Feeling the Pressure? Build a Powerful Essay from Your Life Experiences


Are you wasting time blaming yourself for not finishing your essays over the summer? Bemoaning the fact that the Common Application no longer lets you write about a topic of your choice? Dreading the thought of cranking out another supplemental essay? If you are still searching for the “best” topics and reading hundreds of “greatest” college essays in search of inspiration, you can put those essays away. Their authors undertook a difficult, but not insurmountable task—they surveyed their lives, focused on experiences that were meaningful to them, and wrote about those experiences in a clear, interesting, genuine way. This same approach will enable you, as well, to write a good college essay.

 Here are a few do’s and don’ts:

 Most college essay writers are advised to avoid writing about topics that admissions officers have seen many times before. This includes your travels, a laundry list of your accomplishments, important people in your life (especially if they are dead), and winning (or losing) sports activities. However, these probably are the same topics that come to mind when you consider essay ideas. So, it’s worth taking the time to figure out how these potentially time-worn topics can be shaped into good essays.

 If, during your travels, you met a person who you can colorfully describe, or you had a meaningful experience that you can vividly bring to life and you can connect that to your goals, your life in high school or your plans for college or career, then you have the foundation for a good essay. Similarly, if you choose to highlight an accomplishment, let the reader know how much effort it took, and what the achievement means to you, your family, community or school.

 For example, one of my students wrote about how he used sports to deal with his grief after the death of his pet. As I started to read his essay, I feared the worst: sports (potentially trite), death (potentially depressing) and a pet (potentially boring and trite and depressing). But, he combined all of these elements in a convincing, engaging way that made the reader sympathize with him, cheer for him, and, understand his struggle. This writer ultimately was admitted to a very selective school. Another student transformed a “travelogue” essay about his trips to Africa into a compelling story about how he helped raise funds for a rural school in that country. This author also was admitted to a competitive school.

 Finally, even if you’ve chosen a conventional topic, a well organized essay that tells an interesting story about you as an individual should impress admissions officers. So, although time is short, try to work on the essay for at least a week. Resist the urge to finish it over a weekend. Don’t convince yourself that writing under pressure will boost your creativity and writing skill.  Once you’ve decided on a topic, write a draft. Then revise the draft. Discuss your ideas with someone who knows you well. Then, revise your draft again if necessary. Start writing. Write some more. Edit. Edit some more. Read it aloud to yourself. Then, read it aloud to someone else. Change it and then, if time permits, put it away for a day or two. After a few days, give it a final read through and polish it. Don’t hesitate to revise it again if you can improve it. Then, send it off, and begin thinking about how you can rework it for other schools.