The College Admissions Essay: First, Write for Yourself

This year, some 2 million people will enroll for the first time in institutions of higher education, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. If you are one of them, you can expect to do a lot of writing, more writing than you may have done up to this time in your life. The Common Application requires at least one essay, and if you plan to apply to a number of public and private colleges, they will each have their own additional required essays and short answers.

You may be thinking of your college essays instrumentally, as a hurdle you must jump to win an acceptance to an elite school. Guaranteed housing, and perhaps merit money, often reward a memorable essay, too. These are the potential material benefits of a well-honed college application essay, but they are incidental to a larger and more significant project, the fashioning of your self.

You may also be worried about tailoring your essays to the institutions to which you are applying. This is important. When a piece of writing is successful, it communicates a message to a reader. But when you perform for a committee whose admissions criteria will never be wholly transparent or fair, you strive to hit a moving target. Writing what you think the readers want to hear, you neglect to articulate who you are outside of the hot light of judgment. Before you write for the ad coms, try writing for yourself.

Joan Didion (b 1934), author of fifteen critically acclaimed books, explains: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” Didion doesn’t write to record an essay that has already fully formed in her head; she writes to focus her attention, to make sense of her desires, and to address questions whose answers would otherwise elude her.

This application season, write to discover what matters to you and why. Don’t lose this valuable opportunity to put your dreams into words, to explain how you came to dream your dreams, and why they will make a difference in our big, complicated world. Welcome the chance to reflect on where you’ve been and where you want to go.

Where to start? Try the following exercise, formulated by my colleague Dr. Mary Stroud, lecturer in Stanford University’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric. She uses this prompt to help Stanford students jumpstart personal narratives (yes, you will need to continue to produce these types of essays!):

  • Generate as many labels as you can that describe who you are: for example, guitarist, leader, organizer, actor, biologist, entrepreneur. Write freely, without censoring yourself.
  • Now think about how you are, which will get at more of your personality. Add an adjective to each of your labels to give them more depth: classical guitarist, passionate leader, community organizer, comic actor, plant biologist, social entrepreneur.
  • More precise labels will give you more to argue. If you claim you’re a plant biologist, you will want to show your reader how you came to understand yourself this way. Pick one of the labels you generated during your brainstorm, and tell the story of a specific moment, interaction, or event that made this identity clear to you.
  • Reread the story and reflect on what it suggests about where you might be headed. As a plant biologist, for example, do you hope to eventually work in food policy, agribusiness, or academia? (These essays are not contracts! You’re writing to explore possibility.)
  • If you like the exercise, repeat it using another label and then a third. You will develop a multi-faceted self-portrait that should help you see connections between your varied skills and interests. You will also generate language you can use in response to specific prompts and stories to share in interviews.

You may be unaccustomed to self-reflection and may even find it uncomfortable. Confront the discomfort by reading your work out loud. Listen to your words. Have you brought a dimension of yourself into clearer focus? If yes, the process of applying to college will have already changed you, will have already been a gift. If not, don’t be afraid to revise vigorously or to start again.

You may choose to share your writing with readers who can let you know if a term needs to be defined, a line of reasoning clarified, or further evidence supplied. But be wary of accommodating every demand and need of your readers. All final edits should be yours. And if your thoughts return again to an admissions committee whose final, idiosyncratic decision you cannot fully anticipate, remember that you are applying to colleges that you could see yourself attending, ideally because the college’s values align with yours and its programs with your ambitions. For example, if community service has been important to you, your essays will likely address why, and the colleges you are applying to will likewise have a strong service ethic. The admissions officers will see you seeing yourself contributing to their campus.

Approaching your application essays this way will mean the inevitable rejections will matter less, and the acceptances will open doors to realize anew the self you’ve already begun to write.

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