52 Weeks to College: Week 7 — Drafting Your Essays

Last week, you entered the “crank it out” phase of applying to college. Most applicants have no problem getting to work on the basics of the college application, but get stuck when it comes to writing the essays. Applicants who get stuck procrastinate. Procrastination is the enemy of the standout application. So this week we give you some tips and tricks to keep you from getting stuck. 

Week 7 To-Dos

This Week and Every Week

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year. 

This Week

  • Continue working on the writing for your first application. The essay map you created in Week 6 is your writing to-do list. Hopefully you’ve already started tackling some of these questions. But if not, read on for tips and tricks to slay your writer’s block.
  • Continue working on supplementary materials, such as portfolios, audition materials, research abstracts, and the like. Note: very few of you should have this to-do on your list because you are following Week 4's advice about exhibiting restraint when it comes to these kinds of materials.
  • Check the web sites of colleges on your list to see if and when admissions representatives will be coming to your school, your community, or a place near your home. Note these visits on your calendar and do your best to connect with the admissions representatives then. (We’ll have more advice about how to take advantage of these opportunities in a few weeks.)
  • Continue working on your first scholarship application. If you have identified scholarships for yourself that require separate applications, get to work on those now.
  • Prep for your upcoming standardized tests. In Week 6, you made a test prep schedule for yourself. It will only work if you work it! So go to it.

Tips & Tricks

Just write. Stephen King, a prolific writer, is noted for saying that when it comes to writing, “The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.” Getting started on your college application essays can be quite scary, but the only way to alleviate your fear is to start writing. Don’t worry about the quality of your writing at this point. You are in the drafting phase right now, so just start writing. If you are following the 52 Weeks plan, you have time to revise and polish. But if you let the fear get the best of you, you’ll find yourself at your deadline without having written anything. That is a much scarier place to be! Start, and as Stephen King promises, it will get better.

Structure your essay as a story. Most of you have learned to structure an essay with an introduction, three main points, and a conclusion. That organization works great for an academic essay, but it makes for a deathly dull personal essay. So ditch it and structure your essay as a story instead. A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It grabs the reader and keeps him interested until it releases him. Capturing and keeping the attention of your reader – the admissions officer – is the name of the game. Structuring your essay as a story is the way to do it.

Show, don’t tell. What is the one essential element that all great essays share? They show, rather than tell. When you show the admissions officer something about yourself, the admissions officer actually has a direct experience of it. Not only that, but if you show, then the admissions officer also gets evidence that what you are saying about yourself is true. Direct experiences are far more memorable, and evidence is far more convincing. That’s why showing is the best way to influence an admissions officer in your favor, and why all great essays show rather than tell.

Sit down now and try your hand at drafting an essay that is structured as a story and shows the admissions officer something important about you. If you do that, you are on your way to a standout application!


About the Authors:

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (Southern Methodist University, University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College).

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process and make smart choices about higher education.

You can find more college admissions tips in their book How to Prepare a Standout College Application (Wiley, August 2013), and follow them on Twitter @IveyCollege.


About the 52 Weeks to College Series:

52 Weeks to College is a week-by-week plan for applying to college. It breaks this complex and difficult project down into weekly to-do lists with supporting tips and tricks for getting it all done. Based on the Master Plan for applying to college found in our forthcoming book, How to Prepare a Standout College Application52 Weeks to College is designed for any applicant who intends to apply to top U.S. colleges. For those of you who are just discovering the 52 Weeks series and want to catch up, click here.