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Brainstorming the College Application Essay, What to Avoid and How to Stand Out
For the last 10 years, the time I have been working with students on their personal statements, I have witnessed a clear move towards creative nonfiction. That is what the college application essay has become – a piece of experience snazzy enough to entertain, yet savvy enough to share lessons learned. If such a high bar is accomplished your main college essay is your direct line to the Admission Officers – as if you were in the room, selling your candidacy in a non-preachy but oh-so-convincing-manner.
The best essays are the most honest, descriptive and nuanced texts. Therefore, I advise 3 things all students should keep in mind when first approaching their essay.
Know the reader but then forget the reader: Your best bet is to write honestly, always showcasing your best self. Forget what you think the admission officers WANT to hear because that will be a trap to remain safe, unimaginative and like you’re selling out a little bit.
Check in with yourself: what’s your story in images? Here comes the brainstorming part - decide which formative experience, anecdote about your life, ritual or tradition you could describe with sensory driven language…basically I want to hear, smell, taste, feel and then see. The 1-2 anecdotes you pick should have a lot happening outside of your head. Can you capture snippets of conversation? Fun, colorful personalities in your life?
Avoid clichés: If you can google the phrase, it shouldn’t be in your paper. It’s not about winning or losing, Be the change you want see in the world, I’ve always wanted to study Engineering. Okay, the last one is not technically a cliche; however, what all of these phrases have in common is that they are so pervasive in personal statements you are relinquishing your power of making meaning to the reader. What I mean is – that these phrases are so commonplace that they mean something to everyone. So, admission officers can read into them their own values and principles and not yours.
For a guide to writing your own FIRE personal statement, check out my FREE, YES FREE template. Sign up for my mailing list and you will automatically receive the PDF.
FREE, FREE, FREE – I will continue with a bounty of awesomeness with a CollegeWeek Live chat for students and parents interested in learning more about the admissions process. Log on, ask questions or ghost and silently soak up some knowledge. Either way, I will be giving real time advice and you can all ask questions as we go along.
As students chew on their cuticles waiting for acceptance or rejection letters and as their Junior peers wait in the wings knowing it will soon be their turn, I urge both sets to consider this momentous milestone as both grand but also less critical than social pressure dictates. Applying to college, getting accepted to your ‘dream’ college and finally deciding on the right college with sound mind and heart is a draining process with tons of noise which could, if not careful, drown out your inner voice. Make sure you are actively participating in all steps of the process.
Our crossroads season, April – July, reminds me of the contrasting personal liberties ideology, I believe coined by Immanuel Kant, but don’t quote me. Recently I came across the phrase twice. In a more cynical deployment in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and then in an inspiring podcast, Shane Parrish’s The Knowledge Project, “Naval Ravikant on Reading, Happiness, Systems of Decision Making, Habits, Radical Honesty”. It’s a two hour listen which I did in three sittings but completely worth it. (Ravikant is CEO and co-founder of Angel’s List and simply put an individual who seems to have the life balance thing down.)
Back to Freedom To…Freedom From – students, as you make your choices, think about what you want to do with your newfound freedom, who you want to be in college, how you want to grow and evolve, and then what you want freedom from…to not do, to get away from, to change…knowing both sets can have positive and negative consequences. Happy Waiting!
You may think your social media pages are college ready but are they admission officers ready? While waiting for those acceptance letters to roll in, consider filtering your social media footprint.
Filter your social media. Perhaps ask an adult to look through your social media and see if there is anything you should remove. Although your social media is not part of your application packet, it is out there and you want to make sure if an admission officer stumbles onto your page(s), they will they see someone who would represent their school with integrity.
As a rule of thumb, THINK BEFORE YOUR POST/ TWEET/ SNAP. Remember that anything and everything you share online will remain out there in some form or fashion.
Here's a 2013 NYT article that may be of interest "They Loved Your GPA Then They Saw Your Tweets"
Here are a few things to do while waiting for your college acceptance...
Keep up with your courses. This is not the time for SENIORITIS. Colleges receive your final transcripts. It is important that you maintain your grades, activities; keep up your overall dedication.
Get your finances in order. Consider applying for scholarships, make sure FAFSA is complete since schools look to that information for need based but also some merit based awards.
Contact but don’t overwhelm your top schools. You may find contradictory information on this topic; however, my recommendation is to follow up with your top schools (via email is best). Start a thoughtful conversation with the regional admissions rep. Ask questions about the school, or send an updated activities list or even an extra letter of recommendation. Don’t overwhelm them with tedious questions. For most institutions, you can track your application online, but do share with them your genuine interest.
In 150 words or less, Georgia Tech asks you to write on one of three prompts. My favorite is the following option: We challenge our students to "be comfortable being uncomfortable". Tell us about a time in high school that you felt outside of your comfort zone and the resolution.
Consider a lively, fun, could be a bit self deprecating anecdote that SHOWS this. Then explain how the anecdote/ your experience was thriving in discomfort. Happy Writing!
Welcome students and parents to Musings, the blog and to Write Your Acceptance!
My name is Josie Urbistondo. You can read more about my bio and experience on the Meet Josie tab, but I wanted to say thank you for visiting and allowing me to be part of your college application journey. It can be a daunting and overwhelming process, but getting organized can de-stress your life and transform your experience into an exciting process of self-reflection, inspiration and growth. I look forward to sharing a few tips and techniques...and perhaps even working together. Any questions, I am here.