College Applications are the Bane of Every High School Senior’s Career. How to Write a Good One.


Today we’re thrilled to feature Grace Yue as a guest blogger. Grace is one of our Teen Summer Reading Book Review Contest winners—for the second year in a row! This year her winning review tackled Victor Hugo’s classic The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but both years she delighted us with her wit and insight. As a high school senior, she’s giving us her insider’s knowledge on college applications. At the end, I’ve added some library resources to help all college applicants. We wish Grace luck wherever she decides to go!

– Jami, Readers’ Services Assistant

Welcome to college applications, the bane of every high school senior’s career.

(For parents, this post will hopefully help you understand why we students complain so much about college when we’re not the ones opening our checkbooks to pay for it).

confused girl
Even leaving aside the intricacies of tracking the different application components, and the stress of scholarship research, and the effort of studying for standardized tests, there's still what is probably the worst part of the entire application process – essays.

The college essay is universally dreaded not because it's actually horrible to write, but because it's unfamiliar territory.

We've all spent our middle-school years composing cringy research papers on the eating habits of the possum, then gradually advanced into rhetorical analyses and theses.

But for all our experience with writing, none of our papers have ever been about ourselves, what we think, what we like – in fact, the golden rule of school essays is not to write in the first person.

Until now, we've been writing for an audience who, for the most part, only cares about how well we can regurgitate classroom lectures.

(Or maybe how well we can paraphrase SparkNotes without said audience noticing).

The concept of people reading our essays in order to understand us just doesn't click, no matter how many times our counselors tell us, "Admissions officers just want to get to know you!"

So how does one adjust from 4+ years of school essays to a personal statement?

For content, think about the life stories that matter to you. What little incidents make you whip out your phone to text a friend about them?

What life stories of yours, however small, do you enjoy telling to others?

Those are all things that could fit well into a college essay.

Almost any anecdote from your life can be shaped into a good college essay format -- it’s all in how you present the story and analyze it.

Regarding the writing process, changing the physical setting can help change your writing mindset as well.

I deliberately make the process of writing my college essays completely different from how I write school essays.

For academic papers, I typically draft in Google Docs at my desk at home. So when it comes to writing college essays, I’ll swap the laptop for a legal pad, work someplace other than my house, and drink lots of coffee.

(And yes, handwriting college essays can be a hassle, but I find that my writing “voice” flows more naturally when I write longhand).

Looking at sample essays helps as well.

After reading a few, you’ll notice that the structure is very different from an academic essay – college essays generally open with a life story, philosophize about it, and conclude with a new insight.

I personally read about a dozen sample essays on really wildcard prompts, like “write a five-page play” or “tell us why we shouldn’t admit you.”

I can’t say that helped much with the essays I had to write, which were super standard – “tell us about yourself” and “why do you want to attend this school” – but they were definitely a fun read.

Depending on your interests, sample essays can help you determine and/or focus a topic for your own essay.

However, the biggest takeaway from sample essays should probably be structure and not content.

successfully writing an application
Finally, look at essays that you’ve already written/submitted.

Admissions officers at one school don’t know what essays you wrote for other schools. Most essay prompts are deliberately generic, to give you flexibility in telling your life story.

Almost any college essay, with some light editing, can fit the prompt for another personal statement.

For someone interested in entrepreneurship, it might be that one university has a reputable school of business, but another college allows you to receive course credit while interning abroad.

You could use very similar essays for both schools; something as simple as adding a paragraph about “why this school specifically,” or just changing how you present your interest in entrepreneurship, could make as good a narrative as writing a second essay from scratch.

College essays can feel uncomfortable to write, since you’re effectively dumping your life story on a page and hoping for a favorable judgement from some faceless admissions counselors.

But they don’t have to be outright painful to write. Hopefully the advice in this post gave you some insight into the college essay-writing process.

For further reading/more advice, be sure to check out the resources available at the Des Plaines Public Library!

[Grace Yue is a senior attending the Illinois Math and Science Academy (although she's a former Maine West Warrior). In her free time, she writes for the student newspaper, binge-watches Supernatural, and does bad violin renditions of Imagine Dragons. She’s interested in studying computer science at a currently-undetermined university.]

Come take an ACT or SAT practice test at the library, presented by iAchieve Learning.

Come take an ACT or SAT practice test at the library, presented by iAchieve Learning.

This is a proctored full-length practice test. Following the test, you will receive a detailed score report. Our next SAT practice test is on September 14th  and our next ACT practice test is on October 19th. Registration is required.

Prepare for the ACT and SAT by using RB Digital ACT/SAT Test Prep

Prepare for the ACT and SAT by using RB Digital ACT/SAT Test Prep

This is a comprehensive self-paced program. (First time users of RB Digital will need to create an account.)

Check out DPPL's extensive collection on the fourth floor!

Check out DPPL's extensive collection on the fourth floor!

They have books to help with all aspects of the college application process.

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