Preparing for College

College Essay Tips for "Ordinary Teenager"

Question: It seems like everyone else has something significant to write about in their college essays … the death of a parent or winning some national music award. I am just an ordinary teenager. I have lived in my same suburban house my whole life and am in a bunch of typical school clubs. How can I write an essay that will be memorable?

College admission officials aren't looking for drama in application essays. Instead, they are more interested in submissions that reveal what's important to you and how you think. If humor is your strong suit, that can be a nice addition as well. Seven hours into a mountain of folders, most admission folks could use a good laugh! (But don't force the humor if you're not a natural Will Ferrell or Tina Fey.)

When I worked in an admission office, one of my all-time favorite essays was about a laundry mishap at summer school. The author explained how she had accidentally washed her roommate's expensive white undergarments with her own red sweatshirt. Of course, the essay wasn't really just about laundry … it was more about the boundaries of friendship, and the fact that it was beautifully written was more important than the subject matter. Other wonderful essays I remember include one about playing in a truly awful school band and another hilarious one called “Why I Shop at Wal-Mart."

While there are lots of books out there that serve up samples of “successful" essays, there are two that I like that offer helpful suggestions on how to craft your own. For years, I've recommended On Writing The College Application Essay: Secrets of a former Ivy League Admissions Officer by Harry Bauld. In particular, “Whole Sole," about a summer home-stay in France, which Bauld includes among his examples, is one that I often send to my advisees.

A newcomer to the essay how-to roster that I also highly recommend is Concise Advice: Jump-Starting Your College Admissions Essays by Robert Cronk. I just recently read this book to review it on College Confidential, and the author is a long-time College Confidential member, too. :)

Both of these books do an excellent job of showing readers how to build a meaningful essay out of the raw material of their teenage lives--even those readers who haven't published a novel or cured cancer (yet). And I bet you can do the same with your essay. Good luck!

(posted 11/30/2010)