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The College Application Essay: 5 Ways to Make the Process Easier

Sarah McGinty will be speaking at Book Ends on Wednesday, Oct. 17 at 7 p.m., where she’ll answer questions about the college application process.

School bells ring and children sing, “OMG, I’m a senior!” There will be pumpkin carving and football games for everyone else, but seniors are focusing on visiting potential schools, filling out applications, and writing application essays.  The college application comprises several critical components, but the essay in particular has grown in significance as interviews have become less common, positioning the essay as one of the few opportunities to showcase your personality and add life to your application.  It’s important to use the essay as a means to share information that cannot be found on other parts of the application. 

Writing an essay can seem like a daunting task. What to write about? What do they want? What do they mean by “significant”? Does something tragic have to happen? But, a few simple tips can lead to an essay that adds to your application and speaks to the school of your choice.  

It’s about who you are, not what you’ve done:

The essay shouldn’t be an autobiography or an apology for your grades.  It should demonstrate how you think, what you care about, and a bit about your choices and judgment.  Students often think they need a monumental event, like a parent’s divorce or a medical trauma, but the best way to approach the essay is to think about what qualities you value in yourself and use your experiences to make that quality come to life. 

You’ve written a lot of essays. This one isn’t that different:

Use roughly the same format you use for any essay, whether it’s about Pride and Prejudice or World War II.  You are still analyzing and using examples to support your idea, position or opinion. The only difference is this time it’s self-analysis.  So instead of “show how Chapter 3 depicts this character’s growth,” you might show how your time on the soccer team reflected your own personal and athletic growth. Ask yourself, “What have I done or thought that represents both my character and a larger sense of who I am?”

You’re the world’s authority on the topic:

Here’s a topic you cannot be wrong about.  Try not to focus on what you think admission counselors want to hear, but instead on what you want to tell them; what do they need to know that isn’t on your high school resume? No one else knows your story, so no one else can tell it better than you.  Insist on yourself.

 All you need is time:

Don’t write about something you just thought of 20 minutes ago. Talk your ideas out with advisors, parents, a teacher or your guidance counselor. Then go through the same prewriting process you would for any essay to fully develop your opinion, argument or claim. These steps include brainstorming, developing questions drawn from your ideas, focusing and re-organizing.  Like any essay, the college application essay takes time and is not a one-step process. 

Plan, Prepare and Proofread:

If you give yourself a reasonable amount of time to reflect on the topics and follow the normal essay writing process, you won’t be overwhelmed.   Read your application aloud and then ask someone to proofread (not critique). Don’t shop your essay around for multiple opinions.  Ask, “Does this add something new to my application? Does this reflect something of who I am?” If your answer is “Yes,” then you are good to go.

Most importantly, when writing your essay, remember that there is neither a wrong way to write it nor one “This will get you in” topic. Just strive to show the admission committee that you can write and think. When I worked in admissions at Sarah Lawrence College, we advised, “Take a deep breath, relax and believe in yourself.”  Good advice.

Sarah McGinty, Ph.D., will be speaking at Book Ends on Wednesday, Oct. 17 at 7 p.m., where she’ll answer questions about the college application process from local high school students and their parents.

McGinty is a former member of the writing faculty at Harvard University and for more than a decade served as a university supervisor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A resident of Boston, she has spent her career teaching and researching topics in admission and access. The College Application Essay is her seventh book.

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