Getting Started: College Essay Brainstorming

One of the most important aspects of the college application process is crafting a compelling and authentic college essay that showcases your unique personality, experiences, and aspirations. If you’re unsure where to begin, you’re in the right place! Join CollegeAdvisor for “Getting Started: College Essay Brainstorming.” This webinar is led by former Georgetown University Admissions Officer Aya who will demystify the art of college essay writing. During this webinar, Aya will share step-by-step strategies to kickstart your essay brainstorming process effectively. What you can expect to learn: – Gain insights into the significance of college essays and how they complement your overall application. – Discover how to mine your life experiences for unique and impactful essay ideas. – Gather tips on refining your essay concepts and making them shine through concise and engaging writing. Whether you’re uncertain about where to begin or looking to enhance your existing ideas, this webinar is perfect for any student eager to make their college essay stand out from the crowd. Don’t miss this opportunity to set yourself apart and create a lasting impression on college admissions committees.

Date 08/08/2023
Duration 1:01:11

Webinar Transcription

2023-08-08 – Getting Started: College Essay Brainstorming

All right. Good evening, everyone. My name is Joseph Recupero, and I am your moderator today. Welcome to “Getting Started: College Essay Brainstorming.” To orient everyone with the webinar timing, we’ll start off with a presentation, then answer your questions in a live Q& A. On the sidebar, you can download our slides, and you can start submitting questions in the Q& A tab.

Now, let’s meet our panelists. Thank you so much, Joseph. Uh, good evening, everyone. I am Aya Waller-Bey. Um, and I am a former admissions officer from Georgetown University who will be speaking to you about college essays and brainstorming a little bit about me. So, first and foremost, I’m a proud 1st generation college student.

And just in case you are unfamiliar what that means, I am the 1st person in my family to attend college. Um, I went to Georgetown University for undergrad where I studied sociology, minored in African American studies, and also got to a advanced degree of German. Uh, after my undergraduate experience, I graduated and then became an admissions officer and coordinator of African American recruitment and multicultural recruitment at Georgetown.

And I read for four states in the Midwest, which includes Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois. After my tenure there, I went on to go get my Master’s in Philosophy of Education from the University of Cambridge in England as a recipient of the Gates Cambridge Scholarship, um, and then return to the U. S. for various, um, positions in higher education while also being an alumni interviewer for my alma mater.

I am currently getting my PhD in Sociology at the University of Michigan, where I actually study college admissions essays. So I have a lot of experience in college admissions and particularly the essay portion, which is part of the reason why I will be giving tonight’s webinar. And I’m looking forward to answering your questions and engaging with you all tonight.

So thank you so much for attending and happy to answer your questions.

So we are going to start off with a little poll just to get an idea of who is in the audience with us today. Um, so why don’t you all tell us what grade that you’re in? Um, so that we can really get an understanding of, of who’s joining us today. Um, and Aya, why don’t you tell us when do you think is the best time to really start thinking about college essays?

Well, I think the best time to start thinking about college essays, um, is, I mean, for some students they’re introduced and we’ll talk about this. the college essay process in their junior year in high school, but I really think to really lean in and really start thinking, um, really specifically about the essay is that somewhere between your junior and senior year of high school.

I think that’s really one of the best times to really kind of dive into the process. Absolutely. That’s, that’s when I have most of my students writing. Um, it seems like most of our students are in that area. We have about a hundred seniors joining us this evening, which is very exciting. Um, a good group of juniors 10th graders.

So I think this is going to be really great for everyone. And I’ll, I’ll hand it off to you. Fantastic and welcome again to everyone who is joining us. Uh, this evening. I’m on the East Coast. So it’s evening here, but welcome to all of our, uh, folks joining us. So to start, um, there’s one thing we really want to orient you to, you know, there are primarily three.

Types of college application essays. The first is the college personal statement. And again, that’s the essay you will submit to colleges and universities that really showcase your student voice, your writing skills, and really reveal depth and add context to the application. Um, remember the college personal statement, that one, particularly if you’re using the common application, that’s one essay that you send to multiple schools.

So it’s not appropriate in that essay to name institutions, okay? Um, in some cases some students might write essays that talk about academic interests, but that is not necessary The personal statement genuinely could be about your own story your own journey It can showcase vulnerability and we’ll talk more about that.

You also have that supplemental essay. So supplemental essays. Those are additional essays that invite you to write about a variety of topics and they’re often school specific prompts. So currently I’m working with a few students who are applying to University of Wisconsin Madison and their supplement essay, which is 650 words as well, which is the length of a college personal statement with a personal essay that is found in the Common App, also asks students to talk about their interests in the university and also their why.

Right. So again, unlike the college personal statement, that is not institutional specific, supplemental essays tend to be a little bit more institutional specific, not exclusively, but generally, unlike the personal statement, again, supplemental essays are required by only some colleges and universities, and they’re used to highlight fit, right?

So they used to kind of make connections between certain university or institutional culture, So, academic programs. Um, so again, really important to do your research when you’re applying to universities and particularly when they are inviting you to write a supplemental essay. And then finally you have a scholarship essay.

I feel like the scholarship essay is actually less common, especially if an institution meets 100 percent of demonstrated need. They don’t often have merit based aid, so the scholarship essay is usually, um, more prevalent for institutions where they are, um, have merit based scholarships. And they’re, again, less common, but students may write an additional essay explaining why they might interested in a particular program or might want a scholarship or might deserve a scholarship.

So you have that additional essay as well. Again, less common in my experience. So often students ask what is the significance of the college essay? And I often say it isn’t really, it’s an opportunity for you to speak directly to the admissions officers. When you think about other parts of your application, say letter of recommendation.

Even your high school transcript, those are often more finalized. They often, um, are other, those are, you know, they have other opportunities where people who are not you are talking about who you are and what you might contribute. So you really get an opportunity with the personal statement to talk about who you are directly to the admissions officer, but tell your story in your own words.

It also adds qualitative information and qualitative data to your application. And what that means is you might, again, have test scores or GPAs, and those are more quantitative, right, data points that the admissions office have for you. But the essay tells your story, right? It tells a narrative, ideally, right?

So that’s that qualitative information to your application. And then you also have some institutions that actually use the essay as a writing sample to communicate your strength of writing. So it can also signal your ability to communicate coherently ideas and to respond to a specific prompt. So as Joseph asked during our earlier conversation, You know, what is the timeline for really getting started on the essay?

In particular? Brainstorming. So if you are a junior, and by junior I mean someone who is matriculating in the fall to your senior year. So we actually have some students who’ve already started their senior year, right? So if you’re, you’re, if you’re gonna be a senior in August or September, I really encourage you to start now, um, you know, planned ideally to have a draft of the personal statement by September 1st.

Which is less than a month away now time is flying. I don’t know what’s happening I don’t know if the earth is spinning faster, but time is flying, right? Um, so you really want to kind of get those ideas down from your brain to the piece of paper or the google document? or the microsoft word document or Whatever document or platform that you’re using to get your ideals down from your head and onto the page or screen.

You want to ask teachers, mentors, college counselors, parents, or anyone you trust to review and provide feedback on your draft. You know, a caveat about this is, I do believe there’s a certain thing of having too many cooks in the kitchen. So I don’t think you need to ask anyone and everyone that you ever met or, you know, all of your teachers and all of your parents, siblings, guardians, etc.

Um, you want to ask people you trust because also the more you ask for feedback, the more feedback you will get. And that can begin to change the narrative, the story, and the perspective that you were trying to tell. You want to edit, edit, and edit again. You know, I work with students here with CollegeAdvisor.

And, you know, they’ll send me an essay and they’ll say, this is it, and I’ll tell them it is not, you know, as someone who’s read thousands of high school, uh, uh, applications, who’s read thousands of admissions essays, who has read additional essays for their research, who reads essays for CollegeAdvisor, I can tell you your first, second, and most likely your third draft, that’s not going to be your final draft, so it will require editing.

So, And editing and more editing. You want to complete personal statement first, then work on supplement essays. I always tell people that there’s something about getting this larger task, this 650 word essay that’s fun and cool to all the schools on your list, out of the way, that allows you to breathe a sigh of relief.

Also, the exercise of being able to write or, uh, write and edit essays, and then, you know, having that practice, allows you to work more effectively on your supplemental essays. Again, I know a lot of young people procrastinate. I did that in my high school tenure as well. I learned my lesson and did no longer did that in college or now in graduate school, but I really encourage students to try to submit their essays at least 2 weeks before application deadline.

It just really allows students to, again, grieve that fresh of relief. And also preventing you from, you know, if you’re asking someone to review your essay and you say, I have, it’s due in three hours, can you please review this? They could be at work, on a call, you know, having a personal experience. So they can’t really give you that feedback that you would need or deserve, so.

Again, try to leave yourself enough time, um, when getting started on your essay. So thinking about techniques that you can use for brainstorming and generate ideas, there’s fortunately a lot out there. So I mentioned this earlier that I’ve met students and encountered students and even in my own experience where, you know, sometimes in English class, uh, or you might have a college prep class in your high school or a respective institution where.

Your junior year that you have prompts, um, that they might present to you just essay, but also just more generally. So consider those as well. You know, I always tell students, you do not have to start from zero. That’s not always appropriate. For some students, they want a fresh idea based on something that may have happened in August, you know, of their senior year, but that’s not always the case.

Also, you want to review essay prompts. So again, we don’t have to start from zero. There’s essay prompts already available. The common app always publishes their essay questions. Um, you can look at them now, uh, in the past several years, you know, eight plus years, they have not changed really. So look at what the questions are.

Pick two or three that stand out to you that resonate with you, right? So that’s a great way to start thinking about how to generate ideas. If it’s asking you about someone you love and respect, And it’s asking you about something you overcome. And then those two questions really stand out to you. Use those essay prompts to really start to generate ideas.

So additionally, you know, I really am a fan of Google. I use it a lot in the work that I do, not just the type in the search bar, but also just as an organizational tool. So, again, there are a list of questions to help raise some ideas online. I mean, you can do a simple Google search and also CollegeAdvisor has resources for that.

But you also want to consider these questions, okay? First, what is your favorite childhood memory? That is often a really great way to generate really interesting and creative experiences. Maybe your family took a trip every year to your hometown or took a trip for a family reunion into a small southern town and that experience really stood out to you.

You also might have experienced going to a certain religious service on a regular basis and the people you encounter Or, you know, you had a family tradition that really stood out to you. So really think about that. Also, what is the most difficult decision you’ve ever had to make? Sometimes we think those experiences are mundane or not important, but they can also really show insight into how we’ve navigated really difficult and complicated issues, which colleges and universities want to see.

Again, you have, has there been a teacher or coach who’s inspired you? Again, a lot of us and I’ll speak for myself. I am where I am now pursuing my PhD as a first generation college student because of my mentors and teachers and educators who poured into me, who’ve encouraged me and who’ve believed in me.

And I can write so many essays, so many stories about these very specific moments that to this day really resonate with me. And then finally, even thinking about what is your favorite subject in school and why that can be a really great brainstorming of a way to kind of generate ideas as you were thinking about what you want to pursue in college and why so maybe your favorite subject aligns with what you perhaps want to pursue in college and the why you know what is motivating you about this can really help you think about how to frame Thank you.

that when a school asks you, what do you want to study and why?

Awesome. I think that’s a really fantastic overview of Really getting into the process and the meat of these essays, what people are really looking for. So we kind of want to know from you all what part of the college essay process is kind of the most daunting because it can be a stressful process even when you get to work with someone as fun as us.

So, you know, tell us is it, um, oh, sorry, I just… Gave you the wrong poll. Sorry, give me one second. Yeah, so tell us what part of the college essay writing process is the most daunting to you. Is it brainstorming? Is it getting started writing? Is it being creative? Is it proofreading and editing? Is it writing about yourself?

And while we do that, I think there is an important question that we’ve been asked that would be, um, good to address. And that is, can you fabricate or make up experiences for college essays?

Well, that’s a question for me. Yes. So the word can is very interesting. You can do whatever you want to do in the college admissions process. However, I strongly discourage students from fabricating anything about their background experiences. It is certainly frowned upon. I would be appalled if a student came to me and said that they lied or misrepresented their background identity.

It is a matter of integrity. and reflects very poorly on your character. So do not do that. And that’s the most pleasant way I can say that. Yes, I have often told students who feel like they don’t have enough to write that it’s authenticity that actually makes the difference in this process. So it looks like a lot of students seem to be, it’s the getting started that seems to kind of be the most daunting along with kind of being creative and writing about themselves.

Um, so I think they’re getting a lot of good tips and perspective, um, through this presentation and I’ll, I’ll hand it back. Awesome. Thank you so much. And I get that getting started is, is difficult. Um, I think for a lot of things, right? They, it’s always easier once you start. It’s like going to the gym.

That’s the one that works out. It’s like, once you get up, you’re ready to go. So, how can I highlight my unique experiences and personality in my essays? Again, you know, I am, it just breaks my heart, uh, and I don’t mean to be dramatic, but when I hear young people say I have nothing special about me, My life is very typical.

Um, you know, I, there, there aren’t really many things that will distinguish me from my peers. And I really like to encourage students to really look inward because no one is you. You can live in the same code of size. You can live in the same suburb. You can go to the same high school. You might even have the same friends from kindergarten.

You still lived a very different experience. You have different parents. You have different lived experiences. You process things differently. No two people are alike. Even if they are twins, right? So I really want you to think about, you know, just like who you are and worry less about who you think people want you to be.

Um, because I do think that that begins to cloud our judgment sometimes about how we present ourselves. And as Joseph said, authenticity is the key. So in addition, you know, in thinking about highlighting personalities, you want to use specific concrete examples to convey your points, focusing on examples on the present and near past.

I do say this because. Sometimes I meet, um, students or I read essays, and they’re focusing on something that was so far away. When colleges and universities want to know, like, how are you thinking about this now? Like, how are you navigating problems now? Of course, we all have our own development, our processes, our maturation, and different things we, you know, encounter.

I often think about the things that I discuss. Um, like when I wrote my college essay, you know, and when I was applying to colleges and how I make, how, when I read that essay and how I think differently about the world. So things are different. So they really want you to focus on your past whenever possible.

You also want to limit flowery and abstract language that does not communicate substantive meaning. This is a very important point. How, because I, I constantly meet young people or read essays where students think the word creative. Signals a certain type of prose that means that they have to speak very abstractly or use metaphors to the point where I’m like, what are you talking about?

And it’s like, if I was a tomato and then I was red and then the red represents, you know, it’s like, you can actually get to the point in your personal statement. Like I, you don’t want, you know, admissions officers who are already combing through thousands of applications from very highly qualified candidates to have to try to figure out what on earth you’re talking about.

Of course, you can be creative. Of course, there are ways where abstract language is relevant, and pertinent, and helps to communicate ideas. But that’s not always the case. And I don’t want you to think that if you’re not using flowery metaphors and etc, that you’re not being creative enough. Those two things are not synonymous.

Also, you know, I always encourage students to incorporate elements of culture. That could be language or expressions that reflect distinct cultural experiences. Right, so I often, you know, some students might say that they were first generation immigrants. So, you know, I tell students, you can use, you know, uh, you know, a little bit of Spanish.

Or you can use a little bit of French in your essay, right? But you, of course, have to translate it, say what it means. You know, they want to read essays in English. Of course, if you’re applying to U. S. based institutions, but you can show more about your culture, backgrounds and identities, you can tell us favorite foods or traditions that you had growing up.

So again, think about those types of things, things that make your family special or things that you wish you could change about your family. All those things can contribute to making your essay personal and unique. You want to try to define well known lessons. You know, terms or expressions. So again, I’m a sociologist.

I’ve been in school for a very long time. I’m getting a PhD. So we write with a lot of jargon. So we try to avoid, you know, we were speaking to broader audiences, jargon without defining those things. And last but not least, I cannot emphasize this enough. You want to tell your story and not someone else’s.

So on one of the previous slides, it said, you know, and brainstorming or generating ideas to think about a coach or someone who was special to you. So in that type of essay, someone might feel like talking about the coach at length and talking about how, you know, what the coach had to overcome and why they’re inspired by that coach.

They might think that’s the best place, like the best approach to the essay. However, admissions officers are not trying to admit your coach. They’re trying to admit you. So you really need to make sure you’re cinching your story. And that goes from talking about parents, grandparents, siblings. Why should the admissions officer admit to you and not, of course, You know other folks, right?

So when brainstorming, um, you really want to stay organized and I again, I keep google is not paying me for this I wish they were but they were not but I use google drive and the tools in google a lot for my own research For the students I work with in CollegeAdvisor. It just has the Suite of platforms and programs that allows me to stay organized and for my students to stay organized.

So I tell young people to utilize Google Spreadsheet or Google Doc Features to store ideas in a Google Drive and Computers shut down, blow up, they get lost, they get in fires, they get trampled over, they fall out of things, they get stolen, the battery stops working. So, what, you know, the beautiful thing about Google Drive is it’s connected to emails and the cloud, so it’s there.

So regardless of what device you’re using, if you’re Mac exposed or you’re a PC, whatever, you have Google Drive. Also thinks a great way, you know, create a list of ideas, questions and jot down ideas and spreadsheets or Google Docs So again, the common app has already published or six or seven essay prompts What you want to do is, you know, you can write those down Each of them on the same Google sheet or different ones or Google documents rather and just say what?

jot down ten bullet points of what what comes out as you think about those right so Just, again, you want to generate ideas and just kind of get, again, the thoughts from your head on page. Utilize keyword searches and documents. So, you know, sometimes, say you’ve jotted down your ideas on different documents, and you, like, keyword search, and you’re like, where did I talk about adversity?

Where did I talk about joy? What if I talk about family? You know, use that to help you organize because maybe you talk about it in different ways in three different documents and it might be like, hmm, that might be the story. That story about family might be it. The story about joy might be it. You want to include dates on all your documents, notes so you remember where you left off.

Again, this is really, really important for our seniors. You’re going to be writing so many different essays and you really want to be able to, especially if you’re working with someone like here on our CollegeAdvisor team. You want to be able to say, like, okay, this is actually where I left off, you know, because it’s so easy to forget.

I also like color coding drafts when I work with students. They might say green is like ready to submit, meaning ready for me to read. Yellow is still working, so I know not to look at that. And red is… Like I have not started and that helps me to say instead of emailing like John Have you started on you know, your dartmouth essay once I see red i’m like they haven’t started on it It’s not even worth me asking so it’s really good to color code if you’re a visual person It really helps me and it helps you stay organized.

So as far as tips to help you structure and refining your essays So for structuring essays again focus on your why why are you telling this story? What would you like the admissions committee to learn about you from this essay? I find myself reading essays and I walk away being like, don’t know what you’re, you know, I’m not picking up what you’re putting down, right?

Also, uh, I really tell students, you know, you know, and this is a popular assessment or approach, beginning essays with a hook to keep the reader interested and wanting to read more. Now, sometimes I’ve seen this go so far off the hinges where I’m like, you’re taking too long to get to the point. So you don’t want the hook to be so abstract and, you know, to the point where, you know, I’m in the second paragraph and I’m like, okay, when am I reading it and why am I reading it?

Also, prior is one topic. This is hard. So, I think sometimes students think the essay is an autobiography and it’s not. So you want to answer a question. Even if you choose the choose your own topic, prompt, info, comma, nap, You want to be answering a question or responding to something specific, right? So that’s why the first bullet point asks to focus on your why and what you’re hoping to communicate.

Because you really want to make sure there’s some level of specificity or that there’s some kind of direction. Um, show, don’t tell. This is a huge one. You know, students write, I’m a leader. I’m smart. I’m creative. I’m collaborative. I like to work with folks. I like to use my hands. Those are all fine and dandy, but if you’re telling me you like to use your hands, right, that’s one thing, but showing me examples of how to use your hands.

So maybe you, instead of saying, I just like to use my hands, you say, you know, on Thursdays are with my father and an auto shop where we, we are, uh, building cars and removing, you know, uh, editing, you know, removing seats Reupholstering, etc. Show me. Paint a picture. Right? So show, don’t tell. And then I show the beginning and the ending are aligned.

I see a lot of essays where students have talked, um, you know, showed, uh, started with a story about, you know, I love, you know, I love Starbucks. You know, Starbucks is how I give my energy for the day, and it’s the energy to serve. Right? And by the time I read the end of the essay, I’m like, You’re talking about love for dogs and I don’t understand what Starbucks and energy like what is that?

Where does that come from? So you need to make sure the ending in the beginning are aligned So the tips again, I have for structuring and refining essays is first and foremost of proofread You want to make sure you’re proofread. So there’s one thing to look for commons and those types of mechanics But you also want to be able to make sure that things are actually making sense.

I encourage folks to walk away for a day or two. This is why procrastination is frowned upon because I want you to have enough time to walk away and come back and be able to be confident, right? I also encourage folks who use Microsoft Suite to use the read aloud feature. I do it a lot. I’m writing thousands and thousands of words.

I’m, again, I’m working on a dissertation. I’m getting a Ph. D. So I’m being bombarded with lots of words all the time. And sometimes I just get tired. My eyes get tired. So I read aloud. Then I listen to it and then I’m hearing sentences and I’m like, Ooh, that’s not what I meant to say. So read aloud. And then I have someone to read and share with you what they learned about you from the essay.

So, you know, sometimes because we are familiar with ideas, we’re familiar with concepts that our assumption is, Oh, they know what I mean. And then most people are like, I have no clue what you’re talking about. I don’t know you. I’ve never lived your life. So ask someone who is not familiar with your essay, or even that familiar with you, if you will, to read, you know, read your essay and share what they learned about you.

Does their interpretation of the essay align with your goals, right? So if someone reads your essay and was like, Wow, it seems like you really like sports, and that sports are really important to you. And then you’re like, Ugh. Okay, I thought I was showing that I am, uh, uh, how much service is important to me and how I’m, I’m a collaborate, you know, I like to collaborate.

Hmm. Maybe there’s a misalignment there. So that’s a really, really, really great strategy, uh, for structuring and refining your essay.

Now, this perhaps is one of the most popular questions that we receive. It’s about how to make your essay stand out. So a great college essay does the following, you know, ensures that you answer the question. critical for the supplements. So the supplements are like a personal statement where you can choose your own topic and they don’t know what the topic is, right?

They just know what you’re writing. Um, for the supplements, they’re going to say, tell us why you’re interested in University of Wisconsin Madison and why you’re interested in the major and why you want to study that major here. You have three specific prompts, right? You need to make sure you’re answering the questions.

You also want to effectively describe how the experiences you detail has led to personal growth or understanding of belongingness in a way that demonstrates your maturity, character, and open mindedness. So, it’s not enough to just tell a story, like, How was the time I went camping with my grandpa? You can tell the story, but if there’s no growth, if there’s no what you learn, if there’s no signal or communication of like why this actually is important, no one cares, right?

So you really want to make sure you are detailing these things. You also want to the story is reflecting your voice. So, so important as we think about artificial intelligence, right? So I should read an essay and it should be polished, right? It should be free of grammatical errors and typos, and it should not read like a college professor or a PhD student wrote it or your parent wrote it.

So it still should feel like a high school senior wrote it. And again, You might say, well, I worked really hard. I didn’t get feedback. However, admissions officers have worked and read and reviewed thousands of thousands of applications. So we know what an essay seems like. I don’t know if a student wrote this.

And again, you want to use specific concrete examples to convey your points and again, focus on the present and your past. Again, that’s super important for admissions officers. So as we kind of wrap up at least my presentation part of this conversation, you know, what are some of the last tips I can share about your essay brainstorming process?

Well, again, as I mentioned earlier, we really want you to show and just not tell. So a good example, instead of saying, I learned a lot volunteering at the Cleveland Animal Shelter, a great way to approach this is, While feeding the sick puppies with the other shelter volunteers, I learned the importance of teamwork and compassion So it already tells me what you were doing, you know, so you’re feeding sick puppies.

You’re working with other people Right and teamwork and compassion. So you already told me you were working with other people and the puppies were sick So you’re already being more specific. So again, you really want to show those want to share lessons learned So detail how the experiences you write about inform your future and the type of student you’ll be at Be at in college.

So you don’t have to say, you know, I know often students ask, like, do you have to say what I want to like be in the future, you know, when I really don’t know? No, you do not have to say, you know, I want to do this because I want to be a doctor and then be a physician and then be work, you know, work for the U.

S. Government, et cetera. You don’t have to go into that detail at all. It is not required. You will not be deemed for that. Right. But you do want to say like, okay, you tell the story about working in the animal shelter. Okay. Okay. Now what? Like, why are you telling the story? What have you learned? Like, what does that mean?

You want to stay organized. Again, so, so, so, so important. You want to create a Google Doc or a spreadsheet to keep track of your ideas. You want to have an accountability partner. You might maybe have a teacher that serves that role. You really want to make sure you stay on topic. On topic and on top of deadlines.

And then finally, you want to tell your story. Write about your own experiences, not someone else’s. I cannot say enough how so many people write about grandma, how much they love grandma, how grandma was a nurse, because she couldn’t be a doctor because of gender roles, and that’s why they wanted to be a doctor.

The whole story is about grandma and what grandma had to overcome. We cannot omit grandma. We want to omit you. So you really, really, really want to tell your story and not someone else’s.

All right. Absolutely. I often tell students I may love grandma, but she is not the one who’s going to school anymore. Exactly. Thank you so much. This is the end of the presentation part of the webinar. Um, I hope you all found this information helpful. I know every time I hear about college essays, I always get new ideas.

Remember that you can download the slides from the link in the handouts tab. We are going to move on to the live Q& A. I will read through the questions you submitted into the Q& A tab, paste them in the public chat so you can see, and then read them out loud for our panelists to give you an answer. As a heads up, if your Q& A tab isn’t letting you submit questions, just double check that you joined the webinar through the custom link in your email and not the webinar landing page.

Uh, we do have a lot of very good questions that have come through, um, so I’m excited about that. I think, I think a couple of these revolve around the same thing, um, so I’m kind of going to try and put them together. Okay. The first part of it is, how do we, or how do you feel about the trauma essay? Is it overdone?

Um, and alongside that, are there some topics that should just be avoided in college essays? Yeah, that’s a great question. Thank you so much. I mean, I’m like, do they Google me? Because that’s what I study. That’s my research on trauma narratives and college admissions essays, actually. So how do I feel about it?

So what I tell young people, um, is I believe in agency. So I believe students should tell stories that they feel are most authentic to them, that they feel most aligned about who they are. And they feel like best explain the story that they’re trying to tell. So if that means talking about a hardship, talk about it.

However, I do not like the idea of students feeling like, Oh, let me tell the story where people might feel sorry for me or, or, uh, Teacher or counselor said I need to tell this story to garner sympathy or that makes me stand out or feel more diverse. I do not like that. So, our trauma stories at face value, they are overdone.

Um, but I, as I said earlier and during the presentation, everyone has their own story on their own journey. So I cannot say without reading the story to say don’t talk about that. Again, there needs to be the so what, why are you telling a story? What do you have learned? Um, so I think that’s really, really important.

Also remind young people to remember when you submit an essay or application, you are not always aware of who’s reading it. I’ll say most times you do. You are not aware of who’s reading it, right? So are you comfortable with telling a story that you might consider traumatic? for that to be then shared with the admissions officer or office or units or departments of professor at an institution.

Uh, and then you may not even get in. Like, are you comfortable with that happening? Also, are you comfortable with telling a story that you might consider traumatic with the university that you are admitted? And then they invite you to talk about this story publicly in various forums, forums. So just thinking about what happens once you press submit, I don’t often think that conversation happens.

And that’s something I encourage every student to think about. So I do think to a certain extent they are overdone. However, I again, I cannot say, um, you know, with the absolute certatism that you should not. You know, ever write about trauma or trouble because I do think for some students that is the most authentic portrayal of their lives and backgrounds.

It is the fabrication. It is the misrepresentation. It’s the coercion that I just disagree with. Now, as far as what you should not write about, you know, I often say, again, you don’t know who’s reading your application. So, you know, politics can be polarizing in a sense of, you know, making really kind of strong opinions about like, um, certain figures, if you will.

Um, and I know, um, as people are interested in politics and government, I went to Georgetown in D. C. So I’m very familiar with, you know, the political landscape, but you want to be just careful because you don’t know what the sensibilities are of the people reading your applications. They are humans. They might be, you know, you know, calling a certain type of group of folks poor or less intelligent or ignorant, you know, might not vote well because again, you don’t know who’s reading the essay and that might be offensive to them.

Um, so I, you know, the question about sports essays often come up, uh, comes up. I used to be a very, um, anti sports essay person. I will admit that, that I used to say maybe up until a year ago, I said, absolutely not, we don’t want to read them. We’ve read thousands and thousands of sports essay in every sport from juggling to roller skating and roller derby.

I do think again, when we talk about authenticity, some students, they have So much of their lives to sports where it is critical to who they are. And I don’t want to disperse from talking about that. However, you know, tearing your ACL, um, losing the championship game, trying out for a sports team, and then not, you know, not being accepted and then trying out again, we’ve heard those iterations before in every form.

So those essays feel less exciting. Um, and then again, any like polarizing subjects, um, can be, um, polarizing even for admissions officers. Um, and also unprocessed trauma, you know, I always tell, you know, there’s one thing for a student to say, I’ve processed this, I feel comfortable sharing with this, I’m okay with that.

But I’ve, I’ve, For the students I’ve interviewed in my research, I’ve heard someone say, I wrote this story, this is the first time I’ve admitted this to someone. I sent it to an admissions office. Um, and then I have, then I interview admissions officers for my research and they say a student tells me that’s the first time they’ve admitted something, but it’s so, um, controversial that I’ve had to call the college school counselor and tell them what I’ve heard because I’m concerned about the, uh, the health and safety of the students.

So I think I would avoid those types of issues, uh, or essay topics.

Um, but yeah, I mean, there’s so many fun, creative ways, uh, Oh, another, this is not a topic, but a style, the recipe thing where, um, students will say, you know, I’m one cup of spunk, you know, two teaspoons of perseverance, uh, three cups of grit, you know, you know, four cups of. It’s just like, okay, we’ve gotten, we got you.

So this, the recipe essays don’t really resonate. We’ve, we’ve read those before, so I would say no to those, but, um, so yeah, there’s really pros. It’s really hard to say like, absolutely not without reading an essay. You also, of course you want to invoke, you know, the prominent isms or anything that, you know, any protected class.

You know, you don’t want to be a sexist, you don’t want to be racist, you don’t want to be, you know, classes, you don’t want to be homophobic, like, natural things, you know, um, I had an admissions officer tell me that a student wrote an essay about a person that historically we do not celebrate and is looked frowned upon because of the harm they cause to certain groups of people, and a student wrote glowing reviews about this historical figure that who’s no longer with us, and they said, absolutely not.

Not only do I not want the student admitted here. I don’t think this student should be admitted anywhere So you want to naturally avoid those types of things as well I know that was a very long question But I there were so many elements to or long response rather but there were so many elements to it that I wanted to make sure I kind of Share just in case there were other questions about it.

Yeah, I think, I think you hit on actually a lot of other questions about people wondering if they should write about mental health or if they, you know, if they, how to be vulnerable in essays and, and to the point of comfort. Um, there is one, I think quick essay or quick question we can kind of get out of the way.

And that’s someone asking about, um, you know, learning British English versus American English in schools, or if you’re taught a different version of English, is there a standard English you need to write in, um, when it comes to these essays? I think British English is fine. I got my master’s in England, at Cambridge, and I used to spell color C O L O U R, which we don’t use here in the U.

S. And the people, I mean, reading your essay will have that context, reading your application will have that context. So. I wouldn’t worry about that. You’ll be fine. Again, the universities and admissions officers are reading in the context of your school. They have all that data. So they see that you were born in a certain country or educated in a particular place.

They’ll have that lens and context. So I would not worry about that. Great. So, as we continue through the webinar, um, I do just want to let everyone know that CollegeAdvisors team of over 300 former admissions officers and admissions experts, including the two of us here tonight, are ready to help you and your family navigate the college admissions process in one on one advising sessions, um, or as I call them, mentoring sessions.

Um, we’ve already helped around 6, 000 clients in their college journeys. Once we’ve analyzed that data since 2021, we found that CollegeAdvisor students are 3. 6 times more likely to get into Stanford, 4. 1 times more likely to get into Vanderbilt, and 2. 7 times more likely to get into Harvard. So if you’re looking to increase your odds and take the next step in your college admissions journey, By signing up for a free 45 to 60 minute strategy session with our admission specialists on our team, you can use the QR code on the screen.

During this meeting, we will review your current extracurricular list and application strategy, discuss how they align with your college list, and outline the tools you need to stand out in this really competitive admissions world. So feel free to take advantage of that opportunity. We are going to jump back into our Q& A.

We have a lot of Really interesting questions, um, to go over. So, someone is asking if I have a competitive major that I’m trying to apply for, um, what are some good ways to make my application stand out about that major? So, frankly, if you’re applying to a competitive major, the most important part of your application will be…

Your high school transcript and the test scores that may align with that particular interest. So, for an example, if you’re applying for computer science or engineering, you need to ensure that you have mostly A’s, frankly, in the STEM courses. Um, and by mostly, you should have primarily A’s in your STEM courses.

In addition, your test scores, the math sections, the science sections, if you’re taking the a c t, should show very, very high performance in those areas. So that will be the most important thing. The essay is an addition that is like the icing on the cake. You know, when I ask, uh, missions officers to rate the importance of the essay, most say three.

Like right in that middle, right? That is additional thoughts. You know, I, very few students are admitted on the essay, right? They need to have. The, uh, the grades primarily that demonstrate rigor and achievement, um, and, and, you know, high level performance and proficiency and core competencies and courses that will demonstrate that they can perform well in the courses.

So that’s 1st and foremost, as far as the essay. You know, I, I think about students, you know, that I work with who are applying to engineering or STEM programs and really being able to communicate, um, why they want to study that particular program. I am seeing a lot of students who are using, um, who, who appear to have interest in, in STEM programs because culturally there’s a shift about tech and, um, how, you know, job availability and, and, um, you know, just having a degree that has some type of a, a high return on an investment.

But they can’t adequately or, you know, genuinely communicate why they want to pursue that. And I think that’s an issue. So it’s not just about job outcomes. You need to talk about where’s the interest lie with your own passions. Do you have a dimen have you shown a track record of interest in this major area, you know, through extracurricular activities or internships or jobs?

That’s a really great way to say, I have this track record. So not only I’m interested in studying mechanical engineering now, I’ve also participated in these various activities. In the past and look, this is why this is what has informed also, what does the school have in its arsenal or resources that they have available?

So do your research often think about the why do you want to study this major and why you want to study this major at the school essay? This is when you really got to get your hands dirty and do research. That can mean talking to current students. That can mean going on their, you know, various, uh, department websites.

Who are the faculty? What’s the research that they’ve conducted? The research that they are doing? Are there internships? Are there opportunities? Are the study abroad programs particularly for your major? Are there specific advising programs in your major? So you really want to just do the research and show that you made a concerted effort to really dig deep.

You can contact, again, current students. Um, I know some people will try to contact professors on the undergraduate level. From my experience, that is less, um, that makes less of a difference as an undergraduate student. You know, graduate level, we do that a lot because we are often working directly with a professor or faculty member at the graduate stage.

But as an undergrad, You know, you might email the professor. They might say, you know, I would love to work with you, but they often do not have a say so in admissions on the undergraduate level. So I just want to put that out there just in case anyone had a question about that. But again, as a faculty member doing research that you’re interested in.

Is there, do they have a special engineering advising program? Do they have a special study abroad program for computer scientists? Are there clubs and organizations that you’ve participated in that aligns with what the university offers? So you really wanted to show that you’ve done your research and you want to make sure that you have demonstrated proficiency.

A high school and the areas that correspond in the areas of interest you hope to pursue at the undergraduate level. So I hope I answered that question. I’m going to take a minute. There are a lot of questions in the chat box asking specifically about would this essay topic work or would this essay topic work?

And as someone who has read many of these, both as an advisor and as an admissions officer, I do want to say to you, if you feel that the story is you, It is authentic, it is you. If you step back from that essay and feel like you are on that piece of paper, then it was a good topic for you. Um, I, I can’t sit here and tell you that an essay about…

Learning an instrument and how it, like, made you think differently about the world is going to be a good essay because I haven’t read the way you’ve done it. It’s about how you write it and, you know, how it, it really comes out. Um, so, that’s the first thing I’ll say to a lot of those questions. I know that might not be the most satisfying answer, but…

That’s the truth of it. Um, and then we did have a really good question that I wanted to look at. Oh, so what are some good examples of ways to hook into an essay, um, to get admissions officers attention? Yeah, that’s a popular question. Thank you so much, uh, for asking that. So, I see it done in a lot of interesting ways.

So, some students kind of do the pyramid, um, Kind of example where they start very small, you know, uh, about a small exam, a specific, really small example. So for an example, you know, say, say if the essay was about working at a nail shop, you know, for example, and they talk up, they start with the intro, like, you know, my 32nd nail of the day, you know, I’m tired.

I’ve, I’ve filed, I painted. My 32nd nail of the day and you might be wondering like what on earth are they talking about hammers and nails? Like what is talking about so they zoom in so small You’re like, I don’t know what they’re talking about and then they they kind of hook you in you’re like, okay Now I want to read what they’re talking about and then they talk and then the next sentence is, you know I’ve been working with my mom at the nail shop in Harlem, New York for the past 12 years, whatever.

So they zoom in and then they begin to, to, to branch out. So that’s one really great example that I love to see. And I always find myself like, Hmm, I’ve seen quotes, I’ve seen poems, I’ve seen people start with expressions that they, that’s popular in their, you know, say language, or maybe, um, you know, they might have something in Spanish or Russian or, or German or whatever a language might be.

And then they’ll start with that expression, you know, and then, and then explain like, my grandmother said this, you know, growing up, or this is a word I heard about the importance of family, dah, dah, dah. And then they’ll explain that. So that’s really creative, you know, again, quote, quotes can be a little cliche, you know.

You know, uh, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, you know, that could be a little cliche. We love Dr. Martin Luther King, but it’s very popular. But, you know, quotes, you know, lines from books, you know, that some students have read. Again, sometimes those can be overused. But, you know, you do want to say we’re from cliches like life is a box of chocolate.

Okay, we’ve heard that. We know that, you know, um. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. Whatever. Don’t count your eggs before they hatch. Whatever. So those cliches you want to avoid whenever possible because they’re just overdone, but Again, uh, zooming in again, the pyramid or the opposite, the inverted pyramid where some students start really broad in like, you know, a really large idea and then they go very specific.

So I, I, again, in pyramid inverted pyramid quotes. Uh, expressions in a cultural expression or something, uh, and that can be in English or not in English. Um, they can be quotes or lines from favorite books or movies. So they really depend. And again, it’s really hard to answer questions like these unless we see them, right?

Where I can be like, no. But those are some of, I think, the, the most immediate, um, things that come to mind that I can be, I think could be really interesting and fun, um, for admissions officers to read. Because again, they’re going to read thousands of applications. So when you do have something that’s fun or interesting and it makes them say, Hmm, um, that’s always, uh, an enjoyable experience for them.

Yeah, I think those are all really great ones. I love starting in the middle like Starting in the middle of a story and then build me the beginning in the end. It’s I love that That’s always fascinating because it’s like oh I have to read it now. I have to know what happened and how we got precisely Um, this is actually interesting.

This is more of a stylized question There’s a couple different questions about differing styles in here. So I think we can One of them is saying, is it possible to refer to yourself in the third person in an essay? Yes. And then another, yes. And then another similar one would be, how do admissions officers feel about dialogue or internal thoughts or monologue in an essay?

I mean, as long as it’s not distracting, what I mean by that is, so the first question, the answer is yes, you can refer to yourself as third person, wherever it’s appropriate, right? Um, as far as internal dialogues and monologues, it just needs to, it gets tricky as far as we need to be able to distinguish who’s saying what, is it you, is it them, is it they?

Like, we, it’s sometimes the formatting. So remember, also, this is a really important thing to think about. Um, I think there’s an opportunity once you submit. Like before you submit your application to download it because the formatting can get a little funky. You know, so if you’re writing in certain types of prose where like there might be certain indentations or etc or block form We see this a lot with people who try to write poems.

It doesn’t always translate that on the opposite end. So, um You want to make sure that you’re using appropriate amount of quotes or that it’s clear who’s speaking when I do think overwhelming the reader with a lot of different kind of dialogue can be a little confusing and it’s just not as digestible.

But I can’t say with a matter of fact that is not appropriate. I’ve seen it done well, but the whole essay just can’t be a converse. If it’s a conversation, I just find it a little distracting, a little difficult to dice. decipher who’s saying what, when, and who’s responding. Is it your voice? Is it your, the voice in your head?

Are you speaking to grandma? So I think it can be a little distracting if not done, if it’s not clear and if it just dominates the entire story. So that’s my opinion. Absolutely. Um, this is I think this is a really good question. This is one of the hardest parts. My students seem to have as well working on their essays is what are some ways to wrap up?

What are what are some ways to bring that conclusion in? Yeah, I knew that I when you said this is the hardest part. I was like, it’s the conclusion. Yeah. I have some students who just don’t even conclude. It’s like, alright, everybody have a good day. Like I just kind of Yeah, they’re just out of there. And I’m just like, okay.

Um, you know, I You know, I think essays are really fun where, and I mentioned this in the, in the conversation about the beginning matching the end. So why, while I don’t think just if you said a quote at the beginning, you need to repeat it. I’m not saying that, but it should, it should read like you are connected to what you started with there.

It shouldn’t just be so random and detached that we just don’t know. Um, so I often say, you know, refer, you can use it to summarize the areas. So if you said, I mean, use the life is a box of chocolate, right? Cliche, but if you wrote about life in a box of chocolate and that there were three critical moments where you found yourself not knowing what you’re going to get.

Um, and you say, you know, I, I took this one piece of chocolate. I took a bite of it and it was strawberries inside and it reminded me of this. And then I took this, this other, you know, piece of chocolate and it had coconut in it. And it reminded me of my family trip to this. And then the third thing, it was caramel and it was the sweetest and it reminded me of this, this.

So if you use those three examples, the conclusion should then, you know, refer to, you know. While I realized through my, you know, my trip, you know, my various chocolate tastings that life was unpredictable, you know, I, I learned these things, right? So you need to be able to refer to whatever you talked about to remind the reader, because again, Sometimes the essays are long and convoluted and it’s like, what did they talk about?

So being able to reflect upon what you said, so summarize it, if you will, the points you make. That’s a really, really great technique. And also see if some students start with a quote, start with a question, start with a song, start with a poem. They might repeat it again and say, even though I no longer think about this song this way, you know, after traveling, you know, with my family to Ghana.

You know, I now think this, you also have students who would conclude with lessons learned through my experiences, you know, volunteering through my experiences, uh, being class president at my high school, I now realize this. So they’ll use it to talk about their epiphanies or things that they learn, the values that they gain.

So I think those are three, like, three great ways to conclude the essay. And it’s about space. So your essay also doesn’t have to be a full five to seven sentence paragraph. It could be three sentences. I’ve seen two sentences. It can just sum it, you know, sum it up. You just really want to wrap up and close the loop.

You just don’t want us to be like, oh, it’s over. You know, so it doesn’t have to be a full… You know, paragraph. I mean, there is opportunity to be a little bit more creative than that. So I just want to point that out, too. If you’re like, I wrote two sentences that sums this up beautifully and that’s all I got.

That’s fine, too. Yeah, I’ve seen three word conclusions that are just hit me like a ton of bricks and I’m like, wow, that’s, that’s how it should have ended. Great. Like, um, those are excellent ways to end the essay. Um, so someone is asking when, when writing a personal statement, do you need to address specific extracurriculars or specific academic interests in your personal statement?

No, you need to just answer the question. So you just want to, if the question asks, if you write a personal statement and ask why, you know, what is something that made you want to study, you know, sociology and tell us why, then you need to answer that question. And maybe that’s what you want to study in college and you want to talk about why.

So then you need to be specific. But if it’s saying like, tell me something you have to overcome and how that’s impacting you. That may be irrelevant to the major that you want to study, and that’s okay. So you want to prioritize answering the question. You do not have to talk about what you want to study, or you don’t even have to explicitly talk about future goals either if that’s not the question.

You’ll be fine. Absolutely. Trying to find a good wrap up question for us here. Um, I’m trying to think, uh, Oh, yes, this is good. This is more about a supplement, but I do think it’s, it’s a very common supplement. So, how can you write the why us or the why this major at our school essay without sounding generic?

Yeah. Cause they, frankly, they all sound a little generic to me because it’s like, you don’t know cause you’ve never been, like you, you’ve never been a student. So even when you like do your research, it’s like, um, you know, two things I always tell students to prioritize people in place. So you want to talk about, like, what about the people in a particular place, um, that attracts you?

So it could be a professor, it could be a faculty, it could be the type of student culture and the types of students the university attracts. I’ll use my alma mater as an example, Georgetown, where we are committed to service, I mean, men and women for others. Um, and, and that is, that is shown about the type of the service orientation of students, the civic engagement of students.

You know, being in the nation’s capital, that’s a place. piece. So, you know, talk about people. You want to study anthropology and you looked on the website and you saw three anthropologists and two really are teaching classes that resonate with you. Name them and talk about the courses that they’re teaching.

So people again, if you saw that students started a protest and that’s really important to you and they protested something that align with you. Talk about that, right? The people then place place. So is the city located? I mean, it’s a school located in a city, a community, an urban environment, a rural environment that may align with your interests.

So maybe you care about greenhouse gases and farming techniques and you’re applying to Penn State, which is a more rural campus, and it’s really important that you have access to farms based on your research interests. And also you might just like a more rural environment because you grew up in one and you feel most aligned to nature that way.

Talk about place. You know, certain places have more access to certain types of inter, internships or industries, right? Say, say you’re interested in Texas and they have more access to oil and, and, and, and oil rigs. That’s very different than a place in like Michigan or University of Michigan. I mean, at least to my knowledge, I don’t know where the oil, if you have oil rigs here.

So again, people in place, you just want to do your research. And whatever possible. I always say utilize social media because, you know, universities now are being more creative. They have student takeovers. They have TikToks where you can see students talk about their own experience and you can reach out to current students and ask them their genuine experiences and maybe they can tell you about little cultural nuggets or tips.

traditions or things that you might not find just through a Google search. Talk to the high school counselors or high school graduates from your school that may have matriculated to schools that you’re interested in. They can give you rich information as well. So those are some of the tips that I have.

I will throw one little humorous bit into this just because I’ve, I’ve heard this far too often. If you are applying to NYU, please don’t tell them you just want to live in New York City. They will throw that essay away so quickly. Um, tell them why NYU in New York City and why, so I think I think those are tricky essays, but I always laugh when I, when I hear about the, I want to live in the Big Apple essay.

Yeah, and do not name another school in your essay. Don’t say, this school, I like this school better because, don’t do that. We are colleagues, we know each other, don’t, do not disparage another university in any of your applications. Absolutely. I think this has been so helpful. Um, so I just want to thank you all for coming out tonight and thank you to our panelists.

Um, this is going to be the end of our webinar. We had a really great time telling you about how to brainstorm your college essay and get started. I also want to share with you our additional webinars we have coming up in August that you are welcome to join us for. Um, and, and thank you all so much for, for joining us for the evening.

Bye everyone.