Advice on College Application Essay Writing

It's the time of the year again as millions of high school students are working furiously on their college applications. And it's hard to believe that it's been nine years since I applied to college. When I think on my application process, I have nothing but fond memories. I may be influenced by the fact that I was admitted into my dream school, and subsequently had the best four years of my life, during which I learned a lot, made lifelong friends, discovered my passions and laid the foundation to pursue them. But, I think the real reason I loved the process was because I learned much more about myself, and what I was seeking in my education for the next four years. By the time I arrived on campus a year later, I was more mature and better prepared for the college experience.

The college application process isn't about any one part of your application, but it's about the whole picture: test scores, GPA, extracurricular activities, awards, personal statement and interviews (if you have one). Therefore, no one aspect of your application is going to make or break it, but the personal statement is the first time you get to make an impression on the admissions committee about who you are beyond your scores, awards and activities. Because one essay will be a testament to your passions, strengths and character, it can be an important component of the application. Thus, it is worth spending some time to compose something that accurately represents you, and stands out against the backdrop of other applicants so that admissions officers remember you when they present you in front of the committee.

Finally, the college application can be a grueling process, and at times, it might seem like you will never finish, or that you may not get in anywhere. But ultimately, I know of no friends who did not love the school that they ultimately chose to attend, and I know of no friends who did not have a mind-blowing four years (with more positives than negatives), provided that they took advantage of the opportunities offered. And, it is with this hindsight that I wanted to write a short advice column, and share my college essays in hopes that I can assuage some of the stress during the process, and help other students out there around the country approaching this crossroad portray themselves in the best light possible, and take a first step in making their dreams come true.

Essay Tips:
  • Talk about you. This might sound silly, but is very important. Your personal statement is an opportunity to talk about you, so don't spend half the essay describing an event or some activity.
  • Find the personal connection. Make a list of the big events in your life (family, school, etc.), your hobbies, and anything else about which you feel passionate. Look through the list and find the one that stands out and try to describe why this particular event or activity matters to you.
  • Make a list of qualities to include in the essay. On the side, as you are writing, you should have a list of personal attributes, successes, etc., that you want included in the essay. Therefore, you should make sure that within whatever story you tell, you will include these aspects of you that you want presented to the admissions committee.
  • Show and don't tell. This is the classic advice given, but is harder than you might think. Remember that subtlety can do wonders, so use metaphors, and make allusions to your awards or activities, but don't repeat your resume -- there are other parts of the application to do that. Furthermore, use adjectives -- they are your best friends. They don't need to be big words, but they help create a milieu such that the admissions officer can experience what you are describing.
  • Take risks. Don't play it safe by writing a cliché-ridden essay; instead, find ways to tell your story from a unique angle. One of the best essays I have ever read was essentially a stream of consciousness, yet revealed a lot about the person's lived experience and passions, and really showed off the person's writing ability.
  • Don't be negative. I think this might be controversial, but I think that you need to be very careful if you want to write an essay critiquing something. It's a fine line to walk between something that's done well, and one that won't irk an admissions officer who disagrees with your premise. Therefore, I stand by presenting everything in a positive light, spin your negative experiences into learning ones -- ones after which you became stronger.
  • Make every word count. The essay is short enough as it is; so don't use up extra words when being more succinct could work. Ask yourself if each word is necessary after you have completed a draft and take out anything that doesn't have to be there.
  • Be true to yourself. Don't write anything that you don't believe is true about yourself (no matter what anyone else tells you). I would advise not showing any drafts to anyone until you are happy with it. Then find a close mentor (not your parents), and kindly ask them to read it, and then ask him or her whether or not the essay is an accurate representation of you, and what qualities they see in the essay. If they match your list, you are all set.

Sometimes, all it will take is one draft on the right topic; other times, it will take many drafts, edits, and re-edits. But don't rush to submit an essay until you are completely happy with it. Once you know that you have the best essay possible, then submit your application, and enjoy the remainder of the process. Enjoy the interviews when you get to meet alumni from the schools, and hopefully, good news (and lots of it) will come in your inbox or mailbox in the coming months. Regardless, when you finally commit to a school, you'll find that you love it, and the next four years will be some of the best of your life. Make the most out of it.

College Essay #1: Topic of your choice.

My Rolling Backpack

          Clackity, Clackity. As I walk down the hallway, I feel a slight kick on my backpack. "Which terminal are you going to?" I turn around to see my friend. I laugh, "Terminal E: English." I look at my watch -- almost time for class. I wave good-bye and rush into my English classroom. As I walk across the room to my seat, my teacher smiles, "Kevin, I always know when you're coming. It's nice to hear your rolling backpack from afar."
          Originally, my mother bought this backpack to lessen the stress on my back. Over the course of four years in high school, my rolling backpack has slowly come to represent me. My friends say that my backpack is part of me. No, I answer, it is more than just a part of me. It is me. We do everything together; we are like one (not that my backpack really has a choice). When two people or objects are together so long, similarities develop.
          I open my backpack and my friend sitting next to me asks, "Kevin, how much can you put in that backpack?" I pull out my oceanography textbook for my science team, plays for speech, current events articles for debate, math problem packets for math team, in addition to all the binders I keep for school subjects. I look at my friend, "Never too much. There's always room for more."
          After class is dismissed, I continue our class discussion with my friends about Albert Camus' The Plague. The plague ends many lives in the city of Oran, but gives many people an opportunity to find meaning and happiness in their lives. While we ponder the purpose of life, ten minutes fly by. With my backpack dragging rapidly behind me, I sprint to try to catch the bus.
          Of course, I miss the bus. I decide to walk the 4 miles home, which gives my rolling backpack and me ample quality bonding time. As I walk along the sidewalk, I notice the wheels on the cars as they roll past me. My backpack's wheels are just like the car wheels: traversing the congested hallways from class to class, climbing up and down the hills in the rain and crossing over snow-covered roads, as a true all-terrain vehicle does.
          As I travel with my "little all-terrain vehicle," I begin to sing, "no mountain too high, no valley too low." I smile as I realize that it is through hiking these mountains of life with my rolling backpack that I have tried to discover my true colors. Whether in stormy weather or in sunshine, I will tackle all obstacles just as my rolling backpack does, with perseverance and an open mind, taking myself from one goal to the next.
          When I ascend to the crest of yet another hill on the way home, I take a quick glance at my backpack: We're doing just fine. I know that we'll make it over the hill and reach home -- and beyond. I hear my backpack's familiar noise. Vrrrm!

College Essay #2: Describe a setback that you have faced. How did you resolve it? How did the outcome affect you? If something similar happened in the future, how would you react?

Finding My Hoops

          "Kevin, throw it! Throw it! You can do it!" My friends yelled amidst a tight and stressful basketball game. I saw the hoop in front of me. I knew what I needed to do. This one shot could help my team. I threw and I watched as my ball missed by more 4 feet under the hoop. Yes, that was the way it was with most of my endeavors in sports as a young boy in elementary school. I dreaded gym class the most. No matter what activity, I would undoubtedly learn to make a fool out of myself. I tried hard, but somehow my height always put me at a disadvantage. When we played basketball, I missed the hoop. When we played volleyball, the ball sailed over my head (even when I jumped). I was just too short.
          My height brought my displeasure not only in gym class; it also haunted me everywhere I went. I still remember when we went to Disneyland in kindergarten. "I'm sorry, your son is still several inches shorter than the minimum height for this ride," I'd hear over and over again. As a little kid, I pouted when I was not allowed to do things I wanted and especially when anyone mentioned it was because I was "short." I decided that one day I would become a big giant, like Yao Ming.
          By the time I reached middle school, I was still Kevin: shortest one in the class. Now, I had given up being unhappy about my short stature. Instead, I just smiled when everyone asked after summer, "Kevin, did you get shorter over the summer?" But it was during gym class that I discovered how I could become the tallest in the class. One spring day, my teacher introduced a new game to the class: badminton. I stepped onto the court with my racket nervously and looked up to find the tallest person in my class standing on the other side of the net. The teacher had explained that badminton was not just a game about power and height, but it was also about strategy. Even so, I was still unsure of my abilities. But as we began to play, I found myself becoming one with my racket. I placed those shots down the lines and in the corners, moved my opponents side-to-side and of course effectively used those "drop-shots." And to the surprise of many classmates and the teacher, I came out victorious.
          Instead of my old promises to become the tallest person ever, I made a new promise to myself that day: that no matter what, I would always find ways to balance my weaknesses. I may not be as tall as Yao Ming, but that doesn't mean that I cannot also touch those hoops of life. Yao Ming can jump, but I can stand on a very tall ladder, with the many rungs I have climbed, and touch the same hoop and maybe reach even higher.

Here's the thing, my essays are hardly perfect; in fact, reading some of these sentences makes me cringe. That is, of course, what happens when you read your writing years later. But, when I read these, I see the qualities that I still possess, and they are the ones that made me who I am today.

Best of luck on your own journey to find yourself, and I hope this column helps in some way.