That is the question that one of the new essay prompts on our Common Application asks. There are five open-ended essay prompts and each one is open ended enough to return thousands of creative answers from new applicants. Since these prompts were released on Dean J’s Admissions Blog last week, everybody around Peabody is buzzing about them. (Follow the link to her blog right here: http://uvaapplication.blogspot.com/!) Our summer intern staff was sitting around in our lounge and we started chatting about the essays while recalling our own experiences writing college essays. It turned into a conversation that I have titled “What I Wish I Knew When I Was Writing My College Essays.”
I remember my college application days being a very tense period. I viewed the college essay as a miserable undertaking. It was not the task that I dreaded, because I enjoyed writing and still do. What bothered me was that everyone had an opinion about how I should write my college essays. Everyone except for me. To save you some of the stress, strain, and sickness that I endured when starting my college essays, I have transcribed sections of our “What I Wish I Knew” conversation. I imagine that some of these collected tidbits of wisdom may be helpful, some may be useless, and some may be contradictory because everyone has their own writing style. Here’s our student perspective on how to approach a college essay:
Zoey: I wish I had known not to stress about writing what schools want to read. There's a perception that everyone needs to tell a heart-wrenching story about their experience with an almost-terminal disease or poverty or death. I think instead, students should just focus on giving an honest representation of themselves, whether that involves your struggle being raised by wolves or not.
Beth: Don't overthink it. The point of an essay is to let people know who you are. It defeats the purpose to write about what you think the Admissions team wants to hear.
Zoey: Just talking about something you really care about is going to go further than forcing out what you think fits the prescription of a winning essay. Remember that the prescription essay does not exist.
Ryan: I wish I had known to stand out. And you stand out by expressing your personality. Don't write what you think the Admissions team wants to hear. Whatever you want, whatever you like to talk about.
Carol: Write about what you love and who you are and it will shine through your essay to the reader. If you try to force an essay about a topic you know nothing about it will show.
Sydney: I wish someone had made me start writing sooner. I made plans to start my college applications over the summer when I had nothing to focus on except those essay prompts. Even after that planning, I still wrote and edited and proofread my essays until the day applications were due.
Zoey: If the essay topics are already up, WRITE. As hard as it is to force yourself to do anything school-related over the summer, it's even harder to put enough thought into your essays when you also have three senior projects to work on at the same time.
Carol: I wish someone had told me not to panic. Make sure you stay calm and write about yourself and what you have learned these past few years of high school. Have fun!
Paul: Don't let someone tell you what topic to write about. Similarly, don't let someone tell you that your topic is a bad topic. If you like that topic and you think you can write a good, engaging essay about it, then you should write about it. It could be about marshmallows... it really doesn't matter as long as you show who you are through that topic.
Sydney: Many people write about someone who had a huge impact on their life, whether it is someone who inspired them to apply somewhere in particular or someone who inspired them to study something in particular. When you are writing about that someone, whether it be your grandfather or your dog, keep in mind that the Admissions team wants to know you. They are not considering your grandfather or your dog for admission into UVA, they're considering you. Don't fall into that trap. Make sure if you are using a story about someone or some thing or some place, you use that as a vehicle to talk about you. That's who we are all trying to get to know.
Alexis: I try to grab their attention in a way that is not generic. I like to start with a surprise because it's better. If you confuse me in the first line, I always keep reading because I want to find out what your point is.
Carol: Write about a flash moment or revelation or a specific moment in time. Not a narrative or a summary of your life. A shorter story will allow for more detail and more information to come across.
Zoey: Lastly, it's important to talk about yourself. It seems obvious, but it's easy to end up talking all about that one coach who inspired you and never talk about exactly how you applied that in your life. It's fine to talk about events and people, but always bring it back to you.
Alex: I don’t have any advice to give for essays… I just kind of nailed it.