Over the past few years, more and more students are applying to top colleges, causing acceptance rates to decrease. It is no longer unusual to find a student with amazing statistics and awards to be rejected by schools like the Ivy League. Because the college admissions process is becoming more competitive and unpredictable, this means that college essays play a bigger role in the admissions process. As a high school senior who has already experienced the application process, I will provide important advice about how I wrote effective essays that helped me get into colleges such as MIT, Stanford, etc.
The process of writing good essays begins as early as the day you enter high school. Start keeping a journal or diary to jot down important ideas and reflections, whether it is societal issues that you care about or meaningful excursions to surrounding places. If you prefer digital media, consider blogging. This is not to say that you should journal for the sake of college applications. Instead, you should practice the act of self-reflection so you can capture emotions and vivid moments right after the event occurred. For instance, a large portion of my Stanford roommate essay came from my personal blog about my experience at the SF MOMA, which happened two years ago. In short, if something transformative happened during these past few weeks or months, write it down! When it comes to being authentic and interesting, start learning about topics that you care about in various ways, whether it is reading nonfiction books or listening to insightful podcasts. These topics do not need to be very academic as they can range from Impressionism music to the effect of technology on society. Colleges look for people that demonstrate curiosity in various ways, which means that they expect students to embrace a learning mindset inside and outside of the classroom. The reason I am writing this is that quite a few college prompts are indirect questions to determine whether you possess intellectual vitality, such as Stanford’s short questions about a historical moment you want to witness.
While this piece of advice may sound obvious, but the first step when it comes to writing excellent college essays is to start early. Essay prompts such as the Common App and the UC application are released as early as June while supplemental essay prompts for private schools come around mid-July. For me, I started brainstorming Common App essay ideas around the second semester of junior year, though these brainstorming sessions were not serious. Then, I started writing my first drafts of my Common App essay right when summer vacation began. Starting early allowed me to write more drafts and to consider more ideas. As a result, I provided myself the opportunity to make mistakes in the early stages of the process instead of waiting until the last minute. For each of the colleges I applied to, I realized that all my first drafts and ideas were horrible and it took around a couple of months for good ideas to trickle in. Therefore, do not expect a sudden burst of inspiration to come during the weeks leading up to the deadlines.
For Common App essay ideas, I decided to write about something that the college admissions officers wouldn’t know from obvious things such as my activities list and my awards. Therefore, my main topic was my self-improvement and productivity journey. I chose this because I have spent a lot of time learning about productivity ever since middle school. Also, the topic helped convey some aspects of my personality that the officers may not have encountered from reading my other essays. If you have a hard time coming up with a Common App essay topic, I would say that a good starting point is to think about what specific thing has stuck with you before high school and has continued to be with you to this day. These are just guidelines, not strict rules, because there are so many effective essays out there that go against the conventions of a good essay. The main factor that motivated me to set an unrealistic goal of finishing college essays before September was that I did not want college essays to take away time from important extracurriculars during the first semester of senior year. Also, I always thought of the serious consequences of procrastination, which was that it could prevent me from getting into my dream school. Unlike other assignments, college essays can be the thing that ultimately changes the course of your life for better or worse. To be honest, this mindset was not healthy, but exaggerating and amplifying the repercussions of poor essays forced me to treat the process diligently. In the end, I was far from achieving my goal of completing all essays before the school year started, though it was better to have a good amount of progress than none.
A caveat that comes with starting early is that this may prevent you from considering better ideas during the upcoming months because you already settled on one idea. For instance, you might be attending a prestigious summer program or internship during the summer and it may end up being a better idea for your Common App essay than your initial idea.
To prevent yourself from procrastinating on college applications, get more people involved in the college applications process. I planned out my next three months by writing down weekly goals that I needed to complete such as completing the 4 UC questions by the end of the month. What I did was that I met weekly with my college counselor so this forced me to complete certain prompts for your counselor to read before the meeting. In other words, frequently meeting with my college counselor made me more accountable. Based on my personal experience, it is not necessary to hire a private college counselor because Quarry Lane already provides college counselors who have more time to devote to each student compared to counselors in public schools.
Another important person to support you in your journey is to have your parents involved because your parents know you better than anyone else. They know your challenges, life experiences, and intricate details that other people may not catch. It is also crucial to have a less familiar person critique your essay because they probably going to catch flaws that your parents will not notice. For example, I had a family acquaintance read my essays and she caught a lot of errors I made that helped me greatly for my MIT essays. That is not to say that having more people read the essays improves the process because it can cause you to become indecisive about which thing to write about.
Although I cannot compress the entire 6-month application college essay journey into more than a thousand words, I hope that some of my pieces of advice weren’t things that you have already heard hundreds of times. The essay process may seem intimidating, but as long as you put in a lot of time and effort, it will ultimately pay off.
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