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How to Start a College Essay

Kennon Dick

Written by Kennon Dickon September 4th, 2016

I started my career as an admissions counselor for Johnson State College. Soon after that, I served as associate director at Drexel University, where I was also the athletic liaison between the admissions office and coaches. In addition, I spent a few years at Drexel working with transfer students, reviewing applications, and developing articulation agreements with area colleges. Moving to Swarthmore College, I served for eight years as an associate dean of admissions and again as the athletics liaison. My years at Swarthmore in what I call hyper-selective admissions is where I gained much of the experience I use to help me guide students in putting together the strongest application possible.
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Starting your college essay doesn’t have to be hard.

“Have you started your college essay yet?” “No.” “Why not?” “I have no idea what I should write about.” If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. Across the country many teenagers are simply stuck. They know they need to, or even want to, get started on their college essay, but they have no idea how to choose a topic. It can be quite the daunting task. The beginning sets the whole tone of the essay, and if you start off on the wrong foot, the whole essay will suffer. You want your essay to showcase your identity, and set you apart from the crowd, but want to stop short of being that student who puts their essay through a paper shredder before sending it in a Ziplock bag (true story – art school applications can be a bit…unorthodox). Do you keep your essay light hearted and try to make the admission counselor laugh? Or do you take a serious, more personal approach and write about death or tragedy? Whatever approach you take, before you start your essay, first you need a plan. Before starting, get out a pen and a pad of paper, and get ready to quickly scribble down some notes. Be messy and don’t hesitate to jot something down whenever it comes to mind. The goal here is to stop staring at a blank screen and get some ideas out of your head and on to some paper. Now pull out your phone. Send a text to five of your best friends and five of your closest family members, asking them to share the top three words that describe your character. When you get the responses back, you will have a good idea of how others perceive you and what others value about you. Write these down on that pad of paper. Much of what is written about in college essays is from an external perspective—that of teachers and guidance counselors. Sometimes there are aspects of your personality that others really value that you don’t think are a big deal. An excellent example is that of the good confidant; often these students are great listeners and have solid advice to share with their friends in need, but they don’t feel that this trait is a big deal. Their friends, however, know it is and value the trait enormously. Once you have a general sense of what others value in you, look through the list and think about which characteristics might be sought after on a college campus. Remember when writing an essay for college like Duke University, characteristics like “smart” or “dedicated” are going to be really common traits in their application pool. Look for character traits that might be different and/or add to a campus community. If you say to yourself “well, I’m not sure if I have any unique experiences” try thinking of different perspectives you have on those experiences. Keep that pen and paper handy and jot down everything that comes to mind; you can always leave it on the paper when you actually start writing your essay. Then, once you’ve chosen what character traits to focus on and highlight, think of anecdotes that demonstrate this trait. If the trait is “funny,” think of that time at Thanksgiving dinner when you had the whole family in stitches with your dry wit.  If you are “caring,” tell the story of the time your sister fell off the rope swing at the park and you ran two miles to the ranger station to get help. This is often when your parents can be a big help, recalling their own memories of situations that impressed them about the characteristic you want to convey. Once you have this framework, you’ll have the hardest part of starting your college essay done. You’ll know what traits you want to convey, and you’ll have some examples of real life experiences that help illustrate them. Now, all you’ll have to do is finish! Conveying ideas and thoughts through storytelling is powerful; it’s easy for an admissions officer to retell the story in a committee room and get their colleagues to see what they see in the student in front of them. If you are lucky, that admissions officer will read your college essay, smile, tilt back in his chair and yell across the hallway “Hey Dave, c’mere, you have to read this.” Essay-Pitfalls-CTA


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