Weekly College Column

Get going on that college essay

By Lee Shulman Bierer

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Fear and procrastination are the two biggest stumbling blocks for seniors as they consider the all-important college essay. The essay is uniformly considered the most stressful part of the college application process. Students worry about what to say; sharing too much information by getting overly personal or saying too little and ending up sounding generic and/or cheesy.

Get started by picking a quiet place where you can think and jot down your thoughts.

According to Dr. Joyce V. Brown, Counseling Consultant to the Chicago Public Schools, “the essay for many students is a daunting task because they don’t want to brag about who they are.”  The essay really isn’t about bragging, it’s more about sharing.

Here are a few questions to ask to get you started:

  1. What is it that I want colleges to know about me?
  2. How am I different than most other teenagers – how do I act? what have I overcome? what have I done? … that is unique or not quite so predictable or typically like a teenager?
  3. Who or what has had an impact on me? How? When?
  4. Who or what have I impacted? How? By doing what?
  5. How have I changed or matured over the last several years?
  6. What lessons have I learned about myself, other people, relationships, my interests, the world?
  7. What are my hopes and dreams?
  • Brainstorm – Remember when you are brainstorming responses to these questions you are in a judgment-free zone. Now is not the time to say one idea is good and another is bad, you’re just trying to get your thoughts down on paper.
  • Free-write – elaborate on one or two of your ideas and recall a story or anecdote that can provide some framework to your thoughts.
  • Grab the reader’s attention – Make sure your introduction is strong, impactful and will make the reader want to read more.
  • Provide details. My newest mantra is to “err on the side of specificity,” which means more detail is better. You’ve got to tell the reader what’s going on but you need to show them how you’ve been impacted/changed etc., and you do that with language details. Here’s an example from one of my student’s essays:
    • Bad – “I spent a lot of time with Ben. I got to know him really well.” This is a rather empty, generic sentence that makes the reader wonder if the writer really did know him well.
    • Good – “After months of working together, I have memorized Ben’s jumbo grins as well as his smaller smiles, but this one seemed different.” Here we’re convinced the writer knows Ben really well. His reference to memorizing Ben’s smiles, is an artful yet subtle way of demonstrating the depth of their relationship.

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to: leesbierer@gmail.com; www.bierercollegeconsulting.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *