Start your essays NOW!
Summer breaks are upon us! My consistent advice to students is to start their essays over the summer. Of course most do not; most of us are procrastinators, but success in the college application process takes discipline, and requires students to change some deeply ingrained habits that support laziness.
There are two important reasons to change weak writing habits: First, there is a LOT of writing ahead – each application essays will require a minimum of four drafts before submission. And students who apply to 8 colleges, are looking at around 17-20 essays, (MBA applicants to 3 programs average around 10 essays). The more comfortable you are with the writing process, the easier it will be to get through all of this with success. Second, being comfortable with writing is a valuable life skill and will help you get the most out of your higher education experience.
So how to begin? Many people think an essays needs to emerge fully formed and perfected in the first draft. This couldn’t be further from the truth – in fact application essays have to be developed through a writing process. A process that starts with brainstorming, jotting down interesting ideas, exploring the relevance of experiences through journaling and sometimes reading examples of other’s work for inspiration. Below is a simplistic breakdown of how to start this process so that you have enough thoughtful material by the time your essay needs to be submitted.
Journaling – Whether you choose to record your feelings and reactions to the day’s events or simply maintain a basic log of activities, keeping a journal helps remind you of what has happened in your life and how you felt about it. When essay prompts come up, looking back at your journal can help you identify topics. More broadly, keeping a journal promotes a habit of writing and gives you practice, and practice makes perfect – the more you write, the better you are at it.
Outlining – Once you know the essay questions (See Common Application essay prompts below, most business school essay topics and undergrad supplements are available around Aug to Sept 2013) sit down and start brainstorming different answers. Once you have the answers written, go back to each one and ask the “so what?” question. For example, take the first prompt below – let’s say your answer is “My father died when I was 10 years old”. That fact does not say enough, you must go on and answer “so, what did that teach me? So, what kind of person am I because of it? So, what qualities have I developed as a result?” Answering the “so what” questions will bring out the significance of your answer and help the reader get the right point from your essay.
Organizing – Once you have considered experiences in your journal and fleshed out the “so what?” questions, you need to organize the story in a comprehensible way. You can organize the story chronologically, but often it is better to start with the main point – e.g. describe what happened to you, or state what characteristic you have developed, then go on to explain how it happened. Good organization tells the reader what to expect as they continue through your essay. There should never be a chance for your reader to say “why are you telling me this?” The point of your story should flow logically and be led by your organization.
I could go on and on giving writing advice that is far beyond the scope of this column, but the main principles I suggested above will help you practice, think and communicate so that your essays are as powerful as they can be.
Common Application Essay Prompts for 2013-14
- Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
- Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
- Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
- Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.