I have been around high school seniors long enough to know that writing essays for scholarships and colleges isn’t what they dream about, but it may be what keeps them up at night. No, not because they are contemplating about them, but rather because they likely procrastinated on the essay portion of the application and are still writing the night before the deadline.
Ahh, the dreaded essays. Seniors, I know they may make you uncomfortable and you often think they are boring. You tell me that they cause unnecessary stress and they take too much of your time. I know that Netflix, Facebook, and your video games will probably start feeling lonely if you are away from them for more than a few hours to write your essays, right?
Sarcasm aside, the reason essays don’t win the popularity contest among high school seniors is because students readily find themselves without a guide to how they should be written or where to start.
At the core of successful essays is meaning, not lists of activities and endless accomplishments. Maya Angelou got it right. “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
So relax, take a deep breath, and read the following six tips that will help you find your voice and write outstanding essays:
- Uniqueness: Could someone else write this essay, this story? If yes, it’s time to rethink what you will share with the selection committee. Many of the essays I read don’t get beyond this point. The more time you spend writing a generic essay that sounds like the ten other essays I just finished reading, the less time you have to share about what makes you, well, YOU.
- Focus: Does your essay attempt to share your entire life story or, in best case scenario, your high school career? If yes, it’s time to revise and narrow the ground you will cover. If we compare life to the proportion of a cake, only give the reader a thin slice. Instead of talking about all the sports you participated in, write about when you were captain of the basketball team and had to convince the other players to extend practice by one hour. See the difference?
- Opening: Within the first couple of sentences, you either have the attention of your reader or you don’t. If you don’t, it will be heavy lifting to the end of the essay. So why not ensure that your essay begins with something interesting.
- Tone: Most college or scholarship essay prompts are crafted to allow the selection committee to learn more about you, so write in your voice – first person. Rarely will these essays demand that you use your extremely “academic” and “researcher” voice.
- Story: The popular vehicle through which we communicate meaning is through storytelling. Much of a scholarship or college essay is storytelling. But keep in mind that storytelling is less about telling and more about showing. So don’t say you are a leader. Show the reader what a leader looks like. Your focused story may be up to 40% of your essay content.
- Take-Away: The story by itself is not enough to produce a compelling essay; you need to pair it with the “aha” moment or what you learned from the situation you described. It explains the implications of your story. Complexity of thought is always appreciated here. This section may take up 60% or more of your essay content, and is perhaps the most important part.
If you put your best effort in writing a powerful essay I can assure you that not only will you improve your chances of getting into the college of your dreams or getting that competitive scholarship, but you are also likely to learn something new about yourself. And for most of us, we only write scholarship and college essays once in our lifetime, so why not make it unforgettable?