by Joan Rynearson, College Advisory Service, Bainbridge Island, Washington
For students applying to selective colleges, the essay can be a critical piece of the application. The majority of selective school applicants present with strong transcripts and fine SAT or ACT scores, forcing admission officials to turn to other measures, such as essays, teacher recommendations, extracurricular activities, volunteer service and work experience, in order to make their admission decisions. These other measures are sometimes referred to as “tip factors.”
Most college applications require at least one primary essay and allow significant latitude in selecting a topic. For example, The Common Application, a generic application used by over 400 colleges, offers six topic choices (250-500 words):
- Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
- Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
- Describe a character in fiction, an historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you and explain that influence.
- A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
- Topic of your choice.
The purpose of the essay is to help admission officials understand who you are and how you think – to help them see the world through your eyes, if only for a moment. The event you choose to write about does not need to be earth-shattering. For example, the awe you felt when first viewing life through the lens of a microscope might be a better topic than a harrowing ascent of Mt. Rainier. Or, a description of a longstanding friendship with your barber could have more potential than tales of an exotic vacation.
Because college essays are usually autobiographical in nature, it can be helpful to read some examples of other autobiographies before you begin to write your college essays. Here are several autobiographies that I recommend to students:
As you read, notice how these writers relate childhood and coming-of-age experiences. In particular, pay close attention to how the events not only tell a story, but also provide the reader with “Between the lines” insight into the writer’s personality. A good college essay should do the same.
If none of these books appeal to you, visit your public library’s collection of autobiographies and pick one of your own. Consider your own life experiences to find the stories that define who you are. Take notes as you consider ideas, and allow yourself enough time for writing and editing before deadlines loom.
Finally, every writer has his or her own voice and that voice must be heard in your college essay. While feedback is essential, showing your work to more than one or two editors can make your job more difficult. Perhaps your parents are fine writers and you would be comfortable considering their suggestions, or perhaps you enjoy a close relationship whose writing advice you trust. When asking for feedback, however, be careful to make it clear that this is your story, and your voice. Best wishes for great writing!
About the Author: Joan Rynearson is a Certified College Planner and the founder of College Advisory Service, an educational consulting firm in Bainbridge Island, Washington. Ms. Rynearson is also President of the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA).
© Joan Rynearson. Used by the Higher Education Consultants Association with the permission of the author. May not be copied or distributed without the permission of the author.