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Oct 02

5 Tips for Writing a Gutsy College Application Essay

A good essay is an essential part of any college application, and The Writing Barn wants to help high school students get into the college of their dreams. This fall, The Writing Barn Presents College Essay Bootcamp, a three-part workshop being held on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays in October and November. Attendance is limited to the first 8 high school students who register for each workshop to keep the focus on learning. Each three-session workshop costs $150.

Sara Kocek

Sara Kocek

The College Essay Bootcamp is taught by the wonderful writer and editor Sara Kocek, whose novel What Happened at Talmadge Hill will be published by Albert Whitman in 2013. Sara holds an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University, where she taught fiction and poetry to undergraduates. Prior to pursuing her MFA, Sara graduated with a B.A. in English from Yale University, where she worked as a Writing Fellow, tutoring undergraduate and graduate students in academic and creative writing. In addition to 5+ years of experience editing fiction, Sara has 7+ years of experience with college essay coaching for high school students. In short, she’s a great teacher.

Sara wrote a guest post for The Writing Barn blog, giving 5 Tips for Writing a Gutsy College Application Essay. Here’s what she had to say:

A love letter is the reason I got into Yale.

No joke: I hand-wrote the thing on pink stationary and spritzed it with honeysuckle perfume before I sealed the envelope. It was addressed not to the admissions committee, but to the college itself: Dearest Yale, I wrote. My life before I met you was a jumbled mess of information sessions and campus tours, scattered with one-afternoon stands and cheap thrill purchases at campus bookstores…

Most high school guidance counselors will tell you never to try something like this. But I had very little to lose. It was June of my senior year, and I was stuck on the wait-list. I figured, why not? Amazingly, it worked. Not because of the pink stationary or the perfume, but because the letter was—if I dare say so myself—well written. Combined with my application essay, it gave the admissions officers a glimpse of the human side of me beyond my GPA and test scores.

Since then, I’ve helped dozens of high school seniors hone their college application essays to reflect their unique personalities, passions, and goals. Your personal statement is your best (and possibly only) chance to speak directly to the admissions committee and tell them in your own words who you are. Don’t mess up this chance!

Let me be clear: I would NOT advise a “hail-Mary” move unless you happen to wind up on a wait-list, like me. But I WOULD advise treating your college essay as a chance to be gutsy and original—a chance to startle the admissions committee out of their numbers-induced stupor. This doesn’t mean choosing a controversial subject simply for the sake of controversy. It doesn’t mean pretending to be über-creative if you’re not. And it most certainly doesn’t mean abandoning the principals of good writing to replace your essay with an experimental haiku. It does, however, mean this:

1. Be brave.

If you’re stuck between two topics and you can’t decide which to write about, choose the one that scares you a little. If it’s harder for you to write, chances are it’ll be more interesting to read. Whatever you do, don’t choose a topic just because you think it’s “safe” or because it sounds like it fits in with other college essays you’ve read. The goal is to stand out, not fit in!

2. Be honest.

Not all of us have overcome monumental struggles in our short lifetimes—we haven’t survived cancer or nursed a sick parent back to health or been homeless or experienced the ravages of war. You may think to yourself, “There is nothing in my life worth writing about,” but that isn’t true. To write a great college application essay, you don’t need to write about something “big.” You just to need to write honestly, from the heart, about a single experience (or a single person) in your life. Not sure how? Start by pushing yourself to admit something that not even your close friends or family know about you—some truth about yourself that you normally keep guarded. I’m not talking about anything tawdry, of course. I’m talking about simple truths. Perhaps you secretly enjoy classical music. Perhaps you long to break out of the shadow of an older sibling. Perhaps you’re beginning to question the political party your parents support. These truths can make for a wonderful starting point when you sit down to craft your essay.

3. Be vulnerable.

One of the best college essays I ever read came from a girl who constantly felt like a misfit around people her own age. She described the anxiety she felt while walking through the hallways at school, and how—for her—college represented a chance to become more at ease in her own skin. It was a simple subject, but as I read the essay I found myself surprised and impressed by her candor. By showing vulnerability and admitting an area of weakness (social anxiety), she came across as genuine and refreshingly honest.

4. Be economical.

500 words may seem like a lot when you’re staring at an empty page. But once you’ve chosen a topic and penned your first draft, you’ll find it’s not much at all. Bear in mind the words of William Strunk, Jr., “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” Do your best to omit the fluff from your essay so as to make more room for the words and sentences that matter most.

5. Be meticulous.

Once you’ve finished your essay, read it at least 20 times. Comb over every word and ask yourself whether it’s the right one. If there is one sentence that seems weaker than the others, don’t ignore it. Tinker with it until you get it right. Once you’ve taken it as far as you can, show it to a few trusted readers and ask them to proof-read for spelling, grammar, punctuation, and style errors. If someone reads your essay and tells you it’s perfect, don’t believe them!

For my own application essay, I chose a risky subject: I wrote about writing. For me, it was a scary decision, since I was essentially putting myself to a test. (You can’t claim to love writing and then write a terrible essay—not without losing credibility.) Fortunately, that essay (along with the rest of my application) was enough to earn me a spot on the wait-list, which then prompted me to send the love letter. There were six people admitted from the wait-list that year, five of them before me. In the end, I was the last person accepted to the Yale University class of 2008—the very last person.

But I got in, didn’t I?

To register for The Writing Barn Presents’ College Essay Bootcamp, email info@thewritingbarn.com and say which workshop you want to take: Sunday, Monday or Thursday. For more information about the class, see the descriptions in the Writing Barn October and November events pages.

Here’s a little more about Sara:

At Yale, Sara was awarded several of the university’s top writing prizes: the Elmore A. Willets prize, the Francis Bergin Memorial Prize, and the McLaughlin Memorial prize. A former full-time editorial intern at Random House and Penguin, she now lives in Austin, Texas, where she worked most recently as the Program Director for the Writers’ League of Texas.

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