Starting Your College Essay

June 4, 2004

by Howard and Matthew Greene

We've been talking a lot lately about the veneer that tends to cover many students as they begin to present themselves to colleges. Students create a kind of shell around them which insulates the real individuals they are from the intruding eyes of teachers, college interviewers, and application readers. This is natural, especially when students are under immense pressure to succeed and are forced to communicate in novel ways with adults they do not know and likely will never see in person. We encourage all students to try to break through this shell, to wash away the artificial veneer that makes them seem too like their peers.

One of the most essential aspects of the presentation process involved in college admissions is the personal essay. Here is the opportunity for rising high school seniors to tell colleges what is most important personally, socially, and academically. Students can speak, in writing, as individuals, with their own character traits, values, and voices. The best college essays reveal something intimate and unique about the person behind the academic courses and extracurricular activities. These personal statements might cover mundane topics or extraordinary achievements, daily stresses or life-changing events.

How do you know when you have written a great essay? When you can recognize that no one but you could have written it. When your parents, friends, teachers, or counselor can see you for who you are in the writing. When it reads smoothly out loud, without awkward sentences, grammatical lapses, or spelling errors. When it sounds like a college-bound teenager, not a fifty-year-old lawyer. When the style and content say something important about you which will help a distant admissions reader understand you better beyond the numbers on your transcript.

How do you get there? We all write in different ways. Some students prefer outlines and notecards. Others do well attempting an initial stream of consciousness narrative that they will revise later. All students should revise their essays multiple times and share them with trusted peers and adults, not to be re-written by them but to be subjected to constructive criticism as to tone, content, and form. We recommend that you think first about your strengths and interests and what you want colleges to know most about you. Then consider what topic, story, or approach would help you convey those talents and interests and your personality to colleges.

Don't worry too much about the essay topic to which you are responding. In most cases, you will have broad discretion over what topic to choose and can pick an open topic or revise your essay to make sure it responds to a particular question. You will likely need two or three essays for many selective colleges and can see each as a piece of the puzzle that as a whole represents you as best you can. If you're having trouble getting started, then your best tactic is to get started. Begin with a blank paper or new computer document and begin listing ideas, strengths, points to make. Tell a story. Write like you're addressing a diary. Write like you're speaking to a school assembly. Humor is great. Honesty is essential. Perspective is valuable. The more you can reveal the real you the closer you will be to establishing a connection with your college audience.