Keys to Writing a Winning College Essay
By Peter Van Buskirk on June 05, 2020
The first half of 2020 has proven to be quite a challenging time for our global community, bringing with it unprecedented health, personal, and economic hardships. As a wave of change and uncertainty sweeps through our daily lives, it can become difficult to look ahead to the future with confidence. For one generation in particular, the normalcies of applying to and attending college have been flipped on their head, so to speak.
The start of summer is usually the time when rising seniors start to think about their college essays. All things considered, this year’s rising seniors may be finding it difficult to focus on this task. In this webinar, I’ll be speaking to the importance of essays, as well as how students can follow a five-part process that will help them to craft a truly effective essay.
This narrative provides a high-level overview of the key topics discussed, along with the times that those topics are discussed within the video. We hope this helps you jump to the specific parts of the video that are of interest to you.
Understanding Holistic Admission
Given the fact that the second half of the junior year was thrown off course due to COVID-19, admission officers will place more emphasis on the subjective parts of the application. So, before we dive into the essay, let’s review the holistic admission process to put things into perspective.
Historically, admission decisions are made based upon:
- Your course work in high school - have you selected challenging courses and taken full advantage of the curriculum available to you at your school?
- Your grades in those courses - how have you performed given the challenge?
- Your test scores
- Your activities & achievements
- Letters of recommendation
- Interviews (when available)
When we consider that the first four items listed cannot fairly be taken into consideration due to the shelter-in-place practices as a result of COVID-19, there is going to be much more emphasis placed on the subjective parts of the application. This year, in particular, your essay will be of greater importance.
To hear the full explanation of holistic admissions, jump to 1:26.
What Are Admission Officers Looking for in an Essay?
Colleges use the essay to determine your ability to:
- Write well
- Think critically and reflectively
- Be creative
- Take risks
Colleges also regard the essay as a window into your character and personality.
- Who are you?
- What is important to you?
- What do you want to accomplish, and how might you best accomplish it?
- Why have you identified our academic environment as the place to advance your studies?
We spoke in an earlier webinar about finding and communicating your sense of purpose. This is particularly true of many supplemental essays (i.e. why do you want to come here...) required by selective colleges. If your response does not convey a sense of purpose and connect with the institution, you may not be presenting a message that is effective.
To hear more about how your essay is evaluated, jump to 5:45.
How to Choose a Topic
The Common App and Coalition App will provide you with a series of prompts. However, these prompts are not requirements; they are suggestions. I encourage you to ignore these prompts and instead focus on finding a topic that allows you to tell your story most effectively. Think about what you want the admissions officers to know about you. The objective of your essay is to reveal something about your life experience that won’t be found anywhere else on your application.
To hear more about choosing a topic, jump to 14:54.
The Five-Part Process to Writing a College Essay
Good writing and effective communication cannot be thought of as an event that takes place on a Saturday afternoon or during the last three waking-hours of your day. Many times, you can’t plan ahead to write your essay on a certain date, finish it, and move on. Instead, it should be thought of as a multi-part process that involves:
To hear more about the five-part process, jump to 16:45.
Reflection: Create a Personal Profile for Your College Essay
If you really want to get at the core of who you are and find compelling stories to tell, engaging in conversation and reflection is a good place to start.
- What do you care most about - and why?
- Choose a word that would best describe you - why did you choose that word?
- If you could interview anyone in the world, who would it be - and why?
- Describe a revelation or “aha moment” you experienced. How did it change your perspective?
To hear more about the reflection process, jump to 23:46.
Conceptualize Your College Essay
After you’ve created your personal profile, begin conceptualizing your essay by:
- Connecting the dots - how can this essay complement other messaging elements of your application?
- Thinking of the essay as your "art" - what kind of impression do you want to convey?
- How do you want to tell the story? Do you want to be dramatic, conversational, metaphorical, poetic?
To hear more about conceptualizing your college essay, jump to 27:53.
Drafting: How to Get Started with Writing Your College Essay
Now that you’ve reflected and conceptualized your essay, it’s time to begin drafting. Tips include:
- It’s often helpful to begin by simply journaling or keeping notes
- Be prepared for an iterative process - don’t expect to write a full draft all at once
- Don’t worry about the word count
- Be authentic. Don’t try to be something you’re not
To hear about more tips for getting started with drafting, jump to 32:34.
Editing: Tips for Shaping the College Essay
Now that you have begun to gather your thoughts and collect them into draft form, it’s time to shape your presentation.
Organize your message into three parts:
- The “hook” - a compelling or dramatic introduction that will get the reader’s attention
- The “backstory” - provides context for the presentation
- The “summary perspective” - what you’ve learned or how the experience changed you
To learn more technical editing tips for your essay, jump to 40:47.
Polishing: Making the Good College Essay "Great!"
At this point, you are likely left with a very good college essay. Going through the following steps will help you make your good essay “great!”
- Read your essay out loud, or have someone read your essay out loud to you
- Try to reduce the word count by 10%
To hear final pieces of advice, jump to 51:53.
Crafting an effective college essay begins with the acknowledgment that it is a lengthy process as opposed to something that can be quickly executed. If you would like assistance in brainstorming, organizing, or editing your essay, please contact me at. You can contact me by email at email@example.com or by phone at 717-808-5462.