Welcome to our annual Memorial Day Special 3-Part Tutorial on writing the college application essay. Each part will conclude with a sample essay. Let’s get started.
Part 1. The college essay is a big deal, but it doesn’t have to be hard to write.
With dozens of admission counselors interviewed, we find there are a few stages in the process that they go through. The initial stage is called “The Introduction”. It occurs as the student’s application comes across the desk of the admission counselor who is assigned to review the application and perhaps decide on its outcome.
The counselor will immediately check on the student’s academic record to get a quick idea of qualifications. If deemed qualified, the counselor will jump to the application essay for a quick read. If found interesting, the counselor may read the entire essay. But in many cases, the counselors report they can’t get past the first sentence or two. This completes the initial stage.
Boom, in a matter of 5 minutes, the counselor will decide to continue on with your application or send a letter denying acceptance. That’s how important the application essay is, it cannot be overstated. This can be the difference-maker in the application outcome.
The application essay serves a very distinct purpose as it represents a golden opportunity for the student to demonstrate their ability to write with flow and direction, with clarity and insight, with meaning and purpose, and to correlate a situation or circumstance with present day meaning.
The application essay serves as the student’s opportunity to demonstrate their ability to write in the “active voice” rather than the “passive voice”. It reflects in the student’s ability to write in a vivid and reflective style, gaining immediate interest of the reader and keeping it through to the end. If successful with all of that, an effective and quality application essay will form a conclusion, wrapping it up and tying it all together with a well-constructed ending.
Here is a quality essay from one of our students.
September 6, 2012: I watched the doors slowly close behind me as I scrambled to find a seat on the train. I paused for a moment, wondering if I could pull the alarm bell and get the conductor to stop the train and let me out. Here I was, thirteen years old, on my way to my first day of class at Lauralton Hall, 24 miles from home. Most kids my age were taking the bus to school, excited and having fun with their friends, while I was taking the train. My parents told me the train would be a great experience for me, it would be exciting and fun for me too. What I was experiencing was anything but fun and exciting. They said it was time to grow up. I thought it was time to go to high school. I knew adults commuted to work, but I didn’t know kids commuted to school, but here I was sitting on the train waiting for my stop.
Next stop: Fairfield “Fairfield, please watch the gap when exiting the train. Next is Bridgeport,” the conductor stated over the speaker system in the train. A flood of men and women in suits stepped aboard the train. I moved my backpack so a women talking on her cell phone could sit next to me. I tuned her out as I looked out the window and imagined the next four years of my life.
Next stop: Bridgeport “Bridgeport, please watch your step when exiting,” the conductor’s voice boomed through the speakers once again. I glanced out the window and saw things I had never seen or at least noticed, ramshackle buildings covered in graffiti and garbage lining the streets. Time flew by as I looked out the window at my new surroundings. I waited anxiously as we traveled closer and closer to my destination.
Next stop: Milford “This is Milford, watch the gap please,” the conductor declared as I jumped out of my seat, grabbed my backpack, and ran off the train. I stepped out of the doors and onto the platform and this began my journey to my new school, my second home, for the next four years—Lauralton Hall.
Three years later, in looking back to those early days, I realize how far I’ve come and in many ways. First of all, I’m proud that I have taken this train six hundred times going to school and six hundred times returning home without missing it once. Every morning, I wake up on a tight schedule with a sense of urgency to get to the platform on time because the train truly waits for no one. I’ve learned to make good use of my time while on the train, studying for tests, doing next week’s homework, and preparing for the day ahead. I have had to adopt this level of discipline and responsibility on my own. To make it work day in and day out, I’ve had to own it.
I have spent three years commuting to my own job—school. Sure, I could have quit, and decided to attend my local high school with my neighborhood friends, but no, in the face of the challenge, I have persevered and continued. Every time I step on the train I am reminded of that first day and my thought of pulling the alarm bell, but I have adapted and am much the better for it. Only two hundred more roundtrips to go.
When I look to my college days ahead, I am a well-seasoned traveler, prepared and determined to see it through. I am ready to embrace the challenges, adapt to the new environment, and contribute to the college community. I‘m excited for the opportunity to expand my own perspectives while in college and I hope to contribute the same to my new group of students and educators. I look forward to my next commute of walking to class on a college campus. Next stop: college.
Part 2. The college essay should reflect in personal meaning.
Here’s your chance to share something special about you that is not reflected anywhere else on the application. Think about the one thing that you want the admission counselor to know about you that will reflect favorably upon you. Think about the one thing about you that has prepared you best for college success. This is the task at hand.
It is not about trouble, hardship, disadvantages, or compromising circumstances that may challenge you in college. They don’t want to hear about that, it won’t work in your favor. Picking the right prompt and the most appropriate topic is a challenge and it takes substantive thought.
The student’s initial job is to pick one of the five prompts provided on the common application and answer it in 500 – 600 words, where less is more, wordiness is discouraged, and the use of big words and complex terms are highly disliked by the readers. The first prompt has been the most long-lasting and is typically the favored prompt of admission offices. The fourth prompt is a new one to this year’s application and is of significant interest.
Here are the prompts for the new Common Application:
- Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
- Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
- Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
- Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
This student chose the first prompt, here is the essay.
A Match Made
July 9th, 1999: Dad arrives in Aruba on vacation; mom comes to work the same as every other day. Dad meets mom by the pool, then meets me; me being a two year old, mom being a hotel employee, dad being on vacation. A year later, my mom and dad get married. Mom and I pack our bags and off to Connecticut we go. Aruba to Connecticut in 12 months, now that’s a change of scenery, and a whole new life ahead. It sounds easy, but my parents tell me otherwise, that moving to the United States was quite a challenge, one that I am forever grateful my mom and dad took on and got done.
You see, I was born in Vera Cruz, Mexico to a mom who was a hotel servant and a father of whom I don’t know. I am very proud of my Mexican heritage and family roots. I return often to visit with my close family relations. On my mom’s side, I will be the first family member to go to college. I take this as a serious responsibility in becoming a role model for my younger cousins who remain in Mexico. I will show them the value of education and the opportunity that can result.
I often sit and wonder how life would be much different if not for my mom’s random meeting of my dad, and their romance that followed. Likely, I’d still be somewhere in the islands or back in Mexico with mom and without the great opportunity for a quality life that I have right now.
Here I’m raised in Fairfield, CT. I live in a nice home, attend a good public high school, play football, and look ahead to my college life and the vast world of opportunity. Mom and dad have made successful careers in hospitality along the way introducing me to small business and the keys to success. They are completely customer-oriented, quality-driven, and satisfaction guaranteed. I clearly see the benefits of treating people well, both from a business and personal standpoint. My parents have great businesses, and I have quality friends, none of which I take for granted for a moment. I see every day as a new opportunity to meet people, improve my knowledge and awareness, and keep a focus on my goals and dreams.
As I look to my college days ahead, I will approach my college choice seriously to reflect what it means to me to have this great opportunity. Where perhaps many others take it for granted, not me. I am well aware that I could be a hotel servant otherwise. I plan to use my college education to broaden my perspective and grow as a person. I hope to pursue study abroad programs to Mexico or within the Caribbean. After college, it is my dream and plan to visit my home town often, sharing my experience, knowledge, and good fortunes amongst my family, perhaps advising them on how to make a better life for themselves.
I am well-suited for the challenge that lays ahead. My college experience is very important to me. It represents the means for launching a productive, enjoyable, and satisfying career as a young professional. Accordingly, the next match made will be my college choice…from Aruba, to Connecticut, and on to College, and along the way, never forgetting who I am, how and where it all began!
Part 3. The college essay is about style, it reflects in you.
Once you have picked a topic, it is time to start writing. But a freelance approach doesn’t work. Rather, an organized and established writing style is much preferred by college admission offices. Follow these simple guidelines to writing a quality college essay.
The college essay should be written in the narrative, telling a story and making a point. It should reach deep into your memory and provide the reader insight into you, the writer. It needs to be engaging and interesting. Begin with a title in mind, then concentrate on style, flow, and direction. Our preferred style of essay is called “Show and Tell” and it consists of three sections.
The first section is the “Show“, beginning with the details of the story, the memory of what happened, when it occurred, and how it turned out. The story should refer to a defining moment that changed the course of your life, a personal challenge faced, a specific lesson learned, or a core quality developed. It should reflect a personal story that shaped your belief system allowing the reader to get a glimpse inside your life. It should conclude with making a point in the final sentence.
The middle section is the “Tell“, the purpose of which is to express meaning, informing the reader what it all means to you and how it fits in your life. It should reflect in how it has become a part of who you are today, how it contributes to your everyday belief and decision process. Provide examples of how it’s working for you.
The final section is the “Application“, explaining the future benefit you will draw from the “Show and Tell”. I like this section to always begin with- “When I look to my college days ahead, I will be…”. This may refer to being better prepared, better aware, better suited, or better ready for college. The final sentence should tie it all together and give the title clear meaning.
The essay should reveal the quality of you. Use it to reflect something about you that cannot be found otherwise in your application. Do not use the essay to try to impress the reader by listing accomplishments or using big words. View the essay as your chance to separate yourself from others, making it memorable by engaging the reader with your story.
Write in the Active versus Passive Voice
Active voice is more direct than passive voice because of the simple, easily understood, subject (is active) – verb format (an action verb) where the subject does the action as denoted by the verb. Active voice tends to be shorter, more perceptible while creating a better touch or feeling.
Passive voice shifts the attention away from the subject, placing it on the object, where the subject is no longer active. This can easily lead to confusion and wordiness.
For example, in the active voice “Jeff wrote a great book”, the subject is Jeff, the object is the book; the focus is on the subject doing the action. Jeff (subject) did the writing (action verb).
In the passive voice “A great book was written by Jeff”, the subject Jeff is acted upon and the focus has shifted to the book. The subject is no longer active, therefore, this is called passive voice.
Writing with vivid language is a way to describe an action or a scene, allowing the reader to envision what you are talking about, painting a clearer picture for the reader to enjoy. Vivid description is writing which makes you feel as if you are standing there, right there where the author has just described something. Vivid description appeals to the senses — eyes, nose, ears, skin, and makes you feel a part of the scene.
John Steinbeck, a great American author from the middle 1900’s, beginning in the 1930’s with a book still read in schools today- “Of Mice and Men”, was an expert user of vivid language. All you have to do is read the first couple pages in “Of Mice and Men” to see for yourself, and you will instantly become a better writer for it.
When it comes to college essays, you can count on this- good writing follows a flow; good writing is focused and written for a purpose; good writing is grammatically correct and easily readable; and good writing uses vivid description making it more enjoyable.You create your own advantage by having an essay that is interesting to read, making it more likely to get read by the college counselor.
Here is a quality essay from one of our students reflecting style and flow.
Turning Goodbye’s into Hello’s
After moving halfway across the world from South Africa to the United States, my family and I were finally adjusting to a new life. We had a home, I had finally established myself in a friend group, and things were stable for once. Yet right when I had settled down, it was time to pick up and move again. Devastated, I said goodbye to the new friends I had finally grown close to, and realized I would have to start all over again. It felt like a never-ending cycle. Despite the closeness of Westport and Wilton, the move felt like another trip across the world. I longed to stop being the “new kid.” I longed to have a friend group like every other child my age. The thought of not fitting in overwhelmed me.
My first day of school approached faster than I had hoped, and I clung onto my father’s arm as I walked down the hallways of the unfamiliar school. Children rushed around with friends by their side, and I immediately felt isolated. Everyone already knew each other, and had experienced half a school year with each other. Panic took over me. When my father and I reached my classroom I realized it was time to part ways with him, and enter this room full of strangers, completely alone. Bursting into tears, I held onto him, begging not to go in. Not only was I distraught about having to take on a whole new school, but also I was overcome with anger. It seemed unfair that I had to do this. I had not chosen to move, and it was entirely out of my control.
There are moments in life that stay with a person forever, and the day outside my classroom is one of them. With tears swelled up in my eyes, my father began to walk away, knowing that he had to force me in there. Suddenly, a young girl from my classroom came outside and hugged me. My crying ceased, and she took me into the classroom to join the others. From that day on she was my best friend. Although that hug seemed like a simple action to her, no one will understand what it meant to me. Had she not befriended me that day, my memories of that day could be far different. I have learned to value friendship, and have sensitivity to those that lack friendship in their lives. Having been on the side of the new kid numerous times, I am aware of the uncertainty, the fear, and the sadness it brings. Goodbyes are never easy, but after experiencing it many times now, I know that there are always hellos. Although moving felt like the end of the world it ultimately worked out for the best.
As I plan for college, I realize that some of the greatest fears my fellow students have, I don’t have. They fear saying “goodbye” to the friendly confines of their home, school, and community. I welcome in all the new “hello’s” that lie ahead during my college journey. It’s a wonderful, exciting, and empowering feeling to know I can head out into the unknown world with confidence in my ability to blend in with other’s doing the same thing. For college success, it is vital to get outside the comfort zone of familiarity and to embrace the challenges of meeting others and building new friendships. In doing so, I am able to leverage my abilities into a better school experience and improved options as I move towards my young adult life thereafter. I will once again turn goodbyes into hellos. This time around, however, I plan to be the one helping others do the same. Hello to college, here I come!
That’s the application essay for you. Lastly, here are a few important tips to consider.
1) Have a creative title; the key is to draw immediate interest
2) Do not stray or deviate from the topic; the key is to stay on point
3) Steer clear of confusing terms and unnecessary words; the key is to be vivid and precise
4) Begin with a dynamic first sentence; the key is to get the reader’s immediate interest
5) Create a flow from start to finish; the key is to move towards the conclusion
6) Admission counselors much prefer shorter over longer; they have a lot to read otherwise
Contact me for help in writing an application essay, one that will create admission advantages for you. We help student-families win admission acceptances, earn scholarships, and for athletes, play college sports. We help parents save thousands on college costs and we can do the same for you. To see how we do it, click here-CollegeLogic
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