Writing the Killer College Essay

By Kristin Westerfield on September 15, 2013
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Whew. The mail has been reduced to a trickle. I can finally carry it in all by myself, without help from the neighbors, those kids down the street, or that forklift the construction company let me borrow. That’s a relief.

That’s it. Time to kick back, relax, and dre-what? They expect me to what? You want huh? Essays? Essays? OK. I can write essays. I’ve been writing essays for years.

About me. Great. I know me. I can do this. No big deal. After all, they’re not due until... Oh no.

Ah, yes, those pleasant winter days in the middle of senior year when we’ve worked plenty hard enough to deserve a little time for ourselves, and what are we doing? Writing. Lots and lots of writing. Writing, writing, writing.

The first essay most colleges are asking for is the tried and true personal statement. Yep, that’s it, that’s the prompt, directions, criteria and rubric all rolled into one tight package. They want a personal statement.

Let’s see, I could talk about all my accomplishments. That’s sure to bowl them over.

Or, even better, I could do the opposite. I’ll talk about a time I really messed up. I mean, complete failure: how it changed me as a person, how much I’ve learned, etc., etc. That’s a sure-fire hit.

Creativity is key 

Get real. Will both of those essays make wonderful, insightful pieces of writing that the admissions officers will be able to judge personality from while also judging writing ability? Of course.

Will they stand out to the judges, and enhance my ability to get into my dream college? Not so much.

The judges will like them but won’t remember them three papers later. So on to something different.

Back to the idea process. I want to tell the judges why I’m such a wonderful candidate for their school and why they should admit me without a moment’s notice.

Show - don’t tell 

I had to write an essay for a scholarship contest, and one of my English teachers said, “Well, Kristin, one of your best personality traits, huh, you’ve got great personality skills.” She went on to tell me the “show, don’t tell” rule.

So what’d I do? I wrote about elementary school. And crayons. I wrote that when I was young, I always loved the color purple. I colored with it all the time.

But I learned, at a young age, that I’d have to share. I needed to let other people use the purple crayon, too. After all, other people deserve pretty pictures. And you know what? They gave me the green one.

Now, let me tell you, I wasn’t a big fan of green. But what was I going to do? So I added some, ewww, green to my previously beautiful drawing, and it looked, to my shock, better. I’ve never forgotten that lesson.

So here’s my advice to everybody else still in my shoes. Be interesting! Relate things to a story. Don’t tell them what they want to hear, but give them that information.

Remember that colleges don’t expect you to have won major awards, broken three legs at one time and still placed first in the national cross country meet or have made the most important scientific breakthrough since Newton got hit with that apple.

They know that many of their applicants are fairly normal people with fairly normal lives. But you are unique, just like everyone else. Point that out.

Also, ask for help. Get your English teacher from freshman year, sophomore year, junior year and senior year and give them each a copy. One will no doubt catch all the grammar, another will offer ideas to make it better, the third will be able to bring in the reins a little; they’ll each have something to share. While you’re at it, run a copy by a non-English-teaching teacher or a parent. Their non-writing experience with you may bring something you hadn’t expected to the piece.

As for me, I’m done now. I think I’ll go color. With the green one.

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