I used every single one of my fast waning powers of influence to get my oldest son to cut his hair. I begged, bribed, teased, and—eventually—grew to ignore it. Not only did it stand out like a sore thumb in Fairfield County, Conn., it stood in stark contrast to the hair of our friends’ sons, which was closely cropped and perfectly shaped.
Somewhere in the tangle of my son’s nine-foot afro, I learned an interesting lesson about how parenting for conformity can make the college application process a lot more difficult.
I am not proud of it, but watching the other toddlers crawl, I worried when my first child showed little interest in crawling or walking even though he spoke like he could deliver the nightly news.
Now, as a college consultant, I have to convince other people’s children to recognize and embrace what makes them different. After all, there is really only one essay question when it comes right down to it, and it is:
“What can you bring, teach, or offer to other students on our campus?”
Therein lies the difficulty of this process. “Difference” for many parents and students has been an obstacle, even the enemy. Now, when difference is to be celebrated and prized, it’s not so easy to uncover. Ahead of our brainstorming meeting, distraught parents will drop their student off at my office and announce in exasperation, “Good luck brainstorming about what to write for the essay. We got nothing!”
Here are a few tips to make it easier to find the right long essay topic for you:
Tip #1. Do Not Read the Long Essay Prompts
This sounds counterintuitive, I know. But the prompts give you enough freedom to write whatever story you want to tell about yourself. So don’t restrict yourself by reading them until after you write your story. Write first, and then choose the “right” prompt.
Tip #2. Think of Your Essay as a “Slice”
The essay should not and cannot be about every moment you’ve existed on God’s green earth. Choose a slice of your story that represents you at your very best and tell it in excruciating detail. (You can always address word count and trim the details later.)
Tip #3. Avoid These Four Over-used Essay Topics
- Writing about someone else (such as a relative or a coach)
- Writing about your mission trip
- Writing about how you made “lemonade” from a sports injury “lemon”
- Writing about your time at camp
If you feel you simply must use one of these topics, know that you will need to make your essay extra compelling.
Unlike every other aspect of the application, you control your essay. Make sure that the glimpse you give the admission committee into your character, background, and writing ability is the very best possible. Here are seven tips to help you focus and make the most of your application essay.
In our experience, the main worry that applicants have is that their essay won’t stand out. This is a legitimate concern as you will likely compete with numerous applicants who have backgrounds similar to yours. Therefore, follow these tips to ensure that your essay shines in the competitive admissions process.
1. Analyze the prompt thoroughly
Take three minutes to think about the prompt. If needed, divide the prompt into phrases and look at each aspect. Why would the admissions officers ask this prompt? What do you think they want to know? How does that information relate to your ability to excel in college? Next, leave the prompt for a while and then return to it. Do you see something new?
With so many other things in your schedule, this process can initially seem like a waste of time. However, it will save you a lot of time in the long run. If you later realize that you misread the prompt, you might need to start the writing process from scratch.
2. Organize your writing
Like the first item, this isn’t something that should take a lot of time. This is another step that can initially seem completely skippable, but organizing your writing can save you considerable stress and frustration. A good writing plan can streamline or even eliminate the need to do any significant rewrites.
Brainstorm your anecdotes. Create a rough outline, including approximately how long each paragraph needs to be in order to complete the essay within the word count limits. Finally, figure out when you’re going to write. A paragraph a day? The whole thing next weekend? Creating a schedule, even if you need to modify it later, gets your brain in motion.
3. Show instead of telling
When selecting anecdotes for your essay, pick vivid ones that you can tell succinctly. If a story would require 450 words of a 600 word essay, then you’re not going to have a lot of space to express self-reflection and analysis of the situation. Remember that the admissions officers are more interested in your perspective of what happened than the events themselves.
In addition, keep in mind that the admissions officers don’t know you personally, and that’s why they’re reading your essay. They want to get to know you, and the essay is your first introduction. Because of this, don’t tell them that you’re passionate about public service. Show them through strong examples. Help the admissions officers envision each example as if they’re experiencing the situation alongside you.
4. Know your vocab
Your admissions essay should reflect command of college-level vocabulary. One of the most common mistakes that we see in essays is using advanced vocabulary almost correctly. Even among synonyms, there are shades of meaning. If you’re using a thesaurus, look online for examples of that word in action. Will it still fit into your sentence?
Avoid overdoing it. Advanced vocabulary should be the spice of the essay to give it flavor, so you’ll use plain language most of the time. Essays that are riddled with advanced vocabulary can seem pompous or even inadvertently comical to the reader.
5. Write succinctly
Can you say what you need to say in fewer words? Can you substitute an advanced vocabulary word for a phrase? Writing concisely expresses to the admissions officers that can organize your thoughts and that you respect their time.
6. Combine like ideas into more sophisticated sentence structures
The vast majority of the sentences in your essay should be compound, complex, or a combination of both (compound-complex sentences). Save simple sentences for instances when you need to create impact.
7. Seek qualified second opinions
You should absolutely ask others to take a look at your essay before you submit it. As we work on things, we become blind to mistakes that will be glaringly apparent to others. However, limit the number of people you ask to two or three. Asking too many people for feedback will only confuse you and result in a lower quality essay as you revise the essay according to each person’s advice. Therefore, look to individuals who have background and expertise in the college admissions process.
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