College Essays, Personal Statements, Supplemental Essays

5 Reasons to Avoid the Rabbit Hole of College-Essay YouTube

YouTube is packed with students reading their admissions-winning essays. You could deep-dive for hours, if not days.

This summer, I tasked my research intern with scouring YouTube for quality college essay resources to link on the resource page I give to students in my workshops. We were looking for a “Best of” collection of solid writing tips, but what we discovered was a glut of admitted students reading their essays on camera.

Here’s my question: what benefit is watching hours of other people read their essays? Looking at a couple of essay models would be profitable, but watching a whole YouTube essay-reading playlist? Nope.

Here are five reasons why you need to make the journey through your college essays with minimal assistance from other student writers, even highly successful ones.

1. Your story is YOUR story.

You own it in every way, and no one can tell your story the way you can. What makes writing college essays challenging is that the process requires you to examine your experiences, character, values, feelings, needs, and aspirations and cultivate insights about who you are and how you hope to impact the planet.

Only you can identify the experiences that have formed your identity. Only you can determine what parts of your identity you want to share with others and how you want to share those stories. Only you know your most challenging circumstances and your most rewarding seasons. And, certainly, only you know how you felt, what values or needs propelled your response, and what you learned about yourself and life in this world.

While you can see the product of another student’s journey, watching hours upon hours of other students read their essays will not get you to your personal statement destination. You have to travel your own path.

2. Originality & authenticity are hard.

Don’t put other students’ stories in your head. One of the worst things you can do with your college essay is to write a fan fiction piece based on another student’s life.

I began teaching high school writing courses over 30 years ago. I’ve learned how to spot a student’s reading habits in their writing. Emerging writers tend to produce content consistent with whatever they’ve immersed themselves in as readers. It’s OK to write about the impact of Stephanie Meyer, John Green, Suzanne Collins, J.K. Rowling, or Angie Thomas, but, goodness, high school creative writing students, stop riffing on these writers and create worlds of your own, based on your experiences. You love their stories. You love their universes. You love their words. It’s awesome to be a fan, but be aware when someone else’s art creeps into your brain and disguises itself as your own story.

The same applies to college essay-writing.

Show readers your story, not another writer’s narrative filtered through your head. The more you consume college essays written by other students, the harder it is to have fresh thoughts about your story.

Ultimately, mimicking ideas and structures from other writers (intentionally or unintentionally) lacks integrity and authenticity, and schools count those character traits as essential in the admissions process.

3. It’s not the whole picture.

The application packet gives admissions readers a picture of each candidate. Quantitative information (all the numbers like GPA and class rank and standardized test scores) and qualitative information (the subjective things like personal statements, supplementary essays, recommendation letters, and activities) combine to identify students who are the best “fit” for the university or college.

The essay-writing journey identifies the aspects of your life that aren’t reflected clearly in the rest of your application. Choosing essay topics and structures involves strategic decisions based on the whole of the application.

When you watch the student who got into all their top-choice, top-tier schools read their essay, you don’t know what the rest of their application featured. You don’t know what their recommendation letters said. You don’t know the X-factor objectives the admissions readers were working to fulfill.

You know only what that person chose to say before and after reading the essay. That’s it. You should not decide your essay’s content based on the information you don’t know about another person’s context.

4. The medium matters.

At least for now, the bulk of college admissions essays are written, although we can look ahead and see the normalization of video essays a short distance down the road. Until that time arrives, though, if you need an essay model for clarity or confidence, read examples of successful college essays.

Reading model essays (as opposed to listening to someone else read them) allows you the visual experience of analyzing structure and style. You can read and reread as much as you need to understand how story and storytelling combine for success.

Reading allows you to be a student of good writing and not just a consumer of content.

5. Avoid fueling comparison. Instead, build skill.

Watching video after video of other people humble-bragging about their victories under the guise of giving helpful tips can take a toll. Students fall down the rabbit hole because they are trying to figure out how to write a great story, and they look to others to boost confidence. Unfortunately, the opposite happens. Instead of feeling more secure about writing their own essays, students get overwhelmed. It makes sense. You’re comparing your initial efforts to someone else’s final product.

Models can be helpful if you give them thoughtful analysis, so read a few if you want, but limit content intake.

Let’s put numbers to it so that you know when to stop. You may read up to five model essays. You may view one or two students reading successful college essays. That’s a total of seven essays, max. Pick good ones.

As you read, observe what story the writer shares, how they tell it, and how it makes you feel in response. If it shakes your confidence as a writer or inflates your sense of superiority, those are red flags. Back away from the models and search your own heart. However, if you can empathize with the writer, then you’re on the right track. Take the lessons you need and return to your writing.

Approach writing models as an intellectual exercise. Try to find essays that professional writing coaches or admissions counselors have critiqued. Pay attention to the strategies they identify as successful communication tools. If you take a long-term approach to write your personal statement and have a little time, check out Writing Tools or The Art of X-Ray Reading by “America’s Writing Coach” Roy Peter Clark. For confidence in writing shorter supplemental essays, Clark’s How to Write Short holds game-changing tips.

What you do not want to do is steep your brain in the accomplishments of others. Remember, the essay-writing journey is for you to discover your story and not compare yourself to others.

So.

I don’t have to tell you that getting on any form of social media, especially video-based social media, will eat time like nothing else.

You might hop on YouTube to look at successful essays as a time-saver for writing, but I guarantee it will become a distraction. What minimal gains you may receive in inspiration are not worth the time lost from quality thinking.

Your best essays will come as a result of self-reflection, and your most limited resource at the beginning of your senior year will be time. You will be a better storyteller and time-steward if you go through an essay-writing workshop, online or in person.

You have a GREAT story to tell. Focus on your journey. Embrace humble confidence. Do the work.

College Admissions, College Essays, Personal Statements, Supplemental Essays

When should I write my college essays?

Write your college essays during the summer between your junior and senior years.

Give yourself a little time to recover from the academic season. Get some sleep. Unpack your backpack, and clean your room. Enjoy hanging out with your people.

In a couple of weeks, jump on the Common App or Coalition website or both and read the prompts. Begin thinking about which one resonates with you. If you have access to a local college essay draft workshop, sign up. If not, search the internet for virtual college essay workshops. You can never go wrong with the College Essay Guy.

By late July or early August, you should access the supplemental essay options for your narrowed list of schools. Start analyzing the prompts and researching each school’s stated values. Figure out how your values and vision intersect with theirs.

If you would like to work with a college essay coach and have not yet contacted one, you should make sure to reserve a spot on their schedule as soon as possible. Your coach can help guide you to the best approach for both the personal statement and the supplemental essays. The one thing you want to avoid is covering similar details in multiple essays. Each prompt gives you a chance to share a different aspect of your story and build a stronger case for admission.

Hold on, why should I wait that late to start?

You need the most perspective you can get before you start writing, so give yourself time to develop it.

Usually, it’s the parents who approach me and ask, “Should my ninth-grader start working on the college essay now?” Um. No.

I mean, journal? Absolutely!

Start a blog to record high school adventures? That’ll be so fun to look over in the future!

Both a private journal and a public blog will be helpful in a couple of years when you start the college essay-writing process. You’ll have a record of impressions and events and feelings that shaped you. As for actually brainstorming and organizing a personal statement, though, you’ll need to wait until the end of your junior year.

Junior year of high school tends to have a refining effect on many students. Whether it’s a result of the higher-level thinking that happens as you advance through the typical secondary curriculum or the social and cognitive leaps that take place in this stage of adolescence, by the end of your junior year, you are better able to figure out who you are, what path you’ve traveled to get there, and where you aim to go in the future. And those are the elements essential to writing memorable college admissions essays.

But summer is when I take a break!

Exactly. That’s why you should rest before you write. A Huffington Post article quotes “Hamilton” creator Lin Manuel Miranda on the link between rest and creativity:

“It’s no accident that the best idea I’ve ever had in my life — perhaps maybe the best one I’ll ever have in my life — came to me on vacation,” Miranda said.

“When I picked up Ron Chernow’s biography [of Hamilton], I was at a resort in Mexico on my first vacation from ‘In The Heights,’ which I had been working seven years to bring to Broadway,” he continued. “The moment my brain got a moment’s rest, ‘Hamilton’ walked into it.”

The Huffington Post

And so it goes for you. Yes, you need to get started on your college essays relatively early in the summer and definitely before you head back to school for senior year, but you also need to take a break. So take a short break, and then get to work.

Save time to procrastinate

Are you kidding? No, I am not.

One step of the writing process that many people discount is the thinking stage—letting those ideas bounce around your subconscious as you go through daily life. You know how sometimes you obsess over a problem, and you can’t figure out a solution? And then you decide to forget about it and do something else, and while you’re doing something else, you figure out the problem?

That works for essay-writing too.

I recommend that students look over the essay prompts and then take a little time to let the ideas that follow float in and out of your mind. Organizational psychologist and Wharton School professor Adam Grant did a TED Talk in which he explored the benefits of moderate procrastination. His cautionary tale of what happens when you “precrastinate” is worth the 15 minutes it takes to watch the video.

The point is that you need to introduce your brain to the prompts and then give it a little time to work out content. But not too much time.

Also, save time to revise

Before I retired from the classroom, I used to teach an honors-level writing course. One of the exercises we did from time to time involved a heinous-looking resin vase packed with quotes about the writing process. In choosing inspirational words for young authors, I selected heavily from revision-related words of wisdom.

Once writers get the words out, they usually feel a sense of relief. I can’t think of anyone I know who says, “Oh yay! I just spent a ton of time brainstorming and organizing and drafting, and now I get to revise! Woo Hoo!!!”

But revision is where the magic happens. So if you want your essay to be obviously muggle-written, then stop with a rough draft that has minimal proofreading. However, if you want to be an essay wizard, leave time to put your draft on the shelf for a bit and come back to it with a fresh, critical eye.

Try to have your essay on the shelf for at least two weeks before your final read-through and submission. Then make your final tweaks a week before you submit your application. Once you hit “submit,” you’re done. Go celebrate!

And then get back to your senior studies and scholarship essays.

College Admissions, Educators, Parents, Students, Teachers, Uncategorized

Choosing a Common App Essay Prompt

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Photo Credit: Pixabay via Pexels

A quick visit to the Common Application website reveals that over 800 colleges and universities now accept the Common App. From years in the teacher-trenches during college application season, I can attest that the Common App is one of the biggest timesavers to come along in… well, ever.

Along with the one-shot input of name, address, and other vital information comes the opportunity for students to put all their energy into writing one spectacular college essay. While many colleges and universities have additional essays to complete, the supplemental essays are focused on specifics the university wants to know. Quite often supplemental essays also help filter students for honors programs, scholarship consideration, or specific learning communities. As far as essays go, however, the Common App essay factors heaviest in helping admissions readers see the human being behind the stats and scores on the rest of the application.

By nature, the Common App essay is a personal narrative. On the bottom of the 2018-2019 essay prompts announcement page, the organization included the following paragraph:

“Through the Common App essay prompts, we want to give all applicants – regardless of background or access to counseling – the opportunity to share their voice with colleges. Every applicant has a unique story. The essay helps bring that story to life,” said Meredith Lombardi, Associate Director, Outreach and Education, for The Common Application.

Your voice. Your story. Personal Narrative.

Seven essay prompts appear on the Common App website again this year. Breaking it into broad categories, three lead students to reveal an area of passion, and three ask for examples of personal growth. The final prompt knocks the essay topic wide open and tells students to write absolutely anything. Below is a list of the prompts, broken down into their broad categories:

[Passion] 1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

[Growth] 2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

[Growth] 3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

[Passion] 4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

[Growth] 5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

[Passion] 6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

[Open] 7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Source: 2018-2019 Common Application Essay Prompts

The Common App essay prompts for 2018-2019 remain the same as in 2017-2018, largely because they are well-written prompts that give excellent direction while preserving the student’s ability to share a unique story told in an authentic voice.

How does a student choose which prompt to write? Ideally, students select the prompt that “connects” with them the most. The prompt response should include a narrative element (a story, as in a chronological sequence of events). It should also have an analytical component that reveals self-awareness of the role of that particular area of passion or personal growth in the student’s life or development. The analytical component is where the readers hear the writer’s voice loudest. The prompt in which story and analysis come together strongest is the prompt a student should choose.

Before locking down the final Common App prompt selection, students should take a quick peek at the supplemental essays for the specific colleges on their list. If a supplemental essay for a top-choice school requires a student to write an essay that is the same or eerily similar to the Common App essay response, choose a different Common App essay prompt. Writing the same basic content for multiple essays going to one college or university is a surefire way to prove a lack of creativity, depth, and work ethic.

As college application season kicks into high gear, here are some action tips for students, educators, and parents to help everyone thrive:

Students – Choose wisely, and keep the big picture in mind. Use narrative and analysis. Tell your story; use your voice. A planner, personal journal, or Bullet Journal could come in handy when it’s time to brainstorm stories. This should go without saying, but students should not wait until the last minute to draft their Common App essay. Leave enough time to try and fail and adjust and try again. Try two or three different prompts to see where they lead you before deciding on “the one.” Time and reflection will be your best friends in finding your voice.

Educators – Give students plenty of practice writing personal narratives. High school English classes run deep in the ruts of literary analysis, research-based writing, and argumentative essays. But students struggle to write their own stories. Do not neglect narrative writing, especially personal narratives. To junior English teachers specifically: at the end of the year, consider a brief personal narrative unit. Keep the word count similar to the Common App (maximum of 650 words). Let your juniors leave school prepared for the college application season ahead.

Parents – Help your students carve out time to choose their Common App prompts wisely. The ideal time to begin drafting college essays is in July between junior and senior years. Most supplemental essay prompts are out by then. The Common App recently has announced prompts in the winter or spring before the next application season. They announced on January 12, 2018, the return of the prompts from 2017-2018 for the 2018-2019 college application season, so it would stand to reason that the Common App prompts will be readily available in July too. Encourage your students to start early. Once students return to school in August or September for the heavy academic and extracurricular load most college-bound seniors carry, they will be writing whatever comes to mind from a sleep-deprived state and settling for just getting something written instead of writing their unique story in their authentic voice.

Questions? Write them in the comments below.

Suggestions? Write those in the comments below too.