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The College Essay: What to Write About

The college essay can be an intimating piece of writing to tackle. Though most students when asked say that they would rather have a choice on what to write for an assignment, when given a beautiful piece of blank white paper, many of them stare just as blankly back at it. So here are some tips:

1. Don't think of this like it's a five paragraph essay or standard high school paper. It's not, and it shouldn't be. This is the one camera-like tool colleges use to get a picture of who you are, and it must do something the other parts of your application cannot. That means that this isn't the place for merely listing and explaining. Your essay should be a narrative.

2. A narrative tells a story or a series of stories. If you don't see yourself as a story-teller, think again. What do you do with your friends in the halls? Over texts? At holidays? You tell stories--some historical, some comical, some better-not-told, but you tell them nonetheless. Why? Because they are illustrations. You want to show the listeners just how sweet and goofy your mom is--she still puts notes in your lunch, gives you a hug when you come in the door, and blows you a kiss when you pull out of the driveway--only one time your boyfriend thought the kiss was for him, and that was awkward. You'll need to be intentional and careful about the stories you tell, but based on the prompt the essay gives (Describe a person who has significantly impacted you, Recall an event that changed your life, Discuss a current event that has changed the way you view your world), consider some stories that you can use to answer the question. For instance, who was that special person and what are the most vivid memories you have of him or her? As a note, sometimes the most everyday or ordinary stories offer the best space for extracting meaning.

3. Look for meaning. Your college admissions reader will ALWAYS want to know the "so what." Just like an analysis essay, you need to interpret your story for the reader and connect that interpretation to the prompt (whether it is directly stated in the prompt or not--assume it).

In summary, when considering a prompt, always be sure you are answering the question. But also be sure you are showing (not just five-paragraph-telling) the answer. It will allow the reader to see the world from your point of view, and it will help the reader to answer the ever-burning question: Does this student belong here?

They want to know you, not see a performance. So give them the chance.