How did you write your college essay?

Posted: April 27, 2017

Let me tell you a story:
I decided in 9th grade that Northwestern was the only school I wanted to attend. I wanted to be an actress and someone told me NU was the best undergrad program for acting (that didn’t require an audition). So the stakes for writing that essay were really high.

I put off writing the essay so long that my mother actually had to ground me to my room for three days to get me to write it. It took three days because I was completely blocked. The college essay is so intimidating—they’re going to judge me on this piece of writing alone!—and because it was my first choice school, I had built it up that much more in my mind. Total performance anxiety.

I couldn’t think of any way to begin and, this being the era before word processors were affordable, I wasn’t about to type multiple drafts of this thing, so I had to begin at the beginning. Finally, I decided I had to borrow an opening. I sat at the typewriter and wrote three words: (Get ready; you’re going to laugh.)

“Call me Ishmael.”

Yes, that just happened. But wait. I followed it up with literary gold:

“No, don’t. Well, you can, but I might not answer. My name is Lessa S and I’m the daughter of a contralto and an Irish tenor.”

The rest was some stream of consciousness BS that I don’t even remember. I typed one draft, showed it to no one (because I hadn’t left myself enough time and it was too personal, anyway), sealed it in the envelope and dropped it in the mail.

Now that I’m a college counselor, I am both amused and embarrassed by this story. I have no way of knowing if my essay hurt or helped me. Why it could have helped:

  1. It showed I had read at least one literary novel. (Moby Dick)
  2. It was full of voice and personality—like, almost too much voice and personality; I basically opened a vein and just bled onto the page. But most essays are deadly dull recitations of what the student has achieved, and mine wasn’t.
  3. Describing myself as the daughter of a contralto and an Irish tenor is a very nice literary turn of phrase that both shows my musical orientation and hints at why my parents were divorced (my mother wore the pants in the family).
  4. It showed I took risks (or was foolhardy) and had a sense of humor.

Why it could have hurt: I mean, seriously. Who sends a rough draft of a stream-of-consciousness essay to a highly-selective college like Northwestern? They could easily have read it, rolled their eyes and stamped deny on it.

Someone stood up in committee and fought for me, maybe in spite of my essay. I had the equivalent of a 33 on the ACT, I had three APs at a time when most people had zero, I was in the top 10% of my really academically challenging high school class, and I wanted to be an actress. Not the typical academic profile of most of the theatre department. I was also economically diverse: I was raised by a single mother and almost a first generation college student (both parents had some college but neither had graduated at that point). Also, while NU was “impossible to get into” back then as well, at the time that meant they accepted 43% of their applicants, not 11%.

The moral of this story is this: Tell a story and leave your voice/personality in. Don’t be afraid to be a little goofy. But also excel academically and extracurricularly so they can’t deny you outright. 

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