It’s a little-known fact that even the students who absolutely love to write struggle with the application essay. So if you’ve been biting your nails or tearing your hair out even a little, you’re not alone.
Next, divide students into small groups of “admissions officers,” and give each “committee” a college essay to evaluate. Resources include Connecticut College’s and published in The Times. In addition, give them this (PDF).
You already know how to write an academic essay: you start with an introduction, throw in a thesis statement, find about three paragraphs’ worth of evidence, and wrap it all up with a tidy conclusion…
Now forget all that, because a successful college application essay is totally different.
After each group has shared, ask: How were these essays different from the excerpt with which we began? In what ways were they more effective? What is cliché? How did these essays avoid that trap? Is there a way to move the experience detailed in the opening essay beyond cliché? After considering these essays, what else should we add to our list about what college admissions officials are looking for in student essays?
Tell the “admissions committees” to imagine that each of these essay writers has applied for admission to their college or university. Each group is responsible for using the handout to evaluate the essay and decide whether to admit this student. They should assume that each student has a similarly strong profile in terms of grades, test scores, activities and recommendations.
Tell each student to choose one piece of advice they found most compelling and to craft a college essay that puts this suggestion into practice. They might, for example, take a risk, as Dave Marcus suggested, or as one reader advised.
Architects use a blue print. A webpage is comprised of code. Cooks rely on recipes. What do they have in common? They have a plan. The rules for writing a good essay are no different. After you brainstorm, you’ll know what you want to say, but you must decide how you’re going to say it. Create an outline that breaks down the essay into sections.
Activity | Explain to students that they will now start developing personal essays for their college application packages, by evaluating and then capitalizing on advice on how to write effective essays.
Admission officers realize that writing doesn’t come easily to everyone, but with some time and planning, anyone can write a college application essay that stands out. One way to do that is to work step-by-step, piece-by-piece. The end result should be a carefully designed, insightful essay that makes you proud. Take advantage of being able to share something with an audience who knows nothing about you and is excited to learn what you have to offer. Brag. Write the story no one else can tell.
Ask: What advice here seems most useful? Despite all of this advice, what don’t you know about writing college essays? What role does the reader play in determining what works and what doesn’t? How can you account for individual, unknown readers as you write?
Related | In on The Choice blog, Dave Marcus, author of offers advice for writing successful college essays and avoiding common pitfalls:
Take a minute and think about the college or university admission officers who will be reading your essay. How will your essay convey your background and what makes you unique? If you had the opportunity to stand in front of an admission committee to share a significant story or important information about yourself, what would you say? The college application essay is your chance to share your personality, goals, influences, challenges, triumphs, life experiences, or lessons learned. Not to mention why you're a good fit for the college or university—and why it's a good fit for you. These are the stories behind the list of activities and leadership roles on your application.
Here's the thing: your college application essay needs to breathe life into your application. It should capture your genuine personality, explaining who you are beyond a series of grades, test scores, and after-school activities. But that’s not nearly as scary as it seems, because you get to choose what to share and how to share it.
On Thursday, Aug. 24, first-year students moved into their residence halls at Connecticut College. I’ll bet if you had asked them where they were last year at the same time, they’d say: where you are now. And if you asked how it was to write the essay, they’d say it was one of the most challenging parts of the application.