“What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?”
“Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.”
"What would you say is your greatest talent or skill?”
How to begin… in all honesty, the hardest part of writing college application essays is just getting started. What do you focus on? How do you summarize everything that makes you who you are - what do you leave out, and what are the essential pieces of your personality needed to understand how your brain works? Whether writing about yourself comes naturally, or you struggle to find the right words, there are certain strategies you can use to get your brain juices flowing and get some words out onto the page. Once you do that, you can let your ideas flow, and look forward to perfecting them later on.
1. Brainstorm! Make lists of the top 5 most influential memories you have, words to describe yourself, your role models, favorite books, favorite quotes, and hobbies. Outlining the structure of a whole essay can be a difficult place to start, but making lists of essential content can help you find a direction, or find an integral idea to run with. Take the pressure of figuring out how to say what you want to say right off the bat, and focus on what you want to say.
2. Find your style: Whether you love writing, or are still developing your voice, trying out different styles of writing can help you be compelling, authentic, and eloquent. Try writing from the first, second, or third person perspective. Does one feel more natural to you than the others? Does one allow you to be more inventive and paint a vivid picture? Does one engage and interact with the reader in a way that could draw the admissions representatives in? Experiment!
3. Jog your Memory: There are many alternative ways to bring back lost memories, or moments you don’t always immediately come back to. Try going through photo albums, childhood art projects, diary entries, or school essays. Digging deep into some of your memories could help you out of even the most serious case of writer’s block, and find inspiration to take that leap of faith and decide on a topic.
4. “Word vomit” challenge: When all else fails, set up a space in which you can just talk: record yourself speaking for a full minute about who you are - don’t leave anything out, and try to fill up the full 1 minute. You’ll be surprised by how much you actually cover, what new ideas you think of, and what you learn about yourself. Doing this a few times can not only help you verbalize your internal thoughts, but can also help you figure out what to naturally focus on, and what topics best represent you.
5. Ask a friend! While this shouldn’t be the first thing you do in the brainstorming process (allow your own ideas to make the first move), asking your friends about their perspective could help you find a place to start. “What are five words you would use to describe me?” you could ask. “What are three memories we have together that have stuck with you and why?” Your friends can help you see your life from a new perspective, and remember things you otherwise could have forgotten.
Try out these tools, and you might surprise yourself! Although the essay can be the hardest part of the college application process, it can also be the most rewarding. Crafting an essay that you are proud of, and writing a compelling story that shows the best of who you are only comes if you let your ideas flow, and work hard to get past your initial fear of writing the wrong thing. Explore all of your options, and you will set yourself up for success.
Sarah is a Consultant on the Study Hall College Consulting Team. Sarah graduated from UC Berkeley in the Class of 2020 where she majored in Architecture and minored in Spanish Language & Literature. For more college application and essay tips, check out our Study Hall College Consulting website at shcollegeconsulting.com.