Brainstorming a College Application Essay

Brainstorming a College Application Essay

“All beginnings are difficult” – rabbinic maxim

What you need to communicate

How do you start writing a college application essay? Keep these things in mind:

  • Your job is to convince a college that you are a good fit for them. What is special about this college? Why do you want to go there? And what’s special about you? How are your abilities right for their program?
  • You need to do this in the format of answering a prompt. You may have a choice of prompts.
  • You’re on stage showing your stuff. What you say is important. So is how you say it.

If you’ve got some ideas, write them down. Make notes about what you want to say and how it fits together, but don’t worry about presentation yet. For now, just get your raw ideas onto paper.

Coming Up with Ideas

If you don’t have even raw ideas, consider these questions and make some notes about your thoughts:

  1. What do you want from college? You want to become a _____, for which you need a degree in ______. Or, if you don’t know what you want to do after college, how would you like to see the next four years unfold – what do you want to study, how do you imagine life outside of classes?
  2. Why have you selected this college? How do things specific to this college bring out the best in you and give you the best opportunity to take your life in a direction you want?
  3. What can you bring to the college that will be an asset to the institution? If your academic record is excellent, you’ve got a leg up. Cite it. But don’t get too detailed, because essay real estate is precious and your academic record can be found elsewhere in your application. Other strengths you may cite:
    • a willingness to work hard (Did you take all the toughest courses in high school while holding down an after-school job?),
    • a passion for inquiry (Do you devour books? Do you open up mechanical things to see how they work?),
    • a passion for creating things (art you have created, things you have written,  tangible things you have made),

There is more, I’m sure. List anything for which you have worked hard and you have something to show.

If you’ve gotten this far and you still don’t know what special thing(s) you can bring to the college of your choice, ask someone you trust – a friend, a family member, a teacher – what they appreciate about you. Ask for several suggestions and then choose the one (or ones) that best supports your case for being accepted.

Responding to a Prompt

You will need to write as a response to a prompt. If you have a choice of prompts, look for the one that gives you the best chance to present yourself in the way you want. Of the seven prompt options in the 2019 – 2020 common app, some ask for a story, one asks you to talk about yourself, and one lets you write whatever you choose.

An Example

Let’s get specific with an example of a good essay. On its website, Johns Hopkins University cites a couple of examples of effective essays. Consider the second one, “String Theory.” Notice the following things about this essay, things that contribute to its success:

  • It shows the applicant’s willingness to work hard, working at a bakery every weekend while going to school during the week;
  • It works in a bunch of achievements in music, chemistry, and calculus.
  • It shows a willingness to overcome a weakness. Any discussion of a weakness of yours can be risky, but this one seems pretty safe – I doubt that anyone was ever rejected from college for an inability to tie strings around boxes.
  • The essay itself is an example of excellent writing: It’s fun and easy to read, and it has a sense of consistency, always coming back to the string theory theme yet saying new things, things that showcase the applicant’s high school record.

Your essay will be different, of course, because you are you. What’s the same is that the essay can serve as a vehicle, explicitly or subtly, to communicate who you are.

Once You’re Started . . .

This post is about getting started. For advice on next steps for your essay, see this page. If you’ve found this useful and you want to see something on a different aspect of essay writing (for a college application or for something else), please reach out to me and I’ll post an answer if I can.

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