The College Application Essay: Part II – Getting Started

whats_your_storyLast week I debunked several floating myths concerning the college application process. Now let’s consider some more specific prompts to get the juices flowing with regard to writing that (overhyped) application essay.

[Keep reading for college essay writing tips!]

Tip 1:  Pull out a blank sheet of notebook paper and begin brainstorming. Title this page ‘First Impressions,’ and divide it into three columns, entitled Qualities, People, and Experiences. Now write down anything and everything that comes to mind: all of the qualities you feel you possess (“energetic,” “bold,” “determined,” “quiet,” etc.), the people in your life who have inspired you or been a significant presence (a parent, best friend, teacher), and important, life-changing experiences (first job, publication of your writing, winning a difficult race, etc.). Keep writing until you’ve filled the page, and then keep this “first impressions” list for future reference. Pat yourself on the back: you now have a list of essay topics!

Tip 2: Ask your friends or family members to list some of the qualities they respect most about you. Have them write down a list of adjectives they feel most apply to your character. Ask them further in what situations they think you most exhibit these qualities. What are their best memories of you? You will most likely be surprised by the responses you receive, especially when you compare this list to your “first impressions” list. This is because we are almost always too hard on ourselves and only have a small grasp on how others perceive us. Only when my best friend came up with “sincere,” for example, as an adjective to describe me, did I acknowledge sincerity as one of my strongest character traits—it still is today!

Once you have several traits established, start thinking about experiences you have had in the past that demonstrate these traits. Did you help out at a homeless shelter for a summer? Did you persevere in an athletic race or competition? Did you act as a mentor for a younger child?

Tip 3: Consider those people who you respect most in life, those who have mentored you in a special way or inspired you to be, well, the best you can be. This could be a teacher, parent, friend, or grandparent. Think about the qualities you respect most about them; you respect these qualities for a reason! Consider how they have impacted your life: how did they do so? What have they contributed towards your moving forward into adulthood? Remember to focus on you, however, if you choose to write about one of these mentors: what have you accomplished as a result of their inspiration?

Tip 4: Write out a list of your strengths and weaknesses. Be ridiculously honest! If you are stuck, ask your best friend or family member to help you out. College application reviewers love students who admit openly what they struggle with; furthermore, they love students who demonstrate how they have learned from such mistakes or struggles, and how they will carry this lesson forward into their studies and career. I mentioned in the last blog that one of my essays described my habit of fainting in biology class during a bloody dissection or lecture on human anatomy (I still have this problem today!). I admitted this weakness and described how I finally overcame my embarrassment, ending on a humorous note (something along the lines of “at least I won’t have a hard time figuring out which career to pursue…”).

Tip 5: Think about all of the unique aspects that make up you. What makes you different? Have you collected stickers ever since you were four, like the author of this blog has done? Are you really interested in Caribbean art? Are you secretly an introvert who appears extroverted? Do you like hiking in the moonlight? Have you done something particularly crazy, quirky, or unheard of? Write about it!

Tip 6: Speak with those teachers or mentors who will be writing your recommendation letters. Chances are, you have chosen these teachers to write your letters because they know you best—academically, personally, or professionally—and will most likely present the best side of you in their reference. Talk to them directly about their experience working with you. What do they respect most about you? If you do not feel comfortable asking them these questions, you can also use these teachers or mentors as guides in the essay writing process. Like I said in the last post, gathering advice and ideas is not plagiarism, as long as you are the one doing the active writing in the end.

Tip 7: Begin writing. Choose a few of the experiences, qualities, or people on your “first impressions” list or the lists you have collected from friends, family, and mentors. Start fashioning this into an essay with a concise thesis and conclusion. Remember, your goal is to show the college who you are, apart from your test scores and GPA. This is an essay, but first and foremost, this is a representation of you.

Tip 8: Enjoy this. I said it once before, and I will say it again. You have 500 words to talk about how great you are, admit your weaknesses, and prove your capacity to excel at the college of your dreams. What a fantastic opportunity to learn about yourself. Good luck!!

Check out the other posts in my series about the college application essay:


About the author: Kathleen McGunagle is a senior in Princeton University’s English department and Interdisciplinary Humanities Certificate Program. Concentrating in British Renaissance Literature, she will be writing a thesis this spring on Shakespeare and epistolary culture. Kathleen is an Academic Peer Adviser at Princeton, tutor through Princeton Tutoring, and avid performer. She has recently returned from a year of study at Worcester College, Oxford.

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