The one thing you need to write killer college admissions essays

As I get closer to the end of my time at Stanford, I’ve been thinking a lot about my time in college, as well as the admission process that got me here in the first place.

Looking back, there wasn’t much that stood out about me as an college applicant. I wasn’t extraordinarily smart or talented, not in the way some of my peers at Stanford here are. I didn’t make films for the UN or invent a new low cost way of detecting cancer (things some of my classmates have actually done). However, there was one thing I did do extremely well: writing my college admissions essays.

As we get deeper into back to school season, more and more high school seniors are getting ready to start their college applications (which may include you, dear reader!). So, I’d like to tell you about what I believe to be the single most important thing you need to write an amazing college admissions essay.

“Why should I listen to you?”
Bluntly put, I was successful with the college process. I was accepted into Stanford and Princeton, my two dream schools, I managed to graduate high school without getting a single college rejection letter. I personally believe it had a lot to do with the essays I wrote.

I also really, really enjoyed the writing. The rest of the application was kind of a pain, but I loved writing, and I loved explaining myself to others, so I had a blast writing my essays. I spent hundreds of hours researching and working on my college essays, and now I’m hoping to put some of that expertise to good use by passing it on.

“Sounds good. So, what do I need for an amazing essay?”
Let me start by telling you what you don’t need. You don’t need to be an amazing writer. You don’t need to have mind-blowing, Forbes 30 under 30 accomplishments. You don’t need to have lived through extraordinary life experiences.

The one thing you need, and the one thing everyone is capable of achieving, is introspection. According to Google, introspection is defined as “the examination or observation of one’s own mental and emotional processes.”

In order to write a compelling essay about anything, you need to be an expert on the subject. The college essay is no different. If you don’t know yourself, you’re going to have a tough time convincing anyone of anything about you.

Before I even began thinking about my college essays, I had spent months and years trying to understand myself. I kept a diary, as well as a running list of things I knew to be true about myself (the list was frequently revised), mostly because it was interesting to me. When it came time to write my college essays, I already had a great sense of the story I wanted to tell.

My Common App essay was about writing, and the way writing served as a stabilizing and guiding force throughout the ups and downs I experienced in life. I didn’t talk about anything special in the essay, and it wasn’t a literary masterpiece by any means. What made my essay stand out was that I had a good sense of who I was and what mattered to me, and it showed.

College essays are all about be able to explain your life thus far in a cohesive narrative. You don’t need to start being introspective as early as I did (that might just be a personality thing), and you don’t need to have your entire life figured out by senior year of high school (there’s plenty of time for panicking about that in the four years to follow), but start to get a sense of your strengths and your weaknesses. The things you’re drawn to, the way you view the world. Why have you chosen to spend your free time the way you do? Of the somewhat limited choices you get to make as a teenager, why did you make the choices you did? Do they add up to something bigger?

Below I have a list of questions you can ask yourself to prompt some introspection, but at the end of the day, what this really requires is you just setting aside some time to think and reflect. Look for patterns, little things that speak to a bigger picture.

If you can acquire a deep and meaningful understanding of yourself, then you have the key to a truly extraordinary college essay. The rest will follow.

Have specific questions you want answered? Want to get personalized feedback on your essays? I offer one on one advising available to anyone around the world, and would love to work with you! 

Questions for Introspection

  1. What is one in the world that I hope will happen in my lifetime? Why?
  2. What are some things I can’t live without?
  3. How would I spend my time if I didn’t have any obligations? Why?
  4. What were my favorite classes in high school? Is there a pattern or connection across the types of classes I enjoyed?
  5. What gets me excited?
  6. What scares me?
  7. Who do I look up to? What do I admire about them?
  8. What role do I play in my family? How about in my friend group? In the classroom? Is there any pattern?
  9. What’s one thing that’s stayed consistent about me since I was young? What’s one thing that’s changed?
  10. Write down a list of things you know to be true about yourself. What types of things did you write? Is there any connection between things you wrote?

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