The basic rules for writing a stellar college essay vary little from the general guidelines for producing any strong piece of written work: be authentic, tell a story that is personal and compelling, and diligently edit, revise, and polish your product.
Writing in an authentic voice does not mean scribbling down some stream-of-consciousness thoughts 24 hours before the application deadline. There is a popular myth that Abraham Lincoln jotted down the Gettysburg Address on a napkin on his way to the battlefield. In truth, he spent over two weeks crafting the speech and went through five full drafts. All of that labor for a 272 word document about half the length of a college essay! With fall now upon us, if you haven’t already begun the writing process, do so now. Get a draft underway and allow those neurons to start firing in a targeted manner. If you give yourself ample time for the writing process to unfold, the end product is sure to be superior.
Of course, your first challenge is to brainstorm and pick a personal and compelling topic on which to write. Let’s define those words in the context of the college essay. By personal, we mean talk about something that happened to you, where you are at the heart of the action. If you write about a trip to Haiti and chronicle the culture of the Haitian people then the essay is not really about you – it might as well be a homework assignment. Colleges want to know who you are and how you view the world – the essay may be your only chance to provide them with this type of insight.
Writing an essay that is compelling doesn’t mean that you need to have wrestled a puma, grown up in a cult, or discovered a new galaxy at age seven. A great college essay can take place on a grand stage but it can just as effectively take place in everyday life. There is a ready supply of drama, tension, and conflict in the course of a typical day. Over the course of your life you have undoubtedly had experiences that constitute worthy topics. Think it over. Talk to family and friends. Your compelling story will emerge.
As you work on your draft, have other people that you trust edit your work and listen to their feedback with an open mind. It’s easy to write in isolation and forget that your words may not be translatable to another human being. As Stephen King said, “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.” The editing process will inevitably improve your work and get it ready to catch the attention of your admissions officers.
Ultimately, it is important not to get overly-bogged down adhering to any hard rules you hear about the college essay (except for grammar and word counts). The story you tell does not have to have a fairly tale trajectory but it could. It does not have to begin with a crisis and end with a resolution but it could. It does not have to begin by highlighting a character flaw and lead to its remediation but it could. It does not have to be told in linear fashion but…you guessed it, it could. There are an infinite number of roads to walk down in order to create a quality essay. Just make sure the road you choose is your own.