Writing Your College Application Essay

Monday, August 17, 2015

It's crunch time.

School is starting back.  Teachers are busy preparing syllabi and finalizing lesson plans.  Students are managing schedules and buying school supplies.  And for all you seniors, you've likely got your sights set on college: freshman year, school pride, moving out, choosing your major, life in a dorm.

(Seriously though).

But before you arrive to the many joys and battles of college, there is the first hill to conquer.  The application process.  But no fear!  It can be done!  I know from personal experience how stressful the process can be. But if you know where to start and what to do, then filling out college applications and writing the required essays become much easier.

So where to begin?

1. Have your transcript and super-scored standardized test scores.

Depending on your school's policies, you should be able to super-score your SAT or ACT test scores. This means that you can take the tests multiple times and combine your highest scores from each category together to make one super-score.  Also, you should know the average standardized test scores at the schools you're applying to.

2. Find your school's application forms online and know the deadline.

Some schools have a rolling admissions policy, which means that you can apply anytime you want within a large window of time and you can receive notice of your acceptance almost immediately.  Other schools have an application deadline.  You do not want to miss this deadline.

3. Start asking for letters of recommendation.

You want to do this wisely and early.  Letters of recommendation are a significant part of an application, because they show that your superiors respect you.  Try to find people who have been in positions of authority over you and who know you well.  Common roles for letters of recommendation are teachers, pastors, coaches, mentors, bosses etc.  Make sure you give the person enough time to sufficiently complete the letter of recommendation.

4. Keep everything organized!

You'll be surprised by how chaotic everything gets when you have different application forms, fees, letters and essays printed for each different school you've chosen.  Be careful to keep everything together.

5. If you're applying to an art school or music conservatory, you may need to submit a portfolio of your work.

Choose your finest work carefully and have as much variance as you can to show breadth of artistry.

6. Ask for an interview.

Not every college allows interviews for undergraduate applications, but it's always a good idea to inquire about an interview and to make it happen if possible.  The interview process allows your admissions advisor to get to know you.  The better they know you, the more apt they are to help you get into your school.

Everything You Need To Know About The Essay:

I once had a conversation with one of Wheaton's admissions counselors about what they look for and what stands out in an application essay.  He shared that the majority of essays are very similar to each other, each following a similar model that looks something like this:  "I've been at church my whole life and I was very involved in youth group.  But my life was really changed during a one week summer missions trip.  This experience opened my eyes..."  OR  "I come from a Christian family but the defining moment for me was at church camp junior year..."

Basically, most people write about A) a summer missions trip or B) church camp and youth group.  Now, don't get me wrong, these are wonderful things and I don't doubt that they can be life changing! I, too, was very involved in my youth group — however, it's also true that these things have become cliches for Christian college applications.

The counselor went on to say that people start essays with phrases like, "Soccer is my passion..." OR "I just love theatre because I have a passion for performing..."

"Don't tell me you have a passion, show me!" he exclaimed.  

This is what admissions counselors see.  You don't want to fall into the trap of the obvious.  Learn to standout.  Say why, how, how much, not just what.

A few general tips:
  • Write about something narrow and specific to you.  If you really want to write about church camp, then go for it.  But make sure your narrative is uniquely yours, not a cookie cutter story that anyone could have.  Why did the experience impact you?  What from your background emphasized this experience?  How were you different afterwards?
  • Keep it under the word maximum.  The essays are usually short because the admissions counselors have to read so many of them.  Don't exceed the maximum.
  • Choose a topic that will highlight your personality.  This is similar to having a platform.  What do you want to be the "theme" of your application?  Maybe mentorship, teaching, volunteering,  music, sports.  Find your theme.
  • Have a title.  And this title shouldn't just be "Ciera Horton's First Application Essay for Wheaton".  Nope.  Boring.
  • Write multiple drafts and have others proofread.  This is an important enough essay that you can ask teachers, parents and friends to offer critical advice.
  • Many Christian schools will have one traditional essay and one personal reflective essay, usually asking for your testimony, so be prepared for both.
  • It is definitely okay to use the same essays for different college applications!  Just make sure the essays still sufficiently answer the prompt for every school's requirements. 
Okay, you can do it!

Now, I'm going to share one of my own college application essays, written in the fall of 2012 (so long ago now!)  It is shared here exactly as it was submitted.  

Fail With Success
by Ciera Horton

I stood in a sea of public speaking competitors, students all dressed in business attire with polished speeches.  At this level, every one of them deserved to win.  However, less than an eighth would proceed to the final round and have a chance at qualifying to the national championship.

Here was my chance.  My magnum opus would be displayed, my hard work would finally be validated.  All the hours of preparation and practice culminated to this final moment.  I held my breath, waiting for the tournament administrators to read the names of the winners.

The blood churned in my veins as adrenaline swept through me.

I watched as the proctor took the stage and the gentle hum of conversation in the auditorium dissipated.  My heart stopped as she pulled out a small yellow envelope and began to read the list of those who proceeded to finals.

Name after name was announced and with it came the roaring sound of applause.  Before I knew it, the woman was finished and began congratulating the winners. 

I had not been called.

That day, I’m ashamed to say I did not lose gracefully.  I let my pride inflate and with the false perception of my own abilities came a distortion of reality.  I had begun to expect success.

I believe that my generation has adopted an entitlement mindset, meaning many young people expect for life to be easy and for success to be guaranteed and quickly achieved.  I learned through my experience that I must first fail in order to learn how to be triumphant.  The challenging part is learning how to persevere and try again, shifting my focus to glorifying God by exercising my full potential instead of merely concentrating on momentary victory.

Sir Winston Churchill once said, “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”

His words clearly highlight the fact that, though we may not always achieve earthly success, such as winning a first place speech trophy, we are victorious if we realize that our success comes from Christ alone.  As soon as we try to place ourselves on the pedestal for our minute of fame, we are stealing the spotlight from God and we no longer have Him paramount in our lives.

Looking back on my Regionals experience, I realized that I did not go into competition with the proper mindset.  Deep inside, I was eager to prove my worth by winning, as if a gold medal would make me a better person.

Just a few months later, I began working on my speeches again for the next year, this time ready to thank God for whatever I might face.  While I was still eager to do my best, my goal was not to be the national champion.  Instead, I wanted to be a young woman who honors God with her speeches and finds her success in Him.

I went back to competition season with almost an hour’s worth of memorized speeches, in addition to cases for Lincoln Douglas value debate.  This year, I decided to shift my focus to debate, hoping that I would perhaps proceed to the next level.  Round after round, tournament after tournament, I did not win.  This time, however, I was not determining my worth by a judge’s ballot.  I didn’t lose my enthusiasm for public speaking tournaments.  In the end, it took me three years of practicing and learning and continuous failure to succeed in debate.  

Through dedication, determination and prayer, I discovered both how to lose—and eventually, how to win.  By the grace of God, I walked home with many awards in high school and have been invited twice to the National Christian Forensics Communications Association National Championship.

In a competitor’s eyes, I have finally succeeded.  In my own, I have simply used my God-given talents for His glory.  He helped me overcome my fear of failure.

Hebrews 12:1 says, “...And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us...”

When learning how to run the race, I must first learn to walk—how to pick myself up when I fall and keep moving forward.  I have discovered that though it is easy to win graciously, it is quite a different thing to lose with humility.  Though we must first face failure in order to gain success, I believe that the greatest victory is learning how to fail successfully.

Short and to the point.  It fit my application theme of speech and debate, considering my application's emphasis on my experience teaching debate at Legacy for Christ.

If you would like to see another sample, my life testimony essay "Lifeline" was posted on the blog a few weeks ago here if you want to read.  These were the two essays I used to apply to Wheaton.

So can you do it?

I hope this helps!  If this answered any questions or if you have any others, I'd love to hear from you in the comment box below.

What did you write about to apply to college?

What questions do you still have if you're about to apply?


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  1. Ciera, thank you so much for this! Senior year is here for me and the anxiety is, I know, going to be overwhelming. I've already become an emotional waffle, what with thinking about moving out, leaving home, life after college, and so on.

    It definitely is comforting to have someone like you relate their struggles and how they overcame them. I'll try to keep these points in mind throughout this year. Again, thanks so much! <3

    1. So glad I could help, Rana! Don't let the stress become overwhelming. This is such a time of joyfulness and thinking about new opportunities. You'll get through the challenges along the way :)

  2. Great post, Ciera! I was just thinking about this whole process and how much I am glad I do not have to repeat it any time soon. Your thoughts are really valuable for all the poor seniors!

    1. Thanks, Lucy Rose! Me, too. Except...grad school is coming up and that's a whole new game.

  3. Amazing post! Definitely valid tips. I'm only starting high school this year but I'm saving this for future reference :)

    Olivia @ Fictionally Obsessed

    1. I'm so glad! It's never too early to start thinking about what's next. :) Best wishes with starting high school, Olivia!