Write Great College Application Essays and Stay Sane: Part 3

College Application EssaysThanks for joining us as we continue with Staying Sane through the College Essay Writing Process, an ongoing series that offers college applicants and their parents advice on how to stay on track for completing Ivy-worthy essays…without flying off the handle. Enjoy this next part of the series, and STAY SANE!

To begin your essay writing process, if you haven’t done so yet, download the current Common Application questions and any school specific application essay questions you are aware of for the schools you wish to apply to.  After you read the questions, thoroughly read the schools’ promotional and catalog material.  Get a feel for what they say they value in their applicants and class members.  For each school, write a list of attributes you cull from their materials: talented, diverse backgrounds, self-starters, community minded, for instance.  Next, record each school’s application deadline beside the list of attributes you distinguish so you’ll have a sense of which schools’ applications you need to finish first.

For instance, Stanford University’s homepage quotes the school’s motto: “The wind of freedom blows,” and calls it an invitation to free and open inquiry in teaching and research. The page’s link to Stanford’s 600 organized student activities explains, “Having the ability to engage in multiple interests and find friends who are not only similarly engaged, but also exceptionally talented in those areas, is one of the values of Stanford’s diversity.”  When I set out to list attributes that go along with these stated qualities, I thought of being multi-talented, displaying high performance, and thriving in a place where my own talents would take off from working with others of similar strong ability. Looking at the list of categories for the student activities I see:

  1. Academic
  2. Athletic/Recreational
  3. Careers/Preprofessional
  4. Community Service
  5. Ethnic/Cultural
  6. Fraternities/Sororities
  7. Health/Counseling
  8. Media/Publications
  9. Music/Dance/Creative Arts
  10. Political/Social Awareness
  11. Religious/Philosophical

I begin thinking this way:  I should somehow combine any athletic, academic or artistic talents I have with the idea of freedom. Another attribute I should incorporate is curiosity and the ability to inquire rather than accept the status quo.   I should include ways I give back to my community, involve myself with people of diverse backgrounds, and demonstrate good teamwork.

Thinking about what attributes are most important to the schools according to their promotional material will help you devise a writing plan that works. In the Stanford example, for instance, someone from a high school girls’ soccer team might think, “How can I use my excellent ability at soccer to draw a profile of myself as someone who fits the school’s student body?

Well, I can talk about the time I influenced my teammates’ strategies and led my team to a victory in State Championships, only after successfully learning to communicate well with a student from an ethnic background that deals with competition and criticism very differently than I have been taught.”  The compelling story becomes learning how to communicate effectively with a teammate.  Along the way, the reader will learn about the student’s soccer skill and team building experience, the way she connects with others and their skills, and the way she attempts to lead rather than accept the status quo. Since the student will show how she made an effort to learn about the teammate’s ethnic background and successfully figure out a way to communicate effectively, she can illustrate how she ensured the team worked smoothly together toward common goals.

After you have made a list of the attributes each school seems to value and brainstormed about the stories you can tell about yourself to focus on these attributes through specific events and experiences, prioritize your writing tasks:

In setting a writing schedule, consider which schools have the earliest deadlines as well as which schools are most important to you.  Often candidates who have time start writing for the less important schools first to get their feet into the process, and then write the essays for the schools they deem most important to them.

Note that even if some of the schools you choose are not using the common application, you can often find similarities among various application essay questions and can use some of the same core experiences for many, even if you have to focus things a bit differently for each particular school and what it most values in its candidates.

Sheila BenderBy Sheila Bender, former Accepted.com editor and founder of Writing it Real, a “community and resource center for writing from personal experience.”