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What Writing The College Essay Is Really About
If you know what you are going to say before you put pen to paper, then you are missing the point of writing your college essay.
Writing your college essay is supposed to be an exercise in self-discovery, which allows the college admissions people to get to know you. A good essay will breathe life into the abstract you. Your grades, test scores and activities are a foregone conclusion by junior year but legend has it that your essays can make or break your chances of getting in. A good student with underwhelming essays may get dinged and a middling student with compelling essays may get accepted.
Rising seniors tend to wait until September to begin crafting their essays, which doesn't leave enough time for editing. In the book, Write Your Way In, author and former Duke University admissions officer Rachel Toor suggests that you jot down twenty essay ideas. The last five will be more narrow and kooky and will make better topics. Start brainstorming with your family now and begin first drafts in June after school is out. Print them, put them in a drawer, look at them again in July, and get seriously writing in August.
It is not helicopter parenting or cheating if your parents read your essays. All writers have editors and you need input from as many people as possible. My third child just went through the process. He looked pretty good on paper: high test scores, nice GPA and some extra-curriculars. The essay gave him the chance to show what makes him special.
He didn't take any classes where he could practice "memoir" writing, so he needed help. His first drafts made me want to poke my eyes out, so I can't even imagine how admissions officers feel reading a bunch of these. We ended up using Write Your Way In as a guide. It is easy to read and gives practical tips like: "Write in the past tense; if you write in the present tense, you can't reflect."
My kid talked a lot about his restaurant job, so we encouraged him to explore his employment as a possible topic. Before he even wrote a word, his subject showed that he is dependable, able to manage his time and knows something about paying taxes.
In the first drafts of his essay, he described getting shorted on tips, how he worries about the dishwasher with two handicapped children and his hope that the new owners could make a success of the restaurant. After reading a draft, I jotted in the margins, "Why do you continue to work there, it sounds awful?" The answer to that question became the meat of his essay. He didn't know until he began exploring the whys, that he cared about all of his coworkers, and loved belonging to a community, no matter how rag-tag.
By the time my kid finished his essay, I'd read it a million times and cried with each reading, not so much because of the sad parts but because he discovered the most important thing missing from his life, something that he is hoping to find at college.
Here’s a brutal truth about applying to college: On paper, most teenagers are not very unique. Some three million high school...