Who are you?

I love the college essay.  After years of learning the best practices for writing analytical, persuasive, and research papers ("Don't use 1st person!" "Cite your sources!" "Remember 5-paragraph structure!"), a student is expected to write a beautifully crafted personal essay ("Use 1st person!" "Be unique!" "5-paragraph structure is boring!") that will encapsulate his best self and bring his personality to life for people who will only meet him on paper--people who will decide whether or not he is fit to receive an invitation to their university.  Not too much to ask, right?


As we're sitting here in the middle of summer, you rising seniors out there have a chance to get a jump start on this whole exciting undertaking.  The Common App has already published the prompts for 2015-2016.  Most colleges with their own applications will publish those in August.  I highly recommend spending time over the next week or two doing some prewriting, if not some actual drafting (for the Common App at least).  A few suggestions for your prewriting:

  1. Don't skip this step in the essay process.
  2. Don't use the application prompts to prompt your prewriting.  You probably shouldn't even worry about the application prompts at all until you're near the end of this step.
  3. Colleges want to know: Who are you? Behind all of those numbers, activities, and awards, what makes you, you?  As mom to a 1- and 3-year-old, I read a lot of Margaret Wise Brown.  In her The Important Book, the last page says something like, "But the important thing about you is that you are you." So true, Brownie, so true.  That's what you have to keep going back to in the college essay process.  Who are you?  What is it that makes you, you?  It's important, and colleges want to know.
  4. Now that you're inspired by children's literature, jot down some things about you: What makes you unique (or different from that guy who sits beside you in PreCalc)? If someone asked your friend or your mom to describe you, what would he or she say (better yet, go ask and take notes!)? What do you feel are your defining personality traits?  Thinking about the rest of your application: what about you is missing from that picture?
  5. Do some daily free writing.  Free writing happens when you set a timer and just write, starting off with a given prompt.  Take just one of your notes from #4 and use it as a prompt.  Set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes.  And just write what comes to mind.  See what stories come to the surface, or what emotions.  Don't be shy about following where your thoughts lead.  Is this squishy and feely enough for you?  Good.  You're going to want your admissions officers to have an emotional response (positive! powerful!) to your final essay.  Free write every day until you run out of prompts or you get a deeper sense of who you are and how to convey that idea on paper.
  6. Finally, read over what you've written and consider what you've learned.  Now it's time to look at the application prompts and see which one best fits the themes from your prewriting.  Once you've picked a prompt (or two), it's time to move on to the next phase: "outlining" (for lack of a better word at this time).

And I'm not going to discuss that next phase here.  Cliff hanger!

Here's where I'll throw out my shameless plug.  If it's not allowed on my site, where it is?  I offer help with each stage of the college essay process, from prewriting to final review.  Wherever a student feels like he needs some guidance, I'm happy to meet him.  This service is available wherever you are, across the United States and the world!  Contact me at elease.layman@gmail.com for more information!