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Getting Started on Your College Admissions Essay

Writing about oneself is difficult.  Really difficult.

But write about yourself you must.  So you may as well get started.  But how?

Most students start with the five prompts offered by the Common Application.  Essentially, these boil down to the following:

  1. A person who has influenced you
  2. An experience that reflects your personality in some way
  3. A social or political issue that interests you
  4. A fictional character or historical personage that interests or reflects upon you in some way
  5. Your perception of diversity

The Common Application also includes the catch-all prompt:  “Topic of Your Choice.”

Frankly, I hate all these prompts. I understand they are meant to get students thinking and off to a good start.  But from my perspective, these prompts usually set students off on the wrong course from the get go.

For example, when writing about an influential person (real or imagined, fictional or historical), the student focuses so much on the other person that they neglect to write anything about themselves.

Or when writing about an experience, they recount the experience without any reflection as to why it was important.  Or worse, they choose an incident in which they exaggerate their own agency, hoping that they will appear heroic or even superhuman.  The average college applicant in America has faced enormous obstacles along their educational path.

When it comes to social and political issues, most students start trying to solve the Palestinian problem or combat deforestation, without really telling us why such issues are important to them personally

And the diversity issue is one of the most difficult, in part because most teens have had limited experience of diversity; furthermore, diversity is such an abstract concept that it’s hard for any of us to get our minds wrapped around what it really means in practice.

So, since I’ve tossed out all the usual college essay prompts, what are we left with?

Fortunately, the Common Application, as well as many individual college applications, allow students to write about a “topic of your choice.”

Bingo.

So I start not with a prompt, which can lead us in artificial or superficial directions, I start with the student.  I ask them to tell me stories.  I want to know about their friends.  I want them to tell me stories about parents and grandparents.  I want to know how they spend their time.  I want to know about significant school projects.  What do they read, and what do they read about?

All this conversation takes time.  But it helps me to understand what is important to the person behind this application.  I need to get a glimpse of their foibles and frailties.  I need to plumb the depths of their feelings.

Through this process, I generally can help a student come up with several viable topics for college essays.  I then ask them to write stream-of-consciousness paragraphs that revolve around the general topic area until we witness the evolution of a tightly-woven essay.

Again, the process takes time.  It takes patience.  Some drafts work; others don’t.  But with persistence, students can deliver an excellent essay that reveals something interesting and essential about their personality.

And, in the end, the topic usually does revolve around one of the prompts that appear in the Common Application.  The prompts are a great place to end.  But you wouldn’t really want to start there.

Mark Montgomery
College Essay Consultant


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