The best college admission essay, like the best of all writing, only works if it is genuine. Good writing is honest and therefore stirs emotions within the reader. Your essay will either speak to the reader or not.

As children, we are taught not to listen to our inner voice but to listen to the voices of others.   We learn the importance of keeping secrets and not speaking honestly about how we feel.  Often, we feel this is safer than risking criticism or embarrassment.   We stay away from topics that are too risky, and this is exactly what you should not be doing!

A winning essay should portray yourself honestly.  Your essay will stand out to the reader when you write with authenticity and feeling.  Students suffer from procrastination and perfectionism.  The root of writers block is perfectionism. The fear that whatever ideas we come up with aren't really good enough.  When students procrastinate writing their college essay it is also due to fear!   Maybe you're afraid of not writing the perfect essay, not getting into college, or even leaving home.  The best way to conquer that fear is to come up with many ideas, not all of them good, most of them bad, but somewhere, hidden deep within the pile of discards, is a real gem. Throw away the red pencils and silence your inner voices of self-criticism and the criticism of others. Let's get started.

Writers have many tricks to help them. The two exercises I recommend are creating a self-inventory timeline and a list of your personality traits. Creating a timeline is an excellent way to see the entirety of your life in one glance. Creating a timeline,  as a first step can be very useful; it leads to the information necessary to answer any college entrance essay question. It is helpful to have a large workspace because you'll want to include ideas and details as you go along. A good way to do this is by taping five or six sheets of paper together the long way and then laying it on the floor or taping it to a wall. A stack of post-it notes will also come in handy as you come up with extra information that you want to add. Divide your timeline by years, but fill it in by memories. That fifth birthday party when the clown didn't show up so your father painted his face, put on a silly hat and tried to make everyone laugh anyway. That speeding ticket you got when you were seventeen that you couldn't talk your way out of, but you haven't speeded since. Get the idea?

Perhaps the most important exercise of all involves thinking about your own personality traits. Make a list about yourself. Include traits that you consider special. They don't all have to be positive, they just have to be about you. A list may look like this:

I gossip too much and always feel bad later
I bite my nails down to the quick
I wish I still believe in a Santa Claus
I am stingy with my money but not with my time
I give my brother the biggest portion at dinner, but regret it later

I like these two techniques because they will give you a lot of information about yourself. As you learn more about yourself, you will pick one of the topics from the personality list or the timeline and develop it. Remember, the topic you pick does not have to be a big event in your life. Sometimes the smallest details like your lunch box, an expression on your face in a photograph, or an old sneaker are the most revealing. Get the picture? Now that you have brainstormed and have found the bare bones of an idea you can begin to develop it.

Next, fill in the details, this will add emotion to your essay and create "your unique voice." This step is crucial; it is only through your unique voice that you will be heard. Remember, the admission officers are human and experience the same emotions as you.

Take your topic and look at it from different points of view and write your essay from a unique perspective.   For example: Recently, I worked with a girl whose mother had died and she wanted to write about her loss.   This is a heart wrenching life experience and because it is just that, the student must be careful not to write a sappy essay.   What she wrote about was the dynamics between her and her mother's doctor.   This was an interesting perspective and one filled with honest emotion. Through understanding this relationship and her feelings, she experiences personal growth.

You now have the tools and understanding of how to write a winning college essay  that will connect to your reader,  the college admission officer, who holds the key to your future.

©2009 Wanda Behrens Horrell, All Rights Reserved

About the Author

Wanda Behrens-Horrell

Wanda Behrens-Horrell, L.C.S.W., N.C.Psy.A, is a child developmental psychoanalyst in Scarsdale, NY.

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