It’s been a while since my own daughter went through the college application process. But I still remember when she took her first crack at a college application essay she was writing in English class. She was sent home to write a college essay with nothing more than a set of prompts, sample essays to read, a few tip sheets and a deadline to get it done. No instructions, really.
Sarah needed help. She had no idea what story to tell. How to think about it. Or where to start.
I suggested my daughter take a step back and rethink how she was looking at this assignment. Instead of focusing on what story to tell, she should consider what she wanted colleges to know about her beyond grades, transcript and extracurricular activities.
Our process and advice was new to Sarah.
Her assignment said it was not supposed to be a five-paragraph essay. True enough. And it had to be personal. Also true. But the real problem was, everything about the assignment focused on what do to and what not to do. There was no mention of how to get there.
And her teacher’s slim instructions were not enough to help a student master this task and write an essay that would truly answer a prompt to stand out.
Reading a strong sample essay will not do much more than encourage you to imitate the one you read. Reviewing a list of do’s and don’ts is nice, but it’s not enough. Reading a 300-page book or searching for answers on the Internet might confuse you, make the process seem too complicated, or give you wrong information. None of this will teach you HOW to write a great essay.
The Secret to Standing Out!
To master the college essay, you need are simple instructions, a process, a plan, and a schedule to get it done. You also need to understand just what YOU want colleges to know about YOU!
I gave Sarah simple instructions and helped her develop a plan to get it done by the teacher’s deadline. Sarah picked this Common App prompt (that is no longer on the application).
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.
In her pre-work and during brainstorming, she told me she wanted colleges to know she was responsible and resourceful. Sarah anchored her story around a project she took on to solve a problem: she built a paper towel rack out of old window blinds and a broken mop handle in the basement laundry room after we moved. She needed a place to store paper towels near her microwave and mini-fridge. So she designed it, and built it using supplies she found inside of the house.
It was a perfect choice for a story because it was her idea, and it answered the prompt. It was a small story that illustrated something meaningful to Sarah. She knew exactly what she wanted to share with colleges.