Here are some helpful tips that I already wrote down, and thought this would be a good place to re-post them! I hope they help. Get in touch if you have any questions.
1. Show the Admissions Office who you are. This is not a place to re-hash your resume. It's your place to tell the Admission Department something true about yourself that can't be found in your resume or test scores.
Think of college as a dinner party... The "party planners" want people there who represent all sorts of diverse interests--poets, scientists, dancers, what-have-you. But, all these people need to have some critical traits in common... They must be driven, passionate, positive, kind-hearted, responsible people.
So, use this essay to tell the Admissions Office that you're one of those cool cats who ought to be at this party! Imagine your future roommate will read it to see if they want to spend the next year with you!
2. SHOW the Admissions Office who you are. Remember "show, don't tell?" It means, don't tell us the moral of the story, simply show us how you changed as a person through an experience, by giving us examples. Tell us what you did differently, and we (smart readers) will come to our own realization that you learned a lesson. Or that you're a responsible/kind/dedicated young person thanks to your summer in Africa. When you want to talk about how your experience shaped you, and drive your point home by coming out and telling the reader why your essay is relevant to you, consider putting that towards the end.
3. Don't write about your summer in Africa. We've had enough of the "savior" cliché, in which you helped the poor and learned some cliché lesson from it. That's the essay you think you should write. Honestly, it's probably why you went to Africa to help the poor in the first place. And it's also why you're going about this all wrong.
Be AUTHENTIC and ORIGINAL. Tell the story only you can tell. Say something deeply personal and brave. That means brainstorming, like, 50 ideas. Ugh, I know.
4. Don't be a dick. I was talking to an admissions officer from a Top-10 school who read me an essay from a top applicant. This essay lost him his admission.
Why? He mentioned how he used to be a bully, but came around. His language was aggressive in the beginning to illustrate his point. Even though the essay was well-written and he redeemed his former "bully" self by the end, it left a bad taste in your mouth. He just didn't seem like the kind of person this admission officer wanted at her school, even if he's reformed.
So... remember you're asking to be let into a "dinner party" when you're applying to college--it's not the time to confess to past sins. Save that for your priest or therapist.
5. Write well. I'm not just talking about checking for spelling issues, and taking "Harvard" out of your Princeton essay. I mean--use figurative language, descriptions involving the 5 senses when appropriate, metaphor, etc... Read a chapter of your favorite literature before polishing your essay and make sure it's an engaging read! But don't over do it. Nothing's worse that the rotting stench of overwrought, verbose prose imposing itself on the page.
Lastly, and most importantly, make sure it's your voice in the essay. It's okay to be funny, blunt, sassy, or bold. As long as you're being real.
Should I write about COVID-19?
That depends. If Covid has truly made an impact on your world view and who you are, perhaps it's worth it. Many others will be writing Covid essays, and you want to make sure you stand out. Usually, speaking to something from your life that is unique to you is a good bet. But, let's talk about your options! This is a tough question to answer for everybody. Also, keep in mind that some schools give you a special place to write an extra blurb about Covid, apart from your regular essay.
There's more I want to say. I want to talk about how to tailor your application to the specific university you're applying to. How to show that you fit in with the school's culture. How to write supplemental essays. But nobody would read this post if it were longer, so stay tuned!