Writing a college essay can be one of the most frightening high school experiences. In fact, one can never know what to expect from a college admissions essay. Some essays are typical questions about social or political issues, yet others are totally off the wall. A few peculiar examples include, The University of Chicago’s “How do you feel about Wednesday?”, Bennington College’s “Can a toad hear? Prove it.”, or even Hamilton College’s “If you were reduced to living on a flat plane, what would be your greatest problems? Opportunities?” With essay questions like these there is no wonder that homeschool students fear this inevitable requirement.
The first step in understanding the application process is to understand what comprises the “Common Application” that many colleges use. This particular application is used by 488 institutions which include nearly all top colleges and universities. Only universities that evaluate applications holistically (in light of the whole person) can participate in the use of the Common Application.
The Common Application includes several areas such as personal information, educational information, standardized test information, family information, academic honors, extracurricular information, work experiences, short answer essay, personal essay, and even a criminal history. The short answer essay is typically not a big issue with most students, but the personal essay is where the anxiety arises. In addition, some colleges will ask for a supplemental essay that complements the personal essay.
How can we simplify this process for homeschoolers? Well, it really is quite simple. Even if the topic is absolutely bizarre, with the right tools a student can face down this essay with victory. These tools are simple and just include preparation, practice, and these few pointers:
1) Follow the basic rules for writing an essay. Think through your reasons or examples and try to formulate a plan or even outline. Remember the rule of thumb for an essay is a basic 5 paragraphs including an introduction and a conclusion with 2 or 3 examples.
2) Stay focused and stick to the topic. The appropriate minimum is 250 words with technically no upper limit. Many people suggest no more than 750 words. However, keep in mind that there are many admissions essays that must be read, so keep it fairly short. You definitely don’t want to try their patience.
3) Show them who you are. Don’t exaggerate yourself or your accomplishments. It is okay to be you.
4) Try to distinguish yourself from others. Point out how you are different from others. It may not be outwardly, but inwardly in how you think and work. You may have significant work experience due to homeschooling; point that out without sounding like a braggart.
5) Use the right tone. Make sure that the essay is written in a positive light, avoid whining or bragging. It is a fine line in balancing your pride in your accomplishments with humility and a willingness to learn.
6) Mechanics are important. Definitely use your spell check, and don’t be afraid to ask others to proof it for you. Make sure that what you write is accurate. When in doubt…find out!
7) Limit the amount of humor you use. You don’t know the person reading your essay, so you don’t know if they have a sense of humor. Think twice about any use of humor in your essay.
8) Use controversy to stand out from the crowd. You shouldn’t assume to think that your opinion is the final authority, but giving reasons and arguments for your opinion will show the graders that you stand for something.