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Tips for Writing Your College Essay
Posted by Kim Struglinski on Monday, October 9, 2017
When I speak with students about the components of an application to Vanderbilt, I always save the personal essay for last. This is partly because it is my favorite part of the application to read, but also because I know this is often the most dreaded part of the application process. I know, I know: writing about yourself is hard. Condensing an entire life’s experience into less than 1000 words is a tough task. But it is pivotal in helping colleges get to know you through the application process. The essay is an important component of the application that helps us understand what our applicants would contribute to our campus community. Here are a few of the tips I always share with students when talking about the essay. You can also read a few more tips from previous blog posts(here and here) if you would like some additional advice.
- Write like you speak. Here’s my favorite trick when I’ve got writer’s block: turn on the recording device on my phone, and just start talking. I actually use voice memos in my car when I have a really profound thought (or a to do list I need to record), so find your happy place and start recording. Maybe inspiration always seems to strike when you’re walking your dog, or on the bus to school. Make notes where and when you can so that you can capture those organic thoughts for later. This also means you should use words and phrases that you would actually use in everyday conversation. If you are someone who uses the word indubitably all the time, then by all means, go for it. But if not, then maybe you should steer clear. The most meaningful essays are those where I feel like the student is sitting next to me, just talking to me.
- Building on that idea: What should we know about you that we don’t already know? Your essay is the only piece of your application that you have complete control over at this moment. Your academic record is largely set, and your activities outside the classroom have been building upon one another over the last few years. So what else do we need to know? Why would our campus be a better place with you around? The answer to that question is different for every student, so help us understand what unique experiences and perspectives you would bring to our campus.
- Make sure it’s about you. If we threw your essay in with everyone’s in your senior class, your friends, teachers, and parents should be able to tell us which one was yours. Between what you write about and how you write your essay, it should scream “you” and ooze your personality. That also means that you need to write about yourself. I know – that can be hard! But the whole point of submitting this application is to help us understand why you would be a great fit for Vanderbilt, so make sure you are communicating that. If you tell us about why your mom or cousin or teacher inspire you, that’s great, but that also makes us want to admit them to Vanderbilt. It is totally fine to write about the impact others have had on you, but make sure you close the loop and help us understand why that impact affects you – not your mom/cousin/teacher!
- Use the application as a way for us to get to know you. This last piece of advice is a bit broader than the essay alone, but the essay is one component here. Use the entirety of your application, from your transcript and letters of recommendation to your essay and extracurricular activity chart, to help us get a complete picture of who you are. If you are contemplating submitting supplemental materials – from artwork and recordings to additional writing samples – think about how you can tell us about those experiences through the components of the application you are required to complete. There is a lot of space to provide information to us, so make sure you use all of it. Is there something else that is important for us to keep in mind? There is even a spot for that, in the “Additional Information” section. Yes, the various application components ask for specific information, but make sure the information you provide in those components represents you through and through.
There is no one single way to write a college essay, and no perfect topic that works for every student. We received upwards of 31,000 applications last year, which means there were upwards of 31,000 different topics and types of essays. Make your essay your own, and help us learn more about who you are. Happy writing!
Posted in Application Process, General Information, The College Essay and tagged: college applications, college essay, writing, writing your college essay
Step 2: Decide how you want to start your essay.
Instead of a paragraph describing what you do, you could use a tipping point in your journey to lead the discussion of the activity’s influence on you.
Weak example:In high school, I participated in model congress. It was very difficult for me at first, because I am not a great public speaker and don’t know much about politics. However, after a lot of research and many unimpressive performances at tournaments, I finally was able to overcome this at the Yale Model Congress tournament in my junior year where I was awarded best delegate after a speech in a full session of over a hundred students about environmental regulations, which I am very passionate about.
Stronger example:“DECORUM!” A hush falls over the room with the sound of the gavel pounding against the desk. “Speakers for a two-minute speech in negation,” the chairman of our committee demands, looking out toward the hundreds of students dressed in Western business attire with their placards held high in the air. Mine meekly joins them.
“Senator Smith?” The chairman points the gavel directly at me and my face grows hot under the realization that I will have to give a speech in front of hundreds of more talented, better-spoken peers. When I arrive at the podium, I thumb the engraving that reads “Yale Model Congress 2016” and open my mouth. No sound comes out so I clear my throat twice.
“Senator Jones,” I start out weakly. “This proposed piece of legislation reminds me of my aunt’s chihuahua. All bark, no bite.” Scattered bouts of laughter erupt in the room. Subtle attempt at humor, check. “We all want to protect our environment, but this bill provides very little specifics, and the ones provided are a mere slap on the wrist for the huge corporations that pollute our rivers, lakes, air, and environment.”
You can clearly see how the beginnings of the two different essays differ in sentence structure, use of diction, imagery, and altogether effectiveness of displaying character and writing skills. Be careful to not go overboard with flowery language or fluff though; a 400-word limit requires you to be concise.
Your essay does not have to begin this way; you can start with a memory, a detailed description of an object or event you have built, or an excerpt of a speech or story you’ve penned. You have a lot of creative jurisdiction here, but the most important component to an introduction is the captivation of your audience.
Note: The stronger example weaved two different passions into one essay (model congress and environment conservation). You can definitely do this and it may lead to a stronger supplement, but be wary of trying to cram multiple unrelated extracurriculars into one essay. It will distract the reader from your message.