I’ve been working this month with many rising high school seniors who are preparing their essays and supplements for college. They are getting a jump-start because they realize homework and all the joys of being a senior are coming up soon. Then they’ll get hit with the huge job of applying to college, and it is huge.
The job starts with the common application essay of 650 words that will go to most or all of the colleges you apply to. For most, it is the first time someone – a stranger, a decision-maker – asks essentially, “Who might you be as a citizen of the world?” Geez! My son had never been asked that when he was 17, which is partly why I started this company almost 20 years ago.
A clear message about who you are is critical to acceptance. Colleges today almost plead for a picture of who you really are. Some applications go so far as to say, “A real person will read this” or “Give us a picture of yourself.”
The common application provides several prompts to guide applicants, and practically anything you write could fit one of them, but still many applicants get stuck on how to start.
First, don’t be afraid of not being good enough. Thinking about the thousands of other applicants as competition will not help. Instead, focus on who you are. Fear is negative energy that can be turned into a positive if you just focus on what you bring to the table. What have you done? What have you learned from it? How does it affect your thinking moving forward?
Stop worrying about that word count. It holds you back from telling your story. If the unedited version comes out to 1,000 words, it can always be edited – and might be better and more succinct that way. I’ve had essays come in for MBA applications that were 1,200 words when the limit was 750. Most often, after editing, students are amazed that their story is better shortened and specific.
Also, don’t try to be too formal. I commonly see this, and admissions committees can easily see through it. Such committees read thousands of essays and recognize patterns immediately. In some cases, The Wall Street Journal reported this month that there are so many applications now that a team of two undergraduate students may be the first to read your essay and decide if it goes forward. Yuck!
So take a chance. All you have to do is grab your readers’ attention and keep it. Be lively, be original, relax and just go for it! There’s a perfect-fit college for everyone!