Communicating Your Stories: Tips for Great College Application Essays

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College Application Essays are the top non-academic factor in college admissions. Here are some tips to help under-represented and other students write great essays.


  • 1. Communicatingyourstories:Strategies forhelpingstudents writepowerfulcollegeessays Rebecca Joseph, PhDrjoseph@calstatela.edufacebook: getmetocollege freeadviceFB page: All College EssaysiPad/iPhone App: All College Application Essays
  • 2. Florisels Essay The rain felt like needles pricking at my skin, causing me to wish I couldhave had an extra layer of clothing. But what could have an extra layer ofclothing done? Not much since further ahead it would have beendamped and heavy. I always wished for marathons to be on cloudy andrainy days so the heat wouldnt cause the runs to be harder. A year agoduring the LA Marathon, I got more than I wished for. It poured heavily. But this time, I wasnt running for myself; I was running with the fourmiddle school students I had trained for the past eight months. I startedoff the race running alongside the coach and a student who wanted tobe sure she would have a good pace to finish. Surprisingly, by the secondmile, she had already started to speed up, and I asked her if she wouldlike to run ahead. The enthusiastic look in her eyes shone through like aray of light; she was hopeful that by running ahead she could beat thetime people expected of her. As both of us continued on towards thefourth mile, the rain became heavier and the chilly wind grew fierce. Theonly way we could try to battle the cold and try to keep our bodies warmwas to run faster and longer.
  • 3. Florisels Essay Little by little we managed to run the magnificent From the Stadium to the Seacourse. It was my fourth time running the L.A. Marathon and second timerunning the course. To my benefit and disgrace knowing the path helped andhurt me--I knew how far we were from the finish line, the hills, streets, andplaces. That made the temptation to stop when I felt sleepy and exhausted greatjust like the temptation to run ahead when I had energy, but I was aware that mypartner was going to need help and encouragement in those last and arduousmiles. With her I was able to give back the support I received in my firstmarathon, and deep inside I was grateful for the opportunity. As we headed to Rodeo Drive a sudden rush of energy came over me. The viewof the stores and their elegance made me remember that the marathonrepresented my struggle to achieve a better life for myself and the people Iloved. I remembered that I had my family standing in the cold and harsh raintrying to stay dry under the umbrellas whose flaps were weak against that oceanwind.
  • 4. Florisels Essay Remembering all this carried me through when I hit the wall on mile 22. Theenergy I had felt before was leaving my grasp. I felt that that was as far as I couldgo. My partner had become exhausted and our walking pace had become slower.We had met three other students who were struggling to continue, one of themwas starting to get the chills, while another had cramps; it was at that momentthat my real fear began. I was scared that they might collapse and that I wouldntbe able to help them. All I could think of was to accommodate the pace to theirneeds without letting them give up on running at least a little. All five of us completed the 2011 Los Angeles Marathon on the rainiest andcoldest day we ever experienced. My greatest accomplishment was to helpstudents achieve the goals they thought impossible to complete. I learned that Ihave the strength and character to accomplish and succeed, and that though theroad may not be easy, it is possible.
  • 5. Essays = opportunityTake control over the highest ranked non-academic aspect of theapplicationRealize the package of essays countsnot just oneShare their voiceExpress who they really areShow (not tell) stories that belong only to them and help themjump off the pageChallenge stereotypesReflect on their growth and development, includingaccomplishments and serviceSeek to understand what the admission officer is looking for
  • 6. How important are the essays?1. Grades2. Rigor of Coursework, School3. Test Scores4. Essays*5. Recommendations-Teacher and/or Counselor6. Activities-Sustainedconsistency, development, leadership, andinitiative7. Special skills, talents, awards, community serviceand passions
  • 7. What do admissions officerslook for in essays?ContextValuesIntellectual curiosity, a playful mind, or a sense of humorCommitment/Depth of InterestsInteraction with and/or perception by othersSpecial talents and qualitiesRealistic self-appraisal
  • 8. Steps to success1)Understand the essays you will have to write2)Create a master chart to highlight patterns3)Read successful sample essays4)Write a resume5)Brainstorm core qualities and unique stories6)Use the Into, Through, and Beyond method
  • 9. Understand the essays The University of California Prompts All applicants must respond to two essay prompts the general promptand either the freshman or transfer prompt, depending on your status. Responses to your two prompts must be a maximum of 1,000 words total. Allocate the word count as you wish. If you choose to respond to one prompt atgreater length, we suggest your shorter answer be no less than 250 words. The essay prompts 1. Freshman applicant prompt Describe the world you come from for example, your family, community or school and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations. 2. Prompt for all applicants Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experiencethat is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proudand how does it relate to the person you are?
  • 10. Understand the essays1)The Common Application: New Prompts! One Long: Some students have a background or story that is so central to theiridentity that they believe their application would be incomplete withoutit. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did itaffect you, and what lessons did you learn? Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What promptedyou to act? Would you make the same decision again? Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. Whatdo you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you? Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that markedyour transition from childhood to adulthood within yourculture, community, or family. Short, Activities, Additional Information, and Supplemental2)Large Public UniversitiesThe UCS, and other big publics3)Private College Specific Applications4)Other Systems (Universal Application, etc.)
  • 11. Create a master chart: patterns1)Major Deadlines and Needs (by application type)2)Core Essays (color code all similar or overlappingessays)3)Supplemental Essays (color code similar typesi.e. Why are you a good match for us? or Howwill you add to the diversity of our campus?
  • 12. Read sample essays andpromptsEssays that worked: Connecticut College of Chicago, Elon, and Tufts have greatadditional essay promptsEssays from other students in your programs
  • 13. Write a resumeAcademic: Current school, honors, AP courses, testscores (if strong), summer programsActivities: Colleges look forconsistency, development, leadership, and initiative.Describe the level of activity and any awards andhonors received. Include leadership positions held.Include Sports, Service, Volunteer Work, Jobs orEmployment, Internships as appropriate.
  • 14. Core qualities and uniquestoriesBrainstorming Exercises:Write a letter to future roommateWrite a Where Im From poem modeledon George Lyons originalWrite three responses to the commonapplication short essay activities prompt
  • 15. Letter to future roommateDear Roommate,I love making lists. A series of lists serve as decorations of my walls, lockers and notebooksspeckles of organization in a lifestylecharacterized by organized chaos.One of my most rece