The essay part of your college application should allow you a sigh of relief. This is your chance to show who you are. For at least several paragraphs, numbers do not matter. You can prove that you are more than your ACT and GPA. While this should make you relieved, it can also be intimidating. It is impossible to communicate all of who you are in just one short essay. Even so, the admissions committee will form an opinion based largely off what you choose to share.
As a current Milligan College student, I was in the college application process not too long ago. I remember the essays for various college applications becoming the senior composition class I didn’t know I had to take. It was difficult for me to choose a topic, to loosen up enough to write, and ultimately feel like it was an accurate representation of me.
I’ve written plenty of essays, but never one that would shape someone’s incredibly important perception of me. At first, I was paralyzed. Even though there were prompts provided, they were broad, so I struggled choosing a topic or route to take. I overthought every aspect. I started by trying to choose a topic that would shed light on an aspect of my resume. I wrote a rough draft of an essay about a previous summer job. But, the more I tried to deepen the content and edit the paper, the more I realized this would not do. While I am sure that essay would have provided the admissions committee with more information about what I do, I didn’t feel it represented who I was. So, here is the first of several tips for you:
- Don’t rewrite your resume in essay form.
Most applications either require a copy of your resume or ask questions that basically lay it out. While something on your resume could guide you to the perfect topic, just writing, “I like… I have done… I spend most of my time doing…” may leave the committee with only a shallow view of who you are.
So then I got stuck for even longer. How could one essay possibly represent me in a way that would positively influence someone making one of the most important decisions pertaining to my next 4 years? I haven’t really had any dramatic, life-altering events.
I decided figuring out what tense I should write in would help guide my thoughts. I thought of writing about my past—some memory that stuck with me and shaped who I was. But I couldn’t think of anything meaningful or memorable. What about my present? I started to think of what I noticed, did, how I saw the world and why. But, let me just tell you, it is hard to psychoanalyze yourself. For the future, I thought, “What goals, visions, or aspirations do I have?”
I started with that. I wrote an intro paragraph then deleted the intro paragraph. There was nothing wrong with the topic this time. I just was struggling to express things I really didn’t know yet.
I realized that at least writing an intro paragraph could help. Even though that one didn’t stick, it allowed me to try a topic on for size and, in the meantime, get over my paralysis. An intro paragraph is non-committal and does not have to be perfect… yet. It is like walking into a pool but stopping on the first step. You aren’t completely wet, and no one is judging your dive.
- Start writing, and don’t stop to think or edit until you reach the end of your introduction
This got me going, but then I started on a frenzy. I wrote several intro paragraphs that I either deleted myself, or sent to my dad for approval (or disapproval). Finally, I got so frustrated I decided that the committee would know who I was in the most unconventional way. I wrote an essay entitled ‘Essay’ in which I described myself, in the most detailed and creative way I possibly could, writing an essay. I described everything from my frustration to the rhythm of the keys and ended feeling more satisfied than I had ever been with an essay I wrote.
I printed that essay, stomped my way into my dad’s office, and said with a set jaw, “Here. It. Is. This is who I am.” I wanted that admissions committee to know who I brutally, honestly was.
Well, (insert sigh) let’s just say my dad didn’t appreciate it for what true perfection it was. So there I was, stuck again. I had spent so long on incomplete essays that I started feeling the pressure of deadlines. I was out of big dramatic ideas, so I started trying to think small.
Instead of thinking of events or situations that lasted for a day or a year, I dug desperately into my memories bypassing the big ones and seeking out the smaller moments. I was so extra that I even looked through old photo albums to try and spark my memory.
I spent some time on this until I started feeling panicked about how little time I had to come up with something. Then, something came to mind. A memory started to form itself in my mind. The memory was not of me but of my dad. It was of a time when he came into my room to talk to me and, to my complete surprise, began crying.
It was a sweet and precious memory, but it wasn’t of me. It was of my dad. I started writing anyway. Even if it didn’t work for my application essay I wanted to describe it before I dared to let it fade. The more I wrote, the more meaning I rediscovered. My dad doesn’t normally cry, especially not in that way. I remembered I had just made a major decision, and my dad’s tears proved his care and support in a way I never imagined would happen.
I titled the essay ‘A Father’s Tear’ and definitely caused a few more fatherly tears. When I read through the whole thing, I realized this moment was crucial in giving me the confidence to follow some things God had called me to. While the actions were my dad’s, the meaning was my own. The person this moment shaped was the person I wanted to share. Even though it didn’t tell of any accomplishments and the whole scene only lasted a few minutes, I knew I had found my essay. It felt like meeting “the one” for the first time. That leads me to tip #3:
- Write it fast while the inspiration lasts
Writing your essay should not feel like you’re doing brain surgery. You don’t have to be afraid of messing up. Part of the reason I believe my essay turned out like it did was because I didn’t stop until I reached my conclusion. It doesn’t always work that way, but it was so much better to write what my mind saw without worrying about anything else. Editing is incredibly important, but they made a backspace key for a reason.
If I had stuck with my original fear of messing up I would have stayed paralyzed and possibly never gotten it written. Also, if I had limited my topics I may have never been able to communicate what I felt was important. Finally, once I thought of the idea, if I had put it off I don’t believe the memory would have been so distinct and the meaning so evident.
Starting the essay is incredibly important, but so is finishing it. Even if you never have an “I found the one!” moment, your essay can still add so much depth to your application. Appreciate the opportunity to show more of yourself and take the time to make it accurate. If you get really frustrated, you can follow my lead and write an essay about writing an essay. Just don’t expect everyone to understand.
Footnote: I still have that ‘Essay’ and think it is fabulous. I hope to one day submit it into a contest so that my dad will know how truly brilliant it is.
Written by: Abbie Russell (’21)