Writing Your College Essay? Ask These Questions

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Writen by Kate M., Tutor of Greatness for Enhanced Prep

In a recent article, I discussed why the college essay still matters in college admissions, especially during such unpredictable times. In fact, it might be even more important given the impact the pandemic has had on many students’ transcripts and standardized test scores this last spring.

If you’re a rising senior anticipating applying for 2021 admission, I encourage you to start thinking about crafting a compelling personal statement now (if you haven’t already begun). This is because the college essay writing process can be more intensive than most students realize, given the personal statement’s standard: distinct, engaging, personal, and creative writing.

What’s more, many students applying to college will have to consider supplemental essay responses, questions specific schools ask applicants in addition to that personal statement. As the college admissions process becomes more intensive, more and more schools are incorporating these essay questions in an effort to distinguish competitive applicants.

To ensure that you craft a competitive essay–and on a reasonable timeline–I encourage you to ask these questions before you begin. These will guide your brainstorming process, what I consider to be the most important part of the process itself, topic selection, and writing/revising of the essay.

Before Choosing Your Topic

  1. What are your top ten values? Top five?
  2. What is weird about you?
  3. What distinct challenges have you faced in your life (personal, academic, interpersonal, physical, etc.)?
  4. What are your top interests / passions?
  5. What motivates and/or inspires you?
  6. What matters most to you?
  7. How would a friend describe you in five adjectives?
  8. Has anyone ever challenged a belief of yours? What did you do? What did you learn?
  9. What keeps you up at night?
  10. What do you dream about?
  11. Identify a time when you encountered something unexpected. What happened and how did you respond?
  12. What do you believe in?
  13. Who do you aspire to be?
  14. What does the rest of your college application not say?

Choosing Your Topic

  1. Does this topic allow me to say something the rest of my application does not say?
  2. Will talking about this topic demonstrate my character, values, and/or voice?
  3. Will this topic result in an honest essay?
  4. Is it distinct and/or unconventional?
  5. Will this topic give a reader a greater sense of who I am as a person?
  6. Will I enjoy writing it (for the most part)?
  7. Does it have storytelling potential?
  8. Is it specific enough to discuss in 650 words or fewer?
  9. Is it better saved for a supplemental essay?
  10. Will this topic allow me to create some serious introspection and reflection on the page?

Planning Your Outline

  1. Does my topic tell a specific story (beginning, middle, end)?
  2. Does it elaborate upon a belief or perspective?
  3. Does it follow a clear thesis?
  4. Does it involve a central comparison / contrast? 
  5. What are the key takeaways of what I wish to say?
  6. Which structure will allow me to share this story in the most powerful way possible?

Writing That First Draft

  1. What is powerful about this draft?
  2. What background / context details will be critical for the reader? Do I have enough? Too much?
  3. Where do I start talking about the how / why?
  4. Have I left room for introspection and reflection?
  5. What is my storytelling arc?
  6. What can I identify as strengths? Weaknesses?
  7. Where do I see my voice?

Revising Your Additional Drafts

  1. Does this tell a clear, coherent story?
  2. Is everything in its right place?
  3. What takes center stage in my essay?
  4. What do I need to hear more of?
  5. What do I need to hear less of?
  6. Is everything getting the airtime it deserves?
  7. What “picture” have I painted here?
  8. What details do I need more of? Less of?
  9. Where can I incorporate imagery? Specificity?
  10. What tone does my story convey?
  11. Is my language precise and specific?
  12. Are there any glaring grammatical errors in need of fixing?
  13. Is my writing engaging? (not just the story itself)
  14. Where is my voice evident? Where do I need MORE voice?
  15. Where can I incorporate my own distinct writing style?

Good luck!

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