First Things First: Take It Off Your Stress List
As a private writing, reading, and college test prep tutor over the past 15 years, I’ve witnessed some. . .stress. Parents wanting their kids to study for the SAT as early as sixth grade. Students Skyping me in-between violin and swim practice to wrangle out topic sentences comparing Atticus Finch to Abraham Lincoln. Copies of The Scarlet Letter flung across the room in frustration. (Okay, that was me).
So why would I add to the academic anxiety by suggesting that high schoolers start thinking about their college applications as early as their junior, sophomore, or even freshman year?
Because the essence of a good college application essay isn’t about learning the “secret, ” squeezing in a house-building trip to Haiti to have an impressive topic to write about, or working hard to get an edge on the competition. It’s about being your best self. And it’s never too early to be you.
Learn What It’s About
1) You Beyond the Numbers
Amidst all the data surrounding grades and test scores and class ranking, the essay is a chance to just be yourself. Isn’t that a relief?
The Harvard Graduate School of Education recently released a report, “Turning the Tide, ” through the Making Caring Common project. This report details how and why colleges should work even harder on expanding the admissions process beyond statistics:
. . .college admissions can send compelling messages that both ethical engagement—especially concern for others and the common good—and intellectual engagement are highly important.
In other words, sure–that 5 on your AP Spanish test is nothing to sneeze at. But neither is spending long afternoons helping your grandmother in her garden. Or volunteering long-term (not just an afternoon or two for a quick “application filler”) in a community literacy program. You were not created to perform, but to live. And living can’t always be quantified.
Your essay is a chance to show the admissions counselors one small, glimmering, slice of that life.
2) You as a Good Fit for the School
Students often see the essay as a persuasive tool to somehow talk a school into taking them. But have you ever thought that you might not want to be taken?
When you write an essay that is 100 percent you–quirks and all–and a college accepts you, you know you’re headed to the right place. But when you contort your personality and words into an essay tailor-made for a school, stripping any semblance of your true self, you might find yourself a stranger in a strange land when September hits.
Imagine you spent days getting ready for a party. You know one of the “cool kids” is going to be there, so you shop for clothes you don’t normally wear, create playlists of bands you don’t normally listen to, and get all the dirt on the people he doesn’t like. You fake your way through the party and get his attention. Great! Now he wants to hang out.
The problem is, he’s not really hanging out with you. Before long, you’ll grow exhausted trying to fit into his world and return to the world you know and love—the world that loves you for who you are.
If you’ve done all you can to let your best self shine on the page, but you don’t make it into that “dream” school, maybe that school wasn’t so dreamy in the first place. For you. It could be perfect for your older sister or lab partner, but these four years are not about them. They are about (getting the theme here?) you.
3) You as a Writer
Finally, and importantly, schools want to see that you can write. Surprise: even if you’re dead set on becoming a computer engineer and don’t plan on reading a word of Austen for the rest of your life, you’ll have to write in college. A lot.
The application essay gives colleges a chance to see not only how well you put your sentences together but how cohesively you can organize information and stick to a theme. Not all schools take the SAT and/or request the optional ACT essay, so this personal statement may be your only chance. Besides, standardized test essays are written under a time crunch. The application essay can be polished to a shine.
“But wait!” Thou protesteth. “You just said this is about being 100 percent me! Shouldn’t I just ‘be myself, ’ write out my thoughts, and submit?”
As you will discover in future posts, being yourself includes working hard on your writing. You can and should showcase your individual style, but you should take the time and care to make it your very best.
Stress? No. Work? Yes. But with planning, strategy, and plenty of time, you’ll find this among the best work you’ve done.
See also: How to Write a College Application Essay: An Introduction
How to Write a Poem uses images like the buzz, the switch, the wave—from the Billy Collins poem “Introduction to Poetry”—to guide writers into new ways of writing poems. Excellent teaching tool. Anthology and prompts included.
“How to Write a Poem is a classroom must-have.”
—Callie Feyen, English Teacher, Maryland