Not long ago a student called me. His guidance counselor asked him to write his college application essay and he wanted to brainstorm ideas. But then he confessed:
“I don’t even know where to start.”
That’s when I realized I needed to write this post. Because by the time you’re finished reading it, you’ll know how to start writing your college application essay personal statement—and have lots of ideas as well.
How Start Writing Your College Application Essay
1. Read Other College Application Essays. Get a feel for college essays by reading samples you can find online and in books. Some schools post their best essays online, including Hamilton College, Tufts, and Johns Hopkins. I especially like Johns Hopkins because you can read comments from their admissions officers, who tell you what they like about each essay.
Tip: Google the schools on your college list and see if they post college admissions essays. A good search term is “Essays that Worked.”
2. Use What You Read as Inspiration, Not Competition. This comment is for all the students who read sample essays and think they can “never write anything as good.” What makes an essay good is that the author has dug deep and put a part of him or herself directly on the page—it’s honest and written from the heart. That’s exactly what you need to do with your story—be honest and write from your heart. So get inspired, not intimidated.
3. Here Are Three More Things You Can Learn From Reading Essays:
There are lots of ways to structure an essay. An essay can be one story or a series of events; it can take place in one moment or over a longer period of time; it can be told chronologically or out-of-order; it can take place in the past or present tense (Or, if you want to get fancy, both.)
Find an essay or two you like and take a look at how they’re structured. If you find one that inspires you, that may be the structure for you.
Good essays use good writing techniques. Pay special attention to how the writer grabs your attention from the beginning. (Read 3 Ways to Start an Interesting College Essay.) Focus on how the writer uses detail to illustrate the story’s look, feel, sound, taste and smell. Then read it out loud. (Yes, really!) I want you to notice that when sentences are different lengths the essay flows better. These are all super writing techniques you can use.
Everybody has a personality. (Okay, almost everybody.) But if your personality’s not in the essay, how’s the college going to get to know you? More important, how will they separate you from the next student, or the next 50 students?
Take this essay personality quiz: When you’re finished reading a sample essay ask yourself these questions: Did you get a sense of the writer’s personality and values? Could you strike up an interesting conversation with this person? Do you think he or she has told you one of the most important things about him or herself? Would the writer make a good college student? You should be able to answer yes to all of those questions. That’s what your essay should do, too.
Now, Make It Work for You!
4. Identify Your Positive Qualities. Are you kind? Compassionate? Determined? One of the best ways to create a unique essay is to showcase your positive qualities. Identifying your positive qualities can often help you find a topic, too.
Get started! Download my worksheet on Finding Your Positive Qualities. You’ll be on your way.
5. Brainstorm Every Possibility. Get creative! Never set limits on your ideas until you’ve thought of everything.
6. Display Your Passion. What do you love? What do you care about? What motivates you to learn and be curious outside the classroom? Get excited to write about what puts a fire under your feet and you’ll make your college reader excited, too. Passion is contagious!
7. You Don’t Need a Unique Topic, Just a Personal Approach. If you have an original topic, go for it. But the truth is, lots of students are passionate about similar events like travel, family and sports. If that’s the case, you must, must, must find an approach that’s unique to you. How do you do that? Show us the world from your point of view. If you want to write about sports, for instance, don’t write about winning “the big game”—think about why that sport matters to you. One of my students wrote about her love-hate relationship with her workout routine and used it to show her passion for rowing. Your essay should reflect your personality—no one else should be able to write it but you.
8. Be Someone Colleges Want to Accept. Colleges want students they feel will succeed now and far into the future. So show them you’re the person they’re looking for. Have you been through a tough situation? Show you’re resilient. Have you had to make decisions? Show you’re responsible. Write about your curiosity, your courage, your problem-solving skills—whatever is special to you. Get colleges excited in what you care about, and give them a great reason to accept you.
So…put your passion and heart on the page. Present it from your point of view. Show the colleges you’re ready to head into your future.
Now that you know how to start, you’re on your way.
Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting in Redding, Connecticut. She is a Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee, teaching students around the world how to master interview skills, write killer resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. I work with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, Skype, FaceTime and email. Visit my website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.