Essay Fodder

The arrival of June brings with it a few things. The end of the old school year. The start of the summer show season (particularly if you’re in the Northeast or Midwest, where we don’t have the benefit of mild weather for shows of the year-round variety)! And if you’re soon to be a senior in high school, it’s also the time of year to start thinking about what your application essay will be about.

“But Randi,” I hear you say, “the application doesn’t even open until August 1 – why on earth would I start working on it now?”

I’m glad you asked, students. I’m glad you asked.

You see, there’s a reason I start taking sign ups for my college essay writing bootcamp in June and run the actual (virtual and remote) camp itself in July – and that reason is simple: It takes time to write a meaningful summation of who you are right now and who you hope to be at the end of four years of college.

But to be fair more than just time, it also takes content – which is where a lot of students struggle right around June (aka now) when they realize that they’ll need to produce an essay in approximately two months and they have absolutely zero idea of what it will be about. “Me” is, after all, a very broad topic, no matter who you are.

And sure, the essay prompts serve as a jumping off point and guide students toward those very broad topics that encompass a wide swath of things that (in theory) help colleges learn about certain characteristics their future students possess or lessons they’ve learned on their way to the college admission process, but the problem is that the prompts are written so broadly that they can easily fit a variety of topics for a wide range of students. They’re all things to all people and this is the exact opposite of helpful for students hoping to pick very specific aspects, ideas, or experiences out of their own lives and committing them to paper.

What’s a budding high school senior to do?!

Step one: Don’t panic. (That’s good advice in a variety of situations, kids.)

Step two: Seize the fantastic opportunity before you and start making lists.

(“What fantastic opportunity are you talking about, Randi?”)

I’m talking about summer break, kids. If you’re a rider, I’m talking about all of the cool horse-y things you have planned for this summer. I’m talking about the volunteer hours you’re planning to put in, your summer job, your family vacation to a new and exotic location (or to Ohio – same difference). I’m talking about the traditions that take place at your annual family reunion, your favorite movie that you’ll stream on a loop as soon as school is out, and the lucky charm you carry around in your tack trunk to all of your shows.

I’m talking about the facets of your life that make up you as a person and that college admission officers need to know about as they evaluate you as a candidate for their institution.

Having just returned from a weekend horse show myself, I can come up with no fewer than six different incidents, life lessons, experiences, and enlightening conversations I had over the course of just three days that could easily spin into a 650 word essay and encapsulate what my riding means to me and how it’s shaped my life and personality. Now I grant you, the ease with which I can discern all of this essay fodder owes in no small part to my profession as a college admission expert and the thousands of essays I’ve read over the course of my career. That said, however, what I hope this information more accurately reveals is that very good essay topics – very good, very revealing, very true and admission-worthy – essay topics are all around you right this very moment.

Because that’s the thing, students: You’ve no doubt already heard a lot of myths and rumors about what constitutes a great college admission essay. Perhaps you’ve even read some online articles with headlines screaming “Read the Essay that Got This Student into Harvard!” and you’ve conjured images in your head of how magnificent this piece of writing needs to be if you’re ever going to be successful at life, let alone get into college. A 650 word masterpiece. The introduction to what you’ll eventually turn into the great American novel.

Spoiler alert: The myths aren’t true.

A great college admission essay – whether for an Ivy League school or your local state public university – is only made great by the fact that it’s about you. It’s true to your life, your experiences, and your beliefs and goals. In fact, the only person capable of adequately telling your particular story is you, and therefore as the author of your own essay (that’s right, parents – your child is the author of his or her own essay), the only one who can fairly judge if you’ve accurately told the story and portrayed yourself is you. Parents, teachers, and college counselors should certainly help make sure that you’ve written an essay that’s clearly understood with correct spelling and grammar, but ultimately, you are driving the bus. If a topic is important to you, it will be easy for you to write about it and your passion will shine through your writing. Conversely, if you sit down to write about what you think college admission officers want to read, you’ll agonize over every word and the writing process will be torturous.

So start making lists about what makes you, well, you. View the events of your summer break through the lens of “is this something that would make good essay fodder?” Start making that list now and then get writing. (After all, August 1 will be here before you know it!)

Need help with your essay or your school search? Contact me or pick up a copy of my book.

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