If you’re a rising senior, this summer is the best time to write your college essay. Come September, you’ll be so busy with other parts of the college application process—not to mention schoolwork—that it will be tough to write an essay that’s really great. And make no mistake about it: if you’re hoping to get into one of America’s top colleges, you’ll need more than a passable essay. You’ll need one that makes the admissions officers sit up and take notice, brings a smile to their lips and makes them remember you.
Now is the time to block out your summer writing schedule for this project. Students who tell themselves they can squeeze the writing in between their other activities and don’t reserve the necessary hours usually find they get to September with nothing on paper.
Even students who do schedule the necessary time often run into problems once they sit down to write. Usually that’s because they don’t understand what makes a successful college application essay, or they don’t know how to adapt those perceptions to the narratives of their own lives.
As a college counselor, I’ve helped many students develop essays that enabled them to get into the schools of their choice. In the process, I’ve noticed that many young writers trip over the same stumbling blocks.
Some of these problems arise from questions about how an applicant should position himself or herself. Others involve writing technique and structure. All of these are complicated issues that can require professional help.
But others are simple problems that can be easily avoided with planning and forethought. If you do so, you’ll make the process so much smoother. Here’s my advice:
1. Allow plenty of time
It’s a bigger job than you think. Many students imagine they’ll produce a strong essay in just a few days. That rarely happens, because the college essay is a unique form of writing, very different from the creative writing or academic writing that are usually taught in school. You’ll learn as you go along, but it will take a while.
It’s not unusual for students to “spin their wheels” for weeks before settling on an appropriate essay subject. Many make several false starts before hitting on a theme that’s right. That’s just a normal part of the process. Allow plenty of leeway in your schedule for brainstorming, false starts and rewrites.
2. Read before you write
How many college application essays have you read? You may have looked at a handful in school and seen some on the Internet. But to grasp the wide variety of possibilities an essay writer has to choose from—as well as the pitfalls you ought to avoid—you should read dozens.
Novelist John Cheever didn’t write his first good work until he’d read hundreds of stories by writers who’d come before him. Nor did Fyodor Dostoevsky, Edith Wharton, James Baldwin, Amy Tan or Alice Munro. You may or may not be the next Ernest Hemmingway, but the same principles still hold true for you.
3. Choose your subject carefully
The prompts offered by the Common Application are intentionally broad. Colleges want you to have the latitude to find a subject that’s perfect for you. The fact is that every person has many stories they could tell about themselves. But not every story will be equally interesting—or appropriate material for the essay.
The challenge is to choose a story that will convey the most important things that colleges need to know about you and your personality—things they may not see in the rest of your application package but that make sense in the context of your academic record.
Before deciding on a subject, it’s smart to consult with a college counselor or someone who has experience with this kind of essay. Parents mean well, but they don’t always understand what colleges are looking for. And they aren’t always the most objective critics. The perspective of an objective outsider is invaluable at this stage and can save you from wasting lots of time.
4. Get feedback
Once you’ve completed your first draft, get feedback. Show your essay to a teacher, a parent or a friend and see what they think. Most importantly, show it to somebody who is familiar with the college admissions process and can gauge how an admissions officer might respond.
This is where a college counselor can help the most. Having worked with many students over the years, they know how to turn the germ of an idea can into a finished essay. A good counselor is never a ghostwriter. How could anyone but you express your personal viewpoint? Instead, an experienced counselor helps bring your essay into better focus, suggesting ways to strengthen your best thoughts and showing you passages that may be obscuring your central message.
If even the best, most experienced actors need a director’s objective advice to help them develop their best performance, it makes sense that you would benefit from the same kind of help. You may be surprised to discover how well you can write with some professional guidance.
5. Heads up for the supplemental essays!
Once you’ve completed your personal essay, you may have more writing to do. If you are applying to the most selective colleges, you will probably be required to write additional pieces, sometimes called “supplemental essays,” for each of those schools–in addition to the essay I’ve discussed above.
Each school that requires one (or more) supplemental essay provides their own prompts for you to address. They want you to write these just for them. Don’t let the shorter length mislead you. Admissions officers read these more specialized essays very carefully when considering “fit” at their schools.
You should treat the supplemental essays just as seriously as the personal essay and approach it in much the same way. It ought to be another part of your carefully coordinated application strategy.
It’s best to complete your personal essay first, then move on to the supplements. Schedule your time well in advance, to make sure you have the hours you need to do a good job on each one. The more essays you complete and polish during the summer, the better time you’ll have in school in the fall.