Calling future (and current) seniors: Let’s talk college essays

The college application process is lengthy, from filing the Common Application to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to the CSS Profile to every other form under an arbitrary acronym. After nagging, “Mom, can you send me a picture of your tax returns?” and “Dad, what’s my Social Security Number again?” you arrive at the final obstacle standing between you and the submit button: the most important 650-word personal statement of your life. Great.

Whether you find it a blessing or a curse, a hallmark of senior year is writing the infamous college essay. But, alas! Many students before you paved the path to both acceptance and—unfortunately—rejection. Here are some “Dos and Don’ts” to help guide you towards a “Congratulations” banner at the top of your email inbox.

DO: Convey a clear message. I didn’t include a thesis statement you would find in a conventional literary analysis paper in my essay. Still, I weaved an underlying theme I wanted the admissions committee (whomever they may be) to know throughout my statement. Always keep your central idea in the back of your mind while writing.

DON’T: Focus the essay on someone besides yourself. Of course, some people impact our lives incredibly but find how it relates to your story. Humility is a virtue, but from what I heard, the college admissions officers want to know about everything that makes you, YOU.

DO: Check your grammar. And check it again. Reading aloud and getting a second (or third) pair of eyes on your writing is the best way to avoid spelling and punctuation error. (Did you catch it?) This article is riddled with passive voice, contractions, negation, and first-person narrative—do as I say, not as I do.

DON’T: Procrastinate writing. I wrote six drafts of my essay. Six drafts. Writing takes time and energy, and as much as you wish it away, it will always be there. So, for your own good, open that Google Doc. The least you can start with is an outline.

These tips are only helpful if you know what-in-the-heck you want to write about—which is often the most challenging decision you make. Ultimately, only you know what is the best topic to choose for yourself. If the words aren’t flowing, take a step back. Rethink it. Or look at it from another angle. You will have something to say if you are genuinely invested in your subject. Let’s hear from our seniors, the class of 2023, who cracked this code.

“I’m writing about a business I started and how I made a pro-choice presentation in a religion class,” said Thoren Kelleher.

“I am considering doing something related to religion and how attending Catholic school has influenced me,” said Liam Solan.

“I’m writing about how my image of God and understanding of the world around me changed through my mission trip experience,” said Kensie Fisher.

“I’ve decided to talk about my mental health and my struggles with dealing with the ups and downs that come with maintaining a healthy mindset,” said Sasha Owen.

“I decided to focus my essay on why I want to pursue law and journalism in college and how specific life events have shaped that goal,” said Sophia McLain.

“For my essay, I am writing about my time with my dad in the car and how it developed my love for anthropology and political science,” said Lilly Burgess.

“I’m writing about how a lightning storm is a metaphor for my life,” said Lucia Zima.

The Common Application provides students with seven different essay topics, listed for your viewing pleasure at (Hint, hint Bellarmine students: these are the same prompts the English Department uses for their essay contest). One of which, a “choose your own adventure” type of prompt, encourages applicants to write anything of their choosing—a good thing for some, perhaps the opposite for those who enjoy structure. Some students write about life changing events, future career aspirations, or something completely creative and abstract. All are excellent selections.

While junior year is the stereotypical “hardest grade of high school,” current seniors may argue that their first semester of 12th grade is even more difficult. Already grappling with AP classes, varsity sports, and club leadership positions, college applications feel like a class unto itself. Seniors, enjoy the year and take in the memories. The stress of a perfect college essay is the thief of happiness. It will come to you, and these tricks are here waiting for you when obstacles arise. Whether you are polishing your essay or waiting until December 31 to start writing, I wish you the best of luck.

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