic you’ll stick with or whether it sounds good. The goal is to play around and let your voice out.

12. Write a second first draft that is totally different.

A week later, do the same thing for a totally different topic from your notebook. Now you have two essay ideas, four pages of material, and a better sense of what you like writing about.

13. Don't wait.

I know I already said it, but waiting will increase the chances of writer's block and a snowball of stress. Get that notebook!

14. Don’t ask your parents for ideas.

Parents (and even some teachers) are not terribly aware of what the college admissions process is like and can have misinformed notions of what colleges are looking for. Stick with this list!

15. Don’t “write it to just get it over with.”

Your college essay is NOT another homework assignment to check off the list. This is your big opportunity to share your full self with the wider world and match with a school perfect for you. Take time with it.

16. Don’t seek fancy experiences (for your essay).

The service trip to Nicaragua, the internship at the prestigious institution, the big championship game… talking about such things will come off as gloating and that always fails (leave these items for the application section). Rather, what you care about, nerd out about, can talk 'til 2am about, that’s what will get their attention.

17. Get help.

After you’ve brainstormed, listed, done some fun drafts, get some help for the next steps. Your school college counselor could be a resource, or you may want to hire a tutor. Like I said, the college essay is a specific game and having the right support can be a game changer.


Got questions? Reach out to us anytime and we'll make sure Justin answers your questions! Now, get that notebook!

Meet the Author: Justin Taylor

Justin 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. 

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