Game on! It’s the fall of your senior year of high school when you are applying to college. But the process really begins well before this time. At least that’s the entire story that college admissions officers want to hear – your amazing life story in a few thousand words! And those words include your own essays, teacher recommendations, counselor recommendations, activity lists, test scores, and the most important… transcript.
Weighted more heavily than ever before, the college essay is our focus here. With most schools now being test-optional and applicant numbers rising, this is where you shine. Each college has its own format requesting anything from a single 650-word personal statement to the personal statement with additional essays that can be anywhere from 50 to 350-words each. And some schools like Yale have six additional essays while Stanford has up to 10. Often, you can pick some of your essay topics. So, flex – it’s time to show off… but remain humble. But how do you do this?
It requires preparation and a strategy.
So while we cannot rewrite our histories, here are tips to best show them off for this juggernaut referred to as The College Application Process. But, wait… who am I to be sharing this information? I’ve been a college consultant for over 10 years; all my students have attended a reach school; I’m an education journalist having investigated college admissions; I wrote a narrative non-fiction book published by Simon & Schuster in 2019; I’ve been on CNN, CBS, CNBC, NBC talking about education; I have a masters in international education; I graduated from an Ivy League school; and I’m a mom with three kids. Most important, I love working with students to help them realize their dreams.
Most high school counselors have over 400 students to support through this process and most high school students have never had to tackle anything like this before. So, I hope these tips help!
- Many drafts. Prepare to compose many, many drafts of the same essay, and don’t ever go with your first one. And, prepare to toss out 90% of your first draft. The best writing is in the editing. I’m a professional writer, and I never get my first, fifth, or even 10th draft right. Don’t tempt fate and risk your future by trying to cut corners. Accept the process – no shortcuts. Also, remember that your first application will likely be your weakest, precisely because it’s your first one. So, actually do what they ask and answer the question. On a first draft, this usually happens 75% in. Editing is also necessary because you will be repurposing your core essays for multiple schools. Meaning, the essay prompts may seem different with different word counts, but with some tweaking, you will use the same general essay.
- Make the time and schedule it. Set aside chunks of time like on weekends and create deadlines. Hold yourself accountable to yourself, your schedule, to someone else or to a larger group. It’s about time management – you will need to master this skill to be successful once admitted to college. So refine the skill now. Know when you’re going to be busy. While weekends are best during senior year, the swath of time during the summer between junior and senior years is pivotal. And, enforce self-imposed deadlines. The law of capacity (I made this up, but it must be a thing) dictates that we use the space and time that is allotted. So set your own deadlines and stick to them.
- Entertain your audience. Admissions officers read thousands of answers to the same essay prompts. Put yourself in their shoes. How do you stay memorable? By being different. This doesn’t mean creating outlandish stories, but it does mean: Get to the point! Tell your story in a self-aware and captivating way – from the very first word with a hook that just doesn’t lose its tension. How do you get good at being a storyteller? Start telling stories to your peers with vivid, exciting, action-packed details. Another good trick? Literally narrate your day in your head as you walk around. Describe your surroundings, your feelings, your observations, your thoughts. That’s how you create a scene in your college admissions essays. Yes, the typical “Show, don’t tell’ advice is key. These application essays are meant to entertain as much as inform, persuade and show off your creativity, intelligence, writing ability, efficiency, respect for their time, and self-awareness.
- Holistic. There is no other you. We each have our own stories that together make us unique. So think about the elements in your life that in combination and/or individually make you you. Again, always show and not tell your values, grit and determination. (Do not ever use these words – let the admissions officers make this assessment.)
- Line up your counselor and editor(s). Find a mentor or few to advise you through this process. Unfortunately, even if you are lucky enough to have a college counselor, if you attend a typical US public high school, you are one of hundreds of that counselors’ students. As much as they may love to help you, they just don’t have the bandwidth nor this specific training. Writing a college admissions requires a completely different skill set than advising course selection or navigating the social scene. So make sure you have guidance for both areas that may or may not be the same person. (You can work with someone like me, for example at teruconsult.com. But college counseling is an entire industry with countless advisors and price points. So do your research to find someone you can work with well ahead of your senior year, if you can.)
- Brainstorm. These exercises are a must to mine your memory for your stories. And the goal is to weave them altogether to make your stories interesting. There are countless exercises available for free online and your college counselor should be able to guide you here as well. You will gain the self-awareness to understand your values, struggles, fears, motivators, inspirations. What have been youtube transformative events in your life and lessons learned? You will also produce a list of touchpoints that include your favorite quotations, books, classes, foods, and more.
- Get involved. Because it will likely be too late to join a club and become its President your senior fall (nor will you likely have the time to do so), pursue your out of classroom interests well before. Find your focus. Figure out how to give back. Get involved in what you’re good at. Colleges have you complete what is an extra curricular activities resume. You must detail: type of activity (athletics, arts, work, etc), participation grade levels, timing of participation (during school year, summers, etc), hours per week, weeks per year, will you continue in college. And always think of every involvement through the lens of contribution. For example, are you on a basketball team? How do you contribute to your teammates, team, school, larger community? And how will this transfer to your new college environment? The underlying question behind every college essay is: how will you contribute to the college. Read that again. They want to see: how you will contribute and what legacy you will leave.
- Style. The key to entertaining your admissions officer is to create a jazzy, well-paced essay. As you know, we have lost our attention spans. We flick through shows. We are attuned to brief TikToks. The moment something is boring…. Next! So, don’t let this happen to your application. Have fun with grammar, word choice, onomatopoeia, poetic verse, italics, dialogue, zeitgeisty references, made up words, lyrics.
- Why college? Figure out why you want to pursue four-years in an institute of higher education because your passion will be evident in your essays. Figure out the factors that are important (or not) to you: geography, size, areas of study, professor-student ratios, and more. You can read the university rankings but take them with a rather huge grain of salt. The factors that they take into account may not resonate with you. For example, do you care about their athletic facilities? If they have 40% vs 25% international students? If they have a billion dollar vs. $500 million endowment? Then, implement the Goldilocks strategy: on line or on-person visit these schools according to size (large, medium, small) and level of competitiveness (reach, match, safety). And, if you have a specialized area of study you would like to pursue or are an athletic recruit, contact the professors your senior year or coaches you junior year or earlier. Get in touch with current students and alumni to learn more about the school – use LinkedIn. Of the 4,000+ schools out there, many will be “the perfect fit” for you.
- Teacher Relationships. Build solid relationships with your teachers during your junior year – especially with your math and English teachers who will be writing your recommendations. Create a resume/CV for them so they know who you are outside of the classroom. Sometimes, sadly, you may even have to produce a rough draft for them, which is never ideal. Teachers can always add a supportive and new dimension to your application that you as the applicant could never capture. So please avoid this at all costs, if possible.
Most important, enjoy this process. While too often repeated, you are embarking on an opportunity you have been working toward your entire lifetime. And, remember, while you are the applicant, you have a whole team supporting you. So mobilize your resources, roll up your sleeves, and good luck!