College Essays in the Spring

While Junior’s heads are stuck in spring break plans, prom dresses and upcoming AP and IB exams, counselors have begun seminars to get them thinking about college application plans. Not only is it important to get recommendation letter requests out, but it also can’t hurt to be thinking about essay plans. Drafts of the new common application questions are out now. Take a few minutes to read the questions and brainstorm some possible responses.

However, at the beginning of the process, I would suggest to stay away from answering the questions. Using an empty notebook or your word processor, make some lists about things that set you apart. Recall some interesting events from your recent past. Think about what you want to sell about yourself. Don’t self-edit. Instead, just scribble out some lists of potentials. Share with mom or dad. Then put the list away until July, with perhaps one or two return visits to add to your earlier thoughts.

My advice to juniors planning to apply to multiple four-year schools, both public and private, is to plan to write at least four different essays. The first one written will be absolute drivel, and will be easy to plant with your tomatoes in the backyard. The second one may be slightly improved, and you’ll be able to work with it. By the third and fourth, you’ll be on a roll and will be writing on topics and with material that colleges will care about. With three really good essays, you’ll have one for the central Common Application question and two others for the supplemental applications. You should prepare have the malleability to move those between the 250-300 word count and the 50-100 count.

Occasionally, I work with students who decided that the college search process means applying to all schools on the East coast, something in Texas and one school in California. If this describes your own college plans, double the amounts I’ve laid out above.

And, before you get writing, look at some of my earlier posts about the essay to both save yourself some pain in rewriting and to get started on the right foot.





Mine are rattlesnakes. Their yellowish-brown, curling, muscular forms. The image of them rearing to strike. Their sound of dry leaves running over stone. Completely unsettling. A deep fear.

What’s unsettling and fearful for you? When did you confront this? What happened? How did you find equilibrium and safety after?

I thought of rattlesnakes and fears while reading a writing exercise from editor Sherry Ellis’s Now Write! and thought that I might make some suggests that play off of this exercise for your application essay.

The rattlesnake exercise comes to us from writer Michelle Brooks. A friend found a rattlesnake one night in a dresser drawer getting a t-shirt for bed. She attempted to dispatch the snake with a shotgun, missed, destroyed the dresser, and saw the snake slithering off, not to be found. It so unsettled the friend that she had trouble sleeping for the next week wondering where the serpent had got off to.

Brooks suggests that writers think of their own metaphorical rattlesnakes, particular objects that force us to be unsettled. In a narrative, be it fiction or non-fiction, focus the arc of the story around some object that forces the narrator to stop in the tracks and reevaluate his or her situation.

Playing off of yesterday’s blog where I began to discuss the need for finding personal focus, I suggest that you start by making a list of objects and experiences that are unsettling, unnerving, fearful and make you break out in the cold sweat. Then, from the list, think about writing a story of the time that you dealt with this object, and most importantly forced yourself into evaluation of yourself because of it.

Good luck with the snake wrangling!

Common Application–First Essay Question


With the Common Application now out online and this year’s questions posted, I thought that I might discuss how to approach some of these questions.

The first question asks you to “Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.” In my experience, this is the most common question in college applications, the one most applicants can get a pretty good working essay out of, and probably the one with the most danger to it. It might look easy, but it’s easy to go astray.

The part that’s the most straightforward is the part of the question that asks to write about yourself. Finding something that happened to you might require some brainstorming and some gray matter to the grindstone, but usually you get it: a summer job, a trip, a visit, an encounter, a choice made. While I’m general here, finding these experiences in the context of your own life will come. Be as specific as you can: a time, a place, a person. Don’t try to cram it all in. Instead, the focus is on one thing. Tell us the story of this one thing.

Here’s several place where students can make some mistakes:

  1. You find something meaningful and that has had impact, but isn’t really about you. I’ve seen essays reflecting on a sister’s drug use, on the death of a beloved grandparent, the loss of a sibling. All of these are important and meaningful topics, but frankly, they don’t always show the student writer. To do well at this essay, your topic and your life event has to be an event that you were front and center in as an active participant and that shows something about your personality, character and individuality.Also, the above mentioned danger topics also draw a certain amount of pity to a candidate and can feel manipulative to the readers as such. Get into college by showing you and not trying to get an admissions officer to feel bad for you.
  2. There’s a second part of the question that is easy to skip over. It’s that first word, “Evaluate.” This means that they want to see that you’ve figured out what you’ve gained from the experience. What insights or lessons or perceptions have you gained. Again, it doesn’t need to be some Siddartha-esque awaking or Joycean epiphany. Instead, just say what you didn’t know before the experience.
  3. Make sure the experiences are unique. Too often students write about playing soccer, participating in band, or the coach that made them do 1,000 push-ups. It’s hard to find that independent thing about you, but the college essay is showing how you’re different rather than the same.

In the next few days, I’ll share an essay or two that shows some of successful ways other students of mine have gone at this question. Before then, sit down and brainstorm a list of some potential topics that might help you respond to this question.

Seniors–Get out there!


It’s summer. Life is good. No homework. No required reading. No project to procrastinate on.

Junior year was good. You kept your grades up. Took advantage of your school’s college-level offerings. Did some work on those SAT vocabulary words. Did some college searches. You know that the Common Application is going to be posted any time. No worries!

What are you going to write your college essay on? The time you coached soccer to first graders when you were a freshman? Your super cool Spanish class trip to Costa Rica? The concert in band you got to play the National Anthem?

Please don’t get me wrong. These are all great experiences; however, for writing the topic of the college admissions essay, not so much. Lots of high school students have these experiences. One of the first lessons of a good application is that it shows the individualistic nature of the student. Don’t write about something that everyone else has done. Find something different.

When I urge my students to do this, they often push back and say, “I can’t climb Mt. Everest.” Unfortunately, my advice gets taken too literally. Of course, you can’t climb Everest, solve the assassination of JFK or discover some lost civilization in the jungles of Ecuador. The key is not the size but the unique quality of the experience, and most importantly, its ties to you and who you are.

My advice is to use August to do find such an experience:

  1. Take a trip someplace interesting. Again, you probably want to safari in Africa, but can’t afford to. So, find someplace local like a National Historic site, a state park, a state historic site. If you live in the Rochester area, like I do, try the National Women’s Hall of Fame or Mt. Hope Cemetery, or Ganandagan.
  2. See if you can spend a day at a business that has something to do with your major. Find out what a day in the life of your profession looks like.
  3. Visit a show at the local art gallery or museum. The Memorial Art Gallery has an exhibit on right now of Renaissance art.
  4. Try a sport or activity that you haven’t. Go sailing. Take a hike.
  5. Colleges and bookstores (more likely in the summer time than the colleges) often have interesting speakers. Go see someone speaking on a topic of personal, local or national interest.

Once you come back from any of these trips, take some notes. Write down physical details you remember. What observations did you have? Try to capture the sights, sounds, smells of your experience. What images stand out for you? Any interesting conversations? What’d you get out of your trip? What were your overall impressions? What surprised or shocked you?

Because essays need to be narrative and show the experience and you, these details can be the foundation for an interesting piece of writing about you and something you did to reveal something about yourself.

Get out there.