How To Answer A College Essay Question

Is there anything more intimidating than sitting in front a computer and saying to yourself, "Okay, I am now going to write an essay that is going to affect where I go to college and maybe the rest of my life"? Yikes!

Slow down -- let's get some perspective on this whole college essay business. Unless you really screw up, no single essay is going to get you in or out at a particular college.

College admission readers will be looking at a myriad of factors besides essays, including a)what kind of student you have been from your freshman year through the first semester of your senior year; b) your test scores (unless they are a test-optional school); c)the kinds of activities you have been involved with (honors and awards received); d) and what the school counselor and teachers have to say about you on the recommendation forms. They will also be aware of how you present the information: It must be neat, organized, accurate, up-to-date, flawless in terms of spelling, grammar, and punctuation and have absolutely no typos.

Having said that, doesn't it make sense for you to produce the best application essays you can? Doing that will increase the chances of your getting into the colleges to which you apply. What follows should help you get started on an essay, and also end up with one about which you will feel proud.

THE STEPS TO WRITING A CAPTIVATING, ONE-OF-A-KIND ESSAY

1. Set aside a block of time in a place that is free of distractions.

Over the years, I have discovered that there are many things I can do in fits and spurts -- clean up my office, talk to friends on my cell, read the news (online or hard copy), even work out. However, writing is not a good "fits and spurts" activity. The best way of approaching it is to block out a specific amount of time -- like one or two hours, perhaps more. Literally put it on your calendar! Then locate yourself in a quiet place that offers a good surface for your computer or writing pad. This might be a desk in your room, a kitchen table or the corner of your favorite coffee house or public library. Before you start the writing process, gather all of your supplies:

  • The college application that contains the essay questions
  • Your computer and/or writing pad
  • Pens or pencils
  • Notes with personal stories and anecdotes
  • Your activities resume (if you don't have one yet, a list of activities from grades 9 to 12)
  • And a glass or bottle of water (so you don't have to leave your space to get it later)

Now you're ready to go.

Oh yeah, one more thing: Announce to everyone nearby that you don't want to be disturbed and turn off your cell phone. It is tooooo easy to allow yourself to get distracted by anyone or anything in the middle of writing.

2. Identify the question you are going to answer

After you have yourself situated, the first thing you need to do is identify the essay prompt that you are going to answer. If you have never written an application essay or are starting a new application, it's a good idea to start with a short, rather than a long, essay. For example, the new Georgetown University application offers this prompt: "Short essay: In the space available discuss the significance to you of the school or summer activity in which you have been most involved."

Heads up! Just so you know, the Common Application and its essays, and some individual college supplement essays are now available.

3. Brainstorm ideas for a topic to answer the question, looking for a theme or subject that fits you.

There are many places where you can find ideas for an essay topic. Take a look at your activities resume and/or think about everything you have done since you were a freshman. A very important question to ask yourself is, "What do I want this college to know about me?" If this is your first essay-writing session, you might want to sit down with your parents or a trusted friend and brainstorm ideas about potential topics before you starting putting pen to paper. As you do this, don't forget to write down the ideas.

4. Choose a topic and answer the question.

From all that you generated in brainstorming, pick one idea or topic that you like. Then go back and highlight (or underline) all of the different parts of the essay prompt. For example, if you are answering the above Georgetown question, you will want to highlight these parts: a) The school or summer activity in which you have been most involved, and b) The significance to you. It is terribly important that you pay attention to each and every part of a question because admissions officers will be expecting that of you. Not doing this will likely disappoint the readers, something you don't want to do.

5. Once again, use brainstorming to get ideas for the essay question for which you now have a topic, and from there pick out the most important points. After that, write a first draft.

Once you have a topic, the next step is actually fun. Gather all the information you have about a topic -- pieces from your resume or activity list, personal stories and anecdotes, suggestions from family and friends and any ideas that pop into your head. Once again, write it all down. It's really important that you keep track of your ideas because it will be impossible to remember all of what you have thought about or said. You don't lose any of the good "stuff."

Once you have done this, write a first draft. What I don't mean is to do an outline and carefully carve out each sentence and paragraph. Just write your answer like you're telling a story to a friend or mentor. Don't worry about what you say, how you say it or whether it is grammatically or otherwise correct. Just get it down, let yourself go, get creative, be yourself, offer an anecdote, bring in a little humor, and try to have a good time!

6. Edit, edit, edit your draft

People who write for a living or love writing know that it's not just a one-time event. It involves producing a draft and then re-writing, adding and subtracting words, phrases, sentences, even whole paragraphs, moving ideas around, coming up with new things to say, and editing. Ask yourself:

  • Do I have an introduction, a theme, a development of that theme and then a wrap-up or conclusion?
  • Does what I have written make sense?
  • Does one thought lead to another? Have I offered transitions from one paragraph to another?
  • Are there extraneous words or sentences?
  • Is the essay detailed and specific?
  • After spell-checking, can I find any errors in the copy?
  • Have I answered the question and kept to the word or character count?
  • Is it well-written?

After you have edited your piece, give it to someone you trust for comments and their edits. Understandably, an editor who is a good writer -- a parent, teacher or counselor -- is probably going to have a better eye for the above questions. It's hard to be objective and have a true perspective about your own writing. When you get your essay back, then take or leave the suggestions you have been given.

Side note: One thing you should know is that college admissions officers not only want you to answer their questions, but they often look for something about what you have learned or gained from an activity, situation or even writing this particular essay.

7. Set your essay aside for a while and then give it one final proofread.

Save your final essay version somewhere you will remember and then copy or upload it onto the application.

Having written one short essay, you are now better prepared to take on longer ones.

Happy writing!

If you want more and detailed information about writing application essays, you can read Chapter 12 in my book adMISSION POSSIBLE®: The Dare to Be Yourself Guide for Getting into the Best Colleges for You or go to my adMISSION POSSIBLE® website.

PS: If you happened to have read my last blog, "6 Terrific Pieces of Advice for Writing College Application Essays," go back to see where I purposefully left a mistake. If you don't find it, go to the comment section where drumrobot points it out.

Follow Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/admissposs

Question: I have to write several essays explaining why I have chosen particular colleges on my list. I haven’t been able to visit any of these schools or attend fairs or meet college reps, and I can’t think of anything to say that would sound genuine and show that I clearly have a believable reason for my attraction. Even after thinking long and hard, I haven’t been able to come up with any decent reason for wanting to go to specific colleges. I don’t want my essays to sound as if they came straight from the website or brochure. I really hate writing these essays and need some suggestions on how to approach them.

I hate those “Why This College?” assignments, too. I’ve seen students write the same essay for totally disparate schools, plugging in new adjectives, as needed, almost as if they were doing a “Mad Lib.” For instance, “I’ve always wanted to attend a LARGE UNIVERSITY” quickly turns into, “I’ve always wanted to attend a SMALL COLLEGE.” Or “I prefer a COLD climate” is transformed into “I prefer a WARM climate.”

In a perfect world, I think colleges should make this essay optional. The prompt should say something like this: If you have a truly compelling reason for selecting our institution, please explain. However 99% of our applicants should not respond to this question, and if you write a bunch of B.S., it will be held against you 🙂

Of course, it’s hard enough to compose these essays when you do know why you’re interested in your target schools, and harder still if your reasons for applying are as vague as yours are.

Here are some suggestions of ways to personalize the process of writing these nasty things. Hopefully, at the same time this little exercise will force you to look more closely at the choices you’ve made and see if they’re really the right ones for you.

1) Check out the comments about your target colleges on College Confidential. Feel free to quote CC members in your “Why This College Essay.” For instance, “Penn caught my eye when I spotted a comment on the College Confidential discussion forum by a member who called himself, ‘Ilovebagels.’ I love bagels, too (but that’s probably not a wise reason to choose a college!) and also I was interested when he said, ‘I’ve found Penn to be a remarkably centrist institution. Which as a right-of-center person, I felt put it ahead of the other Ivies with their legions of hippies.’ This made me think that Penn might be a good fit for me, so I started to dig deeper …”

2) Make e-mail contact with a “real” student. Many admission Web sites have links that allow you to connect with a current student. You can also do this though a friend or acquaintance who attends your target schools, by using college Web site directories to find students who share common interests (e.g., the president of the outing club or captain of the squash team), or by writing to the admission office and asking if they might be able to refer you to a Classics major or pre-med student or anyone who shares your interests, your home state or country, etc. Then, after corresponding with this student penpal, you can cite his or her words of wisdom in your essay.

3) Comb through college catalogs–either hard copies, if you have them, or online–to find classes/programs/activities that seem special and appealing then discuss your findings in your essays. Obviously, these offerings should be pretty unusual. Admission committees won’t be impressed if you say, “I want to go to Princeton because I found that I can take classes in Shakespeare and organic chemistry.” If you peruse entire catalogs and can’t find something that excites you, you really should be rethinking your college choices.

Finally, check out this thread on “Why This College Essays” on CC if you haven’t already to get some additional tips on those ornery essays. There is some great advice there from “Shrinkrap.”

http://talk.collegeconfidential.com/college-admissions/429255-why-college-essays-aaargh-nightmare-help-plz.html

I’m not sure why you haven’t been able to go on visits, attend fairs, meet with college reps, etc. Perhaps it’s geography and/or finances. But, if at all possible, in the months ahead, I do urge you to take a closer look at the schools that interest you, if possible, and even some that don’t, just so you’ll have options to compare.

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