It’s that time of year for high school seniors. Welcome to the heart of college application season! I can remember the mounting sense of anxiety and excitement that characterized my life when I was a senior (in the fall of 2016). With each deadline that approached, each essay draft I scrapped in favor of a new idea, and each new school I spontaneously decided to apply to, anxiety built, however it was buoyed by a sense of excitement. One of these applications would ultimately become the foundation for the rest of my life, the jumping off point for what I’d often heard my parents and other adults call “the greatest years of their lives.”
But before getting to those years, you have to tackle the behemoth that is the Common Application and the countless supplemental essays and short answers attached to it. I know that for many high school seniors, the essays are the most daunting part of the application, so in this post I’m going to try to provide you with as many tips as possible, and also leave you with some final thoughts that I wish I’d known when I was in your shoes!
Okay, the essays. A limited number of words, vague-ish prompts, and sometimes no idea where to start. Firstly, I liked to brainstorm on paper before I began typing a draft. I’d write down a bunch of different ideas, and after doing this go back through them and find one that I felt most passionate about and knew would also be a great fit for the prompt. Then, I’d plan a bit more. For me, semi-formal outlines worked best (this is just how I learned how to write) but other people prefer drawing webs or other diagrams of related topics or possible sections.
Then it’s time to draft! For the first draft, I would try to just write and turn off my inner editor. This isn’t meant to be a perfect first attempt, rather it’s a time to write an answer without paying too much attention to specific wording, the word count, or organization.
Once this initial draft was complete, I’d leave it for a bit (maybe watch an episode of a show on Netflix, do some other homework, or eat dinner) and return to it to begin editing and rewriting. Editing is all about refining, so make sure you’re reading for correct spelling and grammar (and definitely make sure you spell the school’s name right). Once you’re happy with the draft, I’d recommend letting your parents, college counselor, sibling(s), or friends read it. It’s important to let several people read it and provide their opinions, but remember at the end of the day this should reflect your voice and personality, not anybody else’s, so you don’t have to take every single suggestion.
This is a recursive process! You’ll likely have to go through a combination of these same steps several times. As with most things, it’s important to start early, so that you can take your time on each step and produce well-crafted, thoughtful answers.
I don’t want to spend too much time talking about content because it should be different for everyone. The most important thing is to write about things that you’re passionate about. No idea is a bad idea! There’s no magic formula for content, so rather than overthinking what admissions officers are hoping you write about, write something that you feel expresses yourself and your personality. The rest of your application contains information about the awards you’ve won and some details about your involvements outside the classroom, so take this time to dive deep into something you think is essential to understanding the person you are, whether it’s an extracurricular you love, a hobby or talent, a life experience that defines you, or just about anything else you can think of!
As promised, I’d like to give some final thoughts on college applications as a whole. When I was completing these applications, I often panicked. What if I didn’t get into this school or that school? What if I got into a school and it ended up not being a good fit for me?
While asking myself these questions, I was always reluctant to share this rollercoaster of emotions with my friends and family. However, looking back, I think that by more openly communicating with them about this process, I might have found additional confidence in both my applications and myself, which would have made my senior year much less stressful. I’d advise you to lean on the “rocks” in your life, and especially your friends who are also applying to colleges, because I can guarantee you that if you’re feeling like I did, you’re not alone!
Additionally, remember not to let this process define you as an individual. After applying, there were definitely difficult days when applications I spent countless hours on were deferred or rejected entirely. I often took these blows personally, rather than understanding that these decisions were in no way indicative of the quality of my character or achievements. Though it can be hard in the moment you receive an email or letter with bad news, roll with the punches, and as the proverb goes, if you fall down seven times, get up eight times. You can do this! Be proud of yourself and your achievements.
Finally, I’d like to share a piece of advice one of my best friends gave me during my senior year. She’d gone through the application gauntlet a year before I did, and she told me that whenever I got too stressed or overwhelmed to close my eyes and picture myself exactly a year from now in college, studying in a library or playing frisbee or at a dining hall with friends. Applications ultimately do have a purpose, and I firmly believe that if you work hard now, you’ll end up in the right place for you, and not be able to picture yourself anywhere else.
Good luck with these next few weeks, and as always, fight on!