Colleges aren’t asking much of you — just to write what is supposed to be the BEST ESSAY YOU HAVE EVER WRITTEN. Perhaps I’m over-dramatizing, but nevertheless, writing a college essay may be more important than you think. Your essays will not solely determine your admission to any one school, but admissions officers do actually read them and seriously consider the quality of your writing and the authenticity of your message when deciding your fate. If you’re looking to set yourself apart in a positive way, mediocrity won’t cut it.
Stressed out yet?
The process of representing yourself while writing a college essay is inherently stressful. It’s in your best interest to mitigate the stressors that could crop up as you write. Here are six factors that are sure to make the college essay experience more stressful than it has to be:
You already know to avoid this pitfall (and you’ve probably experienced already the consequences of procrastination at some point in your life). Scheduling ample time to write a strong piece is essential. College admission essays should not be single-session drafts that you pump out quickly and then submit. Summer is the perfect time to get started.
Good writing is a process, which means that it will require multiple steps, and each one will need your dedicated, careful attention. For example, it will be important for you to carve out unencumbered time from your schedule so that you can focus fully on this project from start to finish. That means giving deliberate attention to your brainstorming, drafting, revising, and editing, although you should also allow yourself brief breaks periodically to clear your head.
Remember, it’s best to complete your primary personal statement (likely the Common App essay) before senior year starts. Then in September you can say to your friends, “Oh, that? I already finished that.”
2. Starting without planning
Once you settle on the essay topic, sit down and sketch out the whole piece. Sure, things may change as you draft your essay, but you will feel much more confident and competent if you know where you’re headed. Outlining is likely the best strategy here.
For example, when I decided to write this blog entry, I didn’t just jump in and write about procrastination without contemplating the other five stressors for this list. Once I identified all six items on my list, I jotted down a few notes about each and had a better understanding of what my writing piece would look like as a whole. Planning the writing process makes the drafting process much less painful and is more likely to produce a good result.
3. Letting too many cooks in the kitchen
A former student once told me: “I’ll have my mom, my dad, my guidance counselor, my English teacher, my tutor, my sister (who went to Princeton), and my uncle (who is a college professor) look at my essay!” Wow! Sounds like she had a great support network to aid her in crafting the perfect essay, right?
Turns out that not only did she want never to write an essay again, but she also felt responsible for pitting her friends and family members against one another. You see, you may have many people in your life who can provide great writing guidance; however, seeking out too many tips will probably lead to confusion—in you and in the essay. Two individuals can offer prudent pieces of advice, but the ideas are likely to be different from each other and therefore contradictory.
Which is better?
Probably neither, but you will stress yourself out trying to judge which advice is best. I suggest that you select two—only two—adults to be your college essay helpers, and make sure one of them isn’t a family member. It’s to your advantage if the person helping you write hasn’t known you for the last 17 years. He or she will have to rely more on your writing to understand you and your message, which is what the admissions officer will have to do too.
4. Adopting someone else’s voice
When receiving guidance on a college essay, you may be tempted to commandeer your helper’s voice. However, in the words of Shakespeare, “to thine own self be true.” It’s important to preserve your own voice when writing a college essay—it’s your voice the admission officers really want to see (that is, hear).
This can be tricky as adults will often want to help you rephrase sentences or even whole paragraphs. Often, an essay helper will attempt to articulate what you want to write, but it’s smart to stick with wording that feels comfortable to you. And by staying true to your voice, you will avoid phrasing that sounds inauthentic or pretentious.
5. Becoming obsessed with originality
Yes, when writing a college essay you need to be memorable. But, it also needs to be genuine. Be yourself. (It’s a cliché for a reason.) If you’re funny, be funny. If you’re academic, be academic. If you’re peppy, be peppy. But avoid gimmicks. Techniques that work naturally for some writers may not work well for you or your particular topic.
Humor isn’t everyone’s forte and isn’t always appropriate. Not everyone is a mini-college professor about to publish a series of academic journal entries. Suspense works well in thriller novels but not always in college essays. Your essay doesn’t need to have everything, and you don’t have to be someone you’re not. Rather, let your honesty about your interests and passions set you apart from the others.
6. Reading your friends’ essays
Just don’t do it. Too many negative consequences outweigh any potential benefit you may gain from reading another student’s college essay. For example, you may think it’s better than yours, or you may subconsciously (or consciously) “adopt” some of your friend’s unique ideas or language.
Conversely, sharing your essay with friends may make them feel inferior or cause them to question their own ideas. Sure, discuss your essay topics with friends, but keep it general. The college admissions process is often highly emotional and should, in some ways, be a private endeavor.
Writing a college essay is just one part of the larger college admissions process. There’s no strategy to avoid stress completely, but a high degree of stress is preventable. Looking ahead to college should be an exciting time! So be responsible, and take the right steps to set yourself up for success. And good luck on writing the BEST ESSAY YOU HAVE EVER WRITTEN!
Want to learn more? Here are 10 steps for writing a college essay that gets noticed!