You, in 500 Words or Less
The college application essay is a chance to explain yourself, to open your personality, charm, talents, vision, and spirit to the admissions committee. It’s a chance to show you can think about things and that you can write clearly about your thoughts. Don’t let the chance disappear. Stand up straight and believe in yourself!
The Essay Writing Process
Okay, boot up your computer and let’s get to it. To write a college essay, use the exact same three-step process you’d use to write an essay for class: first prewrite, then draft, and finally, edit. This process will help you identify a focus for your essay, and gather the details you’ll need to support it.
To begin, you must first collect and organize potential ideas for your essay’s focus. Since all essay questions are attempts to learn about you, begin with yourself.
- Brainstorm: Set a timer for 15 minutes and make a list of your strengths and outstanding characteristics. Focus on strengths of personality, not things you’ve done. For example, you are responsible (not an “Eagle Scout”) or committed (not “played basketball”). If you keep drifting toward events rather than characteristics, make a second list of the things you’ve done, places you’ve been, accomplishments you’re proud of; use them for the activities section of your application.
- Discover Your Strengths: Do a little research about yourself: ask parents, friends, and teachers what your strengths are.
- Create a Self-Outline: Now, next to each trait, list five or six pieces of evidence from your life—things you’ve been or done—that prove your point.
- Find Patterns and Connections: Look for patterns in the material you’ve brainstormed. Group similar ideas and events together. For example, does your passion for numbers show up in your performance in the state math competition and your summer job at the computer store? Was basketball about sports or about friendships? When else have you stuck with the hard work to be with people who matter to you?
Now it’s time to get down to the actual writing. Write your essay in three basic parts: introduction, body, and conclusion.
- The introduction gives your reader an idea of your essay’s content. It can shrink when you need to be concise. One vivid sentence might do: “The favorite science project was a complete failure.”
- The body presents the evidence that supports your main idea. Use narration and incident to show rather than tell.
- The conclusion can be brief as well, a few sentences to nail down the meaning of the events and incidents you’ve described.
An application essay doesn’t need to read like an essay about The Bluest Eye or the Congress of Vienna, but thinking in terms of these three traditional parts is a good way to organize your main points.
There are three basic essay styles you should consider:
- Standard Essay: Take two or three points from your self-outline, give a paragraph to each, and make sure you provide plenty of evidence. Choose things not apparent from the rest of your application or light up some of the activities and experiences listed there.
- Less-Is-More Essay: In this format, you focus on a single interesting point about yourself. It works well for brief essays of a paragraph or half a page.
- Narrative Essay: A narrative essay tells a short and vivid story. Omit the introduction, write one or two narrative paragraphs that grab and engage the reader’s attention, then explain what this little tale reveals about you.
When you have a good draft, it’s time to make final improvements to your draft, find and correct any errors, and get someone else to give you feedback. Remember, you are your best editor. No one can speak for you; your own words and ideas are your best bet.
- Let It Cool: Take a break from your work and come back to it in a few days. Does your main idea come across clearly? Do you prove your points with specific details? Is your essay easy to read aloud?
- Feedback Time: Have someone you like and trust (but someone likely to tell you the truth) read your essay. Ask them to tell you what they think you’re trying to convey. Did they get it right?
- Edit Down: Your language should be simple, direct, and clear. This is a personal essay, not a term paper. Make every word count (e.g., if you wrote “in society today,” consider changing that to “now”).
- Proofread Two More Times: Careless spelling or grammatical errors, awkward language, or fuzzy logic will make your essay memorable—in a bad way.
This article is based on information found in The College Application Essay, by Sarah Myers McGinty, which is available through our online store.