As a high school senior or rising senior, you’ve worked so hard these past 12 years and you’re just about ready for the next chapter of your life. You’ve probably taken your AP or college admissions exams, taken part in a variety of extracurricular activities, and of course, kept up your GPA. The good news is that you have laid a good foundation. The other news is that there is still much work to be done. While you might be able to chill out a little bit more during your second semester, you definitely want to use the first semester—or even the summer before your first semester—to craft and perfect your college essay.
Working on your college essay might be overwhelming, but it can also be one of the most fun parts of the college application process. While the majority of your application consists of numbers, statistics, and scores, those aspects of your application do not by any means define you. Your college essay is your opportunity to define yourself and to show the admissions committee who you are and what you’re all about. Even if your grades and your test scores aren’t quite where you want them to be, you can use your college essay to show the admissions committee who you are beyond your application file and make a great first impression.
The guidelines below will help you write an essay that you’re proud of and that will likely turn some heads in the admissions committee. If you are planning on applying to graduate school, you can use these same guidelines for your graduate school statement of purpose as well
1) The 90-Minute Confidential Brain Dump This exercise will help you clarify your thinking about who you are and what your priorities are in life. Set aside 90 minutes when you absolutely will not be disturbed. Ideally, this exercise is done with a pen and paper. However, if you wish to use your laptop, it is imperative that you disconnect from the Internet during these 90 minutes to ensure that you won’t be distracted.
Write 100 questions that come to mind about anything and everything without taking a break and without worrying about repetition. There are no rules about the kind of questions that may occur to you. Your questions could include Why is the sky blue? Why did I sabotage myself? Who am I meant to be? Why do I like ice cream more than most people? Don’t censor yourself or hold yourself back in any way. Just keep writing. Once you finish 100, keep going until the 90 minutes are up. Store your pages in a safe place. Now take a break for at least one day. Remember that the results of this exercise are confidential and you are entitled to write whatever occurs to you.
2) The 60-Minute Bucketing Exercise
Set aside 60 uninterrupted minutes for this activity. Review your 100+ questions and sort them into categories. Take separate pages and organize your questions that belong together in the same category. Name these categories intuitively, for example, Math, Alcohol, Friends, and College. Again, there are no rules. You can categorize as you see fit. You should end up with 10-20 categories. Take another break of at least a day.
3) The 90-Minute Self-Appreciation Exercise
For each category, make a list of all the positive things you can think of about yourself. Make 5-10 points below each category. Examples could include your high marks in math, your altruism, your curiosity, or anything else that you see as a strength. Don’t worry about coming across as “bragging,” as this exercise in honest self-evaluation is just for you. Reflecting upon all of your positive qualities will put you in a positive mindset and give you the confidence you need to tackle the rest of the exercises and to write that stellar college essay. Take another break of at least a day
4) The 90-Minute Hard-Look Exercise
Now for each category, make a list of all the challenges you face as you think about yourself. Make 5-10 points below each category. Perhaps your struggles in learning a new language, your disagreement with a classmate about a school project, or how frustrating it was when your team lost a basketball game. As difficult as it is to reflect on our challenges or shortcomings, some of our best life lessons come from these reflections, which can give you gold for your essay content. Take another break of at least a day.
5) Twenty Paragraphs About Yourself
Write out 20 paragraphs on the categories you came up with and give them a positive slant while being realistic about yourself and your challenges. This is your chance to show off your mettle. Include stories, anecdotes, challenges, and achievements from your life. Add some of your favorite quotes. Think vertically and horizontally. You have now created a unique database of who you are, which will help inform your essay and make it personal like nothing else will. Part of what makes writing a college essay so exciting is that it’s your chance to set yourself apart. Most of the other applicants will likely have similar grades and test scores to you, but you also have something unique to share that the other applicants will not. Start thinking about what it is that makes you stand out. What are you passionate about? What are your hobbies? What’s an experience that you’ve had in life that has taught you something valuable? None of these will be reflected in your grades or your test scores, but they can definitely be the basis for your essay. What do you want the admissions committee to know about you that they won’t be able to find elsewhere?
6) Trusted Advisor Consultation(s)
Reach out to and meet with your trusted advisor(s). These could include parents, teachers, counselors, or friends. The only rules here are that you must be certain that your trusted advisor(s) have nothing but your best interest at heart and are literate enough to understand how adults think. Show this person or people your 20 paragraphs and ask them to critique them. Have them help you refine your message and find your voice.
7) Read the Instructions Carefully
Many colleges use the Common Application, which allows you to use the same main statement of purpose for multiple colleges while answering different supplemental questions for each one.
Even those colleges that do not use the Common Application usually have similar essay prompts. While it is acceptable and common to use the same content across multiple applications, make sure you read the directions carefully. Sometimes you might have to cater your content to the specific school. Keep in mind also that different schools might have different word or character limits for essays and supplemental questions, so make sure you read the instructions carefully and follow them to a T.
8)The Great Rewrite
After marinating in the wisdom you got from your trusted advisors, rewrite your essay in your own voice. Write as you would talk: with dignity, with confidence, with a bit of humor, and a bit of swagger. Show the reader who you really are. At this stage, let the ideas flow and don’t hold anything back. Imagine that you’re writing a letter to a friend sharing your experience. Remember that you’re telling the admissions committee a story about you. How would you tell a friend the same story to make them feel like they were there? You definitely want to draw the reader in with an engaging anecdote and with concrete examples to support your claims, but the key is to make sure that your voice is represented throughout the essay. The admissions committee wants to get to know you. Not your parents, not your teachers, not your college counselors, but you. So be yourself and let your passion and excitement for whatever you’re writing about shine through. Be honest. Your college essay should not merely repeat what’s already on your resume or in your application, but it should not contradict the rest of your application either. Also remember that college admissions committees do background checks and will look at your social media accounts, and you don’t want to give them any reason to believe that anything in your statement of purpose is untrue. Whatever experiences and interests you have are valuable, so don’t feel like you have to fabricate or embellish your story to make yourself sound more interesting. This defeats the purpose of the personal statement.
9) Get More Feedback
Now that you’ve written an unfiltered first draft, it is the time to start editing. Make sure that what you’ve written falls within the guidelines of what’s expected by the college. Share your draft with your parents, teachers, college counselors, or anyone else whose feedback you value. Ask them for constructive feedback on the content and structure of your essay.
10) The Final Draft
Take all the feedback you have received into account, but don’t lose yourself. Make sure
that your voice is still preserved. Your essay should not have any spelling or grammatical errors, as this shows the admissions committee that you did not put your best effort into writing your essay.
That is not the impression you want to give. At this point, those same people you asked for feedback should also look for spelling and grammatical errors and correct them as necessary, but they must explicitly agree not to give substantive comments. Having as many people as you respect and trust review your essays as possible is a good idea because not only does this give you ample feedback to work with, but having as many pairs of eyes as possible ensures that no errors go unnoticed.
Use writing your personal essay not as another opportunity to fret about the stressful college application process, but rather as an opportunity to be creative, to reflect on your life experiences thus far, and to express yourself and get your story on paper. For more college essay writing tips and tricks, you can join Konversai—a knowledge-sharing platform that allows for live video conversations with people about topics that are meaningful to both of you. As a college applicant, you can use Konversai to connect with a current college student or anyone else who can give you advice on writing your essay or provide you with feedback on an essay draft. Konversai encourages users to be both providers and seekers of knowledge on as many topics as you wish. So once you have the stress of college applications out of the way, you can also create a provider listing for whatever you wrote your essay about. Knowledge providers have the option of charging for their time, so you can save up a bit before heading off to college. Start the adventure today with Konversai!
Sushma Sharma is Konversai’s Founder and CEO. She has degrees in law from Columbia University and University of Oxford. She was the Admissions In-Charge for a post-graduate law program at City University of Hong Kong, during which time she reviewed hundreds of applications each year for 6 years.
Pavita Singh is the Content Writer at Konversai. She is a recent graduate of Yale University, where she obtained her Master of Public Health in Social & Behavioral Sciences. She did her undergraduate degree at New York University, where she studied Gender & Sexuality Studies, Linguistics, and Child & Adolescent Mental Health.