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how to write a good essay to apply to college

Guest author Rachel Stern DeJong is the co-chair of Academic Tutoring Centers in Highland Park, IL; prior to that, she taught AP English at the High School of Math, Science and Engineering in New York. When helping students write application essays to college (and other professional schools), Rachel excels at identifying and presenting a genuine and engaged candidate. Rachel has mentored hundreds of high school students (as well as graduate applicants), successfully supporting these individuals in writing their unique personal essays. Read and enjoy!

A case for the strange college essay

“It’s weird.”

In the conversation, some people might balk at this answer. In college essay writing, “weird” can be a good start. People, especially socially conscious teens, try to avoid the label. However, unique interests, like playing the ukulele or collecting antique spoons, often reveal something important, or at the very least, raise questions. This is the key: to inspire your reader to want to know more. There are only a number of ways you can put a distinctive spin on winning the championship game or learning a lesson at a night camp. But an essay on a wrestler who takes dance lessons? This will raise an admissions officer’s eyebrows – in a good way.

Identifying his most compelling quirks is a challenge. I often start brainstorming conversations with the question: what’s the strangest thing about you? However, it’s hard to look in the mirror and see beyond the familiar, especially when you feel the pressure of application deadlines.

Writers need to dig deeper to discover the real gems of the personal essay. One strategy is to literally dig. Most of the teenage rooms could be considered archaeological dig sites, covered with relics, old paper, money stubs, etc. While this is boring for parents, it can be great for brainstorming. Sifting through a random collection of stuff is a great exercise; teens might be surprised at what they find. Maybe it’s a mine of old sketches or a forgotten diary, or maybe a receipt that reminds them of the snowy day they went looking for sleds and ended up on cookie sheets. Sometimes our subconscious tells us to save things that seem insignificant, but have special meaning or a memory hidden inside.

Another trick is to flip the question around by asking family or friends, “What’s the strangest thing about me?” While this can turn a family dinner into a roast, especially if siblings are involved, people close to us can often see endearing quirks that we just can’t see. I tell my students that many of the best essay topics involve paradoxes: things that seem absurd or contradictory, but in a way, true. Maybe it’s a surfer scared of the ocean or a kid teaching a parent to ride a bike. One of my favorite essay samples features a mom who creates artwork entirely from garbage. The central theme of the essay is to embrace differences and find beauty in strange places. This is the second step in the writing process. After identifying “the odd,” colleges expect students to expand their knowledge by extrapolating a small quirk or experience into a larger, more meaningful idea.

Parents who are starting the college process: Encourage your teenager to welcome the weird, the paradoxical, and the downright bizarre as possible essay topics. Writing about these things not only separates human beings from clichés, it shows a self-awareness that comes from true soul-searching. In a dizzying pile of essays, it’s always refreshing for a reader to think, “I’ve never seen this before.

Rachel DeJong
Co-president: Academic Tutoring Centers

phone: 847-432-5100

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