As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches and major college application deadlines draw near (including the University of California System's November 30th and UT Austin's December 1st deadlines), tension is rising amongst senior students. In particular, what is most stress-inducing about each of these applications is the essay component.
Since most colleges have gone "test optional," meaning that they no longer require you to submit SAT or ACT scores (but doing so should still help), the essays have even more importance. Really, they are the most important part of the application, yet students often find them the most challenging.
Why? Because college admission essays are personal in nature. Rarely in their high school career have students been asked to write an essay about themselves, let alone use “I” statements. They are used to analyzing literature and historic events, but having to write about themselves is something very foreign to them.
Take, for example, UT Austin’s long essay prompt:
“Tell us your story. What unique opportunities or challenges have you experienced throughout your high school career that have shaped who you are today?”
A clause like “who you are today” in itself is something that will stump any teenager. “Who am I?” Your teen will ask himself and get stuck. In order to write this essay, a student would also need to think about events, resources, and people in his life who shaped him to be who he is today. Do you see how this seemingly benign prompt can quickly become burdensome for your teen?
So how should students approach writing college admission essays? Here are a few tips to help your teen write essays that will improve their admission chance:
First, treat college admissions essays as “stories” rather than “essays.”
You should decide what “story” to tell the admissions officers. A good admission essay should focus on some aspect of you that you want to highlight, so a small moment, an anecdote, or just a quick series of events that illustrate your best qualities is what’s best to tell as “your story.”
Second, brainstorming done right will make the essay pretty much write itself.
The first step is to identify the unique strengths you have. Then think about a story to illustrate these qualities, and finally tell the story using the “show not tell” technique. You want to grab the admissions officers’ attention with rich sensory details and ultimately turn them over to your side so that they end up rooting for you, the protagonist, by the conclusion of the essay. If you’ve noticed, the hard work is in finding the right story to tell, not the writing itself.
Lastly, this is when your years of writing practice will pay off.
A college admission essay should have basic components of writing, such as a thesis, which many students tend to forget. In terms of overall organization, I suggest following the five elements of a story (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution). Such structure will sustain your reader’s attention and make a strong impression, important when you want the admissions officers to remember you and advocate for you.
Some final thoughts...
College admission essays are read by real people. It’s your chance to speak directly to the admissions officers. Keep the message clear, simple, and easy to understand. Don’t try to show off, as your resume will do that already. Let your own natural voice come through, but watch the tone.
And most of all, have fun writing these essays. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that you will cherish because you will learn a lot about yourself in the process, and by taking stock of what you have accomplished as a teenager, you will take the first concrete step towards adulthood.
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