In our experience, students who struggle with the college essay often fall into two categories.
In the first group are students who approach their essays as if they were writing a resume, trying to pack in every accomplishment they can claim since childhood. Let’s call them “listers.”
The second kind of student picks an essay topic from the Common App (for example, the question about a topic, idea, or concept you find engaging) and rambles on about it, usually with the help of a thesaurus and with the bravado of a nineteenth-century pioneer heading west, until he or she reaches 650 words. These are the “ranters.”
Listers attempt to say too much about themselves, and, in the end, only scratch the surface of who they are. While ranters’ essays are often full of passion, they also generally fail to go deep.
Here is one simple trick to ensure you neither list nor rant: start working on your college essay now.
Going deep requires self-reflection. This does not happen overnight.
If you are a junior in high school, start now. If you are a sophomore in high school, start now. If you are a freshman in high school, you should also start now.
But before you create a blank Word document called “College Essay,” here are a few tips. Working on a personal essay never begins with your first sentence, or even with writing parts of the essay itself.
Do this first.
Keep a journal
Or rather, take notes. You never know when inspiration is going to hit, or when you’ll remember something odd or interesting about your life.
You can take notes in whatever way works for you. Buy a fancy notebook, or type your thoughts on your smartphone. Personally, I like to use the Voice Memo app on my iPhone for a few reasons: I can talk faster than I can type; I can record myself while I walk in the street hands-free, and without the risk of falling down an open manhole; it makes me feel like Agent Cooper from Twin Peaks.
If you choose to record yourself, take the time to transcribe your thoughts later.
A brilliant writer and college essay expert once said: “A notebook is a gathering of acorns against an uninspired winter” (Harry Bauld, On Writing the College Essay). When you finally sit down to write, you should have a storehouse full of acorns—an arsenal of anecdotes, a library of ideas.
Here’s what I believe is the most important thing you can do with your notebook, in preparation for writing your college essay.
Keep a list of memories
Yes, write them down. When you are staring a blank document on your computer, you will not remember them.
When I was three, I remember my father climbing up on the roof of our one-story house to place an illuminated jack-o-lantern on top of our chimney. When my mother asked me what I thought about it, I replied: “It’s a little bit scary and a little bit nice.” One time when I was four, my parents dragged me along to a social event, and I was coloring with magic market on the floor. An older boy scolded me for putting a red marker cap on a blue pen. I thought they looked better that way. In third grade, I told a girl I had a crush on to sit in the mud. She did it. Later, I had a dream we got married.
You can go a step further and interview the people involved in your memories. In high school, the girl I’d made sit in the mud told me she’d been wearing a brand new dress, and that she’d gotten in serious trouble when he went home that day. She told me she had had the same dream about us getting married.
Now, I’m not saying I would necessarily write a college essay about this experience. In and of itself it’s rather meaningless, but it’s worth writing down and exploring. Maybe there is a lesson there. Maybe it’s the seed of a supplemental essay on a peer. (This year, writing about a peer was an option if you were applying to Princeton, for example, or UNC Chapel Hill.)
Explore your memories. Even—especially—the uncomfortable ones.
There are no right or wrong subjects for your college essay, just as there is no one right way to write it. Your choice of subject and your style are simply the means for showing an admissions committee who you are, and how you think about yourself.
Your readers are looking for self-awareness and a capacity for introspection. These qualities come from self-reflection, which can’t be rushed. Start exploring your personal history now.