Know Your Essay Type!
Having trouble getting started with your college essay? You are not alone: for most seniors, the college essay is a challenge unlike any they have ever been assigned. This is because a college essay has a different job to do than anything you have written in school. A history essay analyzes an event, an opinion piece argues a side, an English paper discusses a work of literature, but an excellent college essay makes complete strangers feel like they have gotten to know you.
Which requires approaching your essay in a unique way. Sure, the fundamentals of strong writing—economy of language, vivid detail, clear organization—will help you here. But, with few exceptions, not much else about the writing you’ve done in high school has been good preparation for the college essay.
So, getting started isn’t easy!
If you are stuck on where to begin, there is no substitute for talking through your ideas with anyone who will listen: a teacher, a counselor, a friend, a trusted cat.
But I also have a piece of advice that, I find, helps students zero-in on essay ideas pretty quickly:
Figure out the Essay Type that is right for you:
There are a million ways to write an amazing college essay, but, in the end, they almost always fall into one of three types:
1) Narrative Essay: this is a single story, the right kind of essay for anyone for whom one event, struggle, achievement, or period of growth stands out as the best illustration of who they are. Examples: you dealt for years with a problematic relative; you saved someone’s life as an EMT; you overcame a significant learning challenge.
2) Thematic Essay: this is a series of anecdotes and examples that illustrate a common theme, rather than tell a single story. This is the right kind of essay for students who feel that a guiding passion, value, or lesson has, in many different ways, shaped their perspective and pursuits. Examples: you are fascinated by the difficulties of translation; you are driven by a sense of adventure; you are dedicated to social justice.
3) Wild Card Essay: this is an essay loosely organized around something a bit quirkier than a guiding passion, value, or life lesson. Often the organizing threads of wild card essays are things students love to do for fun. The trick is to use this framework to keep shifting into serious territory: giving the reader glimpses of your academic interests, extra-curricular involvements, achievements, and goals. Examples: an essay revolving around your love for crossword puzzles; an essay about what goes through your mind while you fish; an essay about your quest to spend the entire summer barefoot.
Once you have figured out the type of essay that best suits your story and your style, it becomes much easier to brainstorm in a targeted and efficient fashion, since each type requires you to think a bit differently about the content you’ll need to make it pop. In my next post, I’ll share some pointers about brainstorming and organizing your material, once you’ve decided which one of these three essay types is right for you!
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