What is the secret to writing a compelling college essay? Authenticity.
Kids often worry that they need to write an essay that is “different,” or one that describes a fantastic achievement or experience. They don’t, of course. The average 17 year-old has led a pretty average life.
The most basic goals of the college essay are: Demonstrate that the student can structure her thoughts coherently and write in complete sentences that employ thoughtful word choice and varied grammatical structures and give the reader a sense of who the student is.
The rest of a compelling essay is composed of bonus points awarded for a variety of things that may include, but certainly are not limited to:
- Writing in a natural voice that gives some insight into the student’s personality.
- Using stories and anecdotes to bring the essay to life.
- Showing self-awareness. Does the writer project a reasonable amount of confidence and a reasonable degree of humility as well?
- Revealing a sense of humor. Who doesn’t like an essay that is funny? (This either happens for a student or doesn’t—forced humor is never good.)
- Taking some risk. Not a ton of risk, but some risk. This might be tackling a difficult subject or admitting to a weakness that the writer is working on.
- Using language in a creative and playful way—maybe even breaking a grammatical rule or two, as long as the essay as a whole demonstrates a grasp of the accepted rules.
- Indicating that the writer has solid values, such as compassion for others and honesty.
- Demonstrating intellectual curiosity.
- Discussing the mundane in an entertaining or interesting way.
- Showing a side of the writer that the rest of the application may not capture, or only hints at.
- Keeping the reader interested.
The Common Application essay is limited to 650 words. No essay of that length can tick all the boxes mentioned above! And fully covering a narrow topic is better than barely covering a broad one.
Finally, it is important to remember that the college essay is not an assignment for school. It can be conversational in tone, and it should not include an introductory paragraph that tells the reader what to expect or a concluding paragraph that summarizes what’s been said.
A good college essay is a Polaroid photo, not a senior picture.
My next post will examine the individual prompts for the 2019-20 Common Application essay and offer suggestions for how to think about them.