Illustration by Kendra.

Illustration by Kendra.

You know the saying “Those who can’t do, teach?” Well, a fun fact about me is that I delayed completing the essay for my application to the college I currently attend for so long that I didn’t turn it in until 30 minutes before the cutoff; yet here I am trying to tell you how to write a college application essay. Now, if you’ll just hand over three easy payments of $69.95, we can get this seminar rolling.

My under-the-wire approach to my academic future was not the result of extreme procrastination, but of extreme deliberation. I actually started writing my college essays about six months before they were due, but with every draft, I felt increasingly inadequate. I spent the first few months of my senior year of high school complaining about my applications to everyone who would listen. I probably got seven hours of sleep during that entire fall season, most of which occurred in the middle of class. I got a weird stress-induced rash on my arms and stopped washing my eye makeup off before bed, which really enhanced the existing bags under my eyes for an overall glamorous look. Every time I sat down to work on my essays, I imagined a conference table lined with faceless academics in beige suits who’d scornfully stare me down and murmur to one another, sounding like the adults on Charlie Brown cartoons, every time I typed a sentence. Then I’d hear Eminem screaming the chorus to “Lose Yourself” in my head (“YOU ONLY GET ONE SHOT / DO NOT MISS YOUR CHANCE TO BLOW / THIS OPPORTUNITY COMES ONCE IN A LIFETIME / YO”). My thoughts would then go in the direction of “Hey, Eminem didn’t even go to college! And look how successful he is!” And then I’d start googling “successful people who didn’t go to college” until I’d successfully wasted at least 45 minutes of writing time and bolstered my self-confidence enough to put off my essays for another day.

What’s great about college application essays is that they give you a chance to show a school facets of your personality that test scores and GPAs can’t convey. But it’s really frustrating to have to summarize what makes you so special in 1,000 words or less. (I once asked my guidance counselor if I could just link to my Twitter instead of submitting an essay. She didn’t stop laughing until I looked her in the eye and said, “That wasn’t a joke.”) I didn’t have perfect grades or standardized test scores in high school, so I felt like my essays would make or break my chances of getting into the schools I really cared about.

No one ever told me that college admissions are mostly nonsense. But it’s true: It won’t ruin your life if you don’t get into the college of your dreams—unless you let it. So shake that imaginary group of stuffy adults out of your head and just write what feels good to you. Right now it’s just you and, if you want, me, your incredibly glamorous yet somehow still down-to-earth and approachable admissions-essay-writing guide (who definitely isn’t writing this article in pajamas covered with unidentifiable stains). Here is a timeline to follow that will hopefully be helpful and save you from any weird stress induced-rashes.

I. Picking a Topic

You’ve mustered up the courage to sit down and finally write that essay. You’ve open a Word document and titled it “My Great Big College Essay.” And now you’re like, OK, cool…hmmm, yeah that’s enough for now. Maybe I should go check the fridge to see if anything new has materialized in there since I last looked? Hey! Stop right there! Before you take a break, I want you to set a timer for 20 minutes and force yourself to come up with ideas for your essay for those entire 20 minutes. When they’re over, you can check the fridge as many times as you want.

While you’re thinking, keep in mind that most schools require that you submit a main essay of 500 or so words that will give them a glimpse of who you are, in addition to maybe a few shorter pieces based on specific prompts. In America, a lot of institutions use the Common Application. The Common App offers five different personal essay prompts. Apparently, this year they are:

  • 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.

The thing about these prompts is that they make me feel like Yawwwwwwn and also like OMG, I have no answers for any of these! What’s so interesting about me? The only place I’ve ever traveled to is Disney World! How am I supposed to compete with kids who’ve lived in 17 different countries and probably invented an app that cures cancer? Maybe you feel this way too, but the truth is, even if you’ve never left your hometown, you still have something to say. Never having left your hometown could in itself be your essay topic! I ended up writing my personal essay about how, even though I was totally underwhelmed by high school, I loved watching movies about high school, and that, in part, is why I want to write TV shows and movies for teenage girls. I never even left the couch, but I had a life experience right there that was worth writing about.

Think about the stuff that gets you excited and see if you can find a way to fit it into one of these prompts. Try to come up with half a dozen or so potential topics for each prompt you’ve been given. Write down anything that comes to mind, even if you think it’s stupid. Totally forget your audience and the fact that this essay will help determine where you go to college. Once you’ve got a big list of ideas, take another 20-minute session to reflect on your best personality traits, what you’re good at, and what your ambitions and goals are. These are the things you want to get across to a college. If you get stumped, ask a good friend or your parents or anyone else who really knows you what they think your best qualities are.

Now, look at your two lists. Can any of the ideas from your first list be used to illustrated something you mentioned in your second list? Maybe a “place where you feel perfectly content” is the mall, because you feel love people-watching—and this totally ties in with your desire to study psychology because you’re interested in how minds work. “A time when you challenged a belief or an idea” could be that incident when some boy in your class said something really sexist and you stood up to him. You can use this story to illustrate how important your personal political beliefs are to you, and go on to talk about how you’d like to develop them even more.