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Writing College Application Essays

Answering Applicants’ Questions About Identity, Diversity, Writing, and More

A curated collection of my answers to questions from college applicants on the A2C Discord server. Edited for quality and clarity.

Writing about identity

Are multiple (cultural) identities/personalities an overused trope?

Everyone has a public self, an intimate self, and a hidden self. The idea with these essays is that you’re offering a glimpse of your intimate self – the self that isn’t a college application file – with a whiff of the interiority of your hidden self. That said, if you just say something like “I’m different around various friends and family members because they bring out different aspects of my personality,” your essay isn’t going to be very compelling, and you’ll probably just end up writing about what amount to shallow descriptions of yourself. If I’m misunderstanding you, please correct me and elaborate, but that would be my concern about writing about multiple identities.

The exception to this is the Common App’s 1st prompt. If your home life is radically different from your social life and you’re engaged in code switching of any kind, you could write a very interesting essay, provided that you use specifics. Yes, a lot of students write about this type of identity, but they usually don’t do it very well, because they’re afraid of painting their families in a “bad” light, and so the cultural aspects of their identity get reduced (no pun intended) to a personal essay about cooking.

Addressing diversity/community prompts in supplemental essays

This is going to sound like an overbearing question because it is, but what does it mean to contribute to the diversity of a college/its community?

How will your lived experiences, hobbies, quirks, perspectives, cultural background, talents, abilities, ideas, and existence make DreamSchool and its community more diverse and more interesting? Here’s an even simpler way to phrase the question: “In what ways are you cool and/or interesting?”

DreamSchool already has 10,000 violin-playing tennis aficionados with 4.5 GPAs and 1590 SATs who want to major in Computer Science. Colleges try to keep things diverse by seeking applicants that make for interesting cohorts/classes.

Politics and personal beliefs in the personal statement

Opinions on getting political in essays? A big part of my ‘hook’ is my _________heritage. When I say political, obviously I don’t mean hateful or discriminatory, but many of my essays convey a political opinion + that kinda links to my major (poli sci).

Well, if it’s personally important to you and informs a side of you that can’t be found elsewhere in your file, then I’d say it’s fine.

If you end up arguing/venting/ranting/proselytizing/or finding yourself on a soapbox, however, then you should save the polemic for a more suitable platform.

That said, I’ve yet to see a political essay that was also a compelling personal essay. In those cases, the writers conflated talking about something that was important to them with talking about themselves.

Part of the misunderstanding is due to the College Board’s wording in these prompts, e.g.,

1) Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Students see “background, identity, interest, or talent” and think, “oh, great, I can talk about my very unique cultural heritage” or “fantastic, a chance to talk about my last on-stage performance,” or while missing the actual prompt, which is:

Please share your story (as it relates to a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful that you believe your application would be incomplete without it).

YOU are the essay subject. Your “background, identity, interest, or talent” (or political leanings) is just a way to get there.

Getting started

Do you recommend we just start free flow, brainstorm, and then do essay practice (like free form writing) and then move to writing the actual ones, or do we just write whatever, pick what seems to stand out and go from there?

I recommend whatever works for you. Some students don’t have any problems with organizing their essays, but they have trouble coming up with ideas or topics. Other students have a topic in mind, but need to outline or write things down as they come to them.

As a writer, I’m all over the place. Sometimes I think of the last sentence in an essay I want to write and then I have to figure out how I want to get there. Other times, I write pieces that I don’t flesh out until later. For poetry or song lyrics, I can simply start at the beginning and write until I’m done.

How you start writing doesn’t matter as long as it works and makes sense to you. When I have clients that haven’t figured that out, I help them figure it out: usually by asking them questions and telling them to write things down. You know yourselves (which is good, because that’s what you’ll be demonstrating/articulating in these essays) – so do what works for you.

Can I write about….?

I’ve also heard that writing about “moving to a new city” and fitting in to a new school are overused or bad ideas for essays, is it true that I shouldn’t write about these in an essay?

Aside from avoiding clichéd (sports injuries, grandparent deaths, etc) and red flag topics (drug use, mental health), just write an essay that doesn’t suck, and that doesn’t bend over backwards trying to impress a stranger.

Just tell your story. In your voice. About your experience.

And, seriously, if the only thing you have to write about is saving a village full of doe-eyed orphans in a developing country, then by all means, write about it, but write about it like it matters, like it’s more than just some summer stunt you thought would look good on a college app.

You’re surrounded by stories: stories that either resonate with you or repel you.

Your society – no matter where you’re from – tells you stories about your responsibility to your community, to your family, to your loved ones, to your country.

Media empires are built around stories that try to sell you things; stories that feed on status anxiety.

You’ve told and you tell yourself stories: “I deserved this victory,” “I wasn’t good enough,” “I am outside of this dominant social construct,” “I will become __.” The personal statement is you telling your story.

Think about your “firsts:” the real moments that changed your life. At 16 or 17, your life is filled with firsts, and all of them are unique to you. I still remember my first friend, my first day of school. I remember my first kiss, the pangs of lovesickness, the first pains of heartbreak. First job – and how much I hated it. I remember the first funeral I attended for someone my age, and how it transformed the way I grieved for decades afterwards. The personal statement is about a very specific human experience – yours ­­– not some abstract concept.

The topic doesn’t matter as long as it paves a pathway to you.

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