How To Write The College Essay: On Discovering Myself

To the stressed-out senior:

October. It’s the spookiest time of the year for you… that’s right, college applications. Two years ago I was in your shoes, staring at the 650-word Common App Essay and a mountain of supplements. It’s intimidating to face the sheer amount of work you have to do to secure your future success at the tender age of 18. So many things are up in the air–it can be a time that is fraught with anxiety, insecurity, and uncertainty.

The essays, you are told over and over again by teachers, counselors, admissions officers and the ever reliable College Confidential, are where you get to show your personality. They are meant to encapsulate something that can’t come across in a polished resume or list of honors. Picture yourself meeting with your admissions officer over a cup of tea, and pouring out parts of your life story in a way that is enlightening and composed—college essays are the written equivalent. They are indeed a strategy for the admissions officer to get to know you, but that’s not the full story. What I’ve found is that writing college essays was just as insightful for me as for the admissions officer.

College essays are a clever ploy for universities to get students to rethink who they were, are, and want to be. Answering college questions gave me the arsenal and vocabulary I would need to gracefully and eloquently articulate my answers to questions I’d be asked the rest of my life: Where do you see yourself in five years? What is your biggest failure or regret? How did you overcome your biggest challenge? If you could have anyone living or dead as a dinner guest, who would it be? What are your favorite podcasts or publications? What do you deeply care about and why?

Through the process of answering these questions, I crystallized my love of storytelling into words. I got in touch with a part of myself I thought I had lost, exploring my connection to my heritage. I understood how different aspects of my life have shaped me to be brave and bold. I gave thanks to the people whose shoulders I’m standing on today. I rediscovered how much my parents love me, and how much I love my parents. I figured out who my heroes are and why I look up to them so much. And as grandiose as it sounds, it’s the truth: I recognized my life’s calling through writing my college essays.

College applications also forced me to look at why I wanted to go to college. In answering the Why ____? question, I realized there were some colleges I wanted to go to more than others. Answering Why Yale was one of the toughest questions for me—I couldn’t think of a way to write about Yale without drawing on cliches I was sure other people would include. But ultimately, I decided to prioritize honesty in the answer to that question: it was the people that attracted me the most, so I wrote about Yale’s emphasis on building community. Now that I’m here, I can truly attest to the kindness and thoughtfulness of the student body.

This is all to say, dear senior, vulnerability in your essays pays off. Let yourself find your truth, and sink into it. Let it envelope you and your state of mind as you open that Google Doc. You’re writing for admissions officers, yes, but the more important audience is yourself. Treat them like precious time capsules you will one day open in the future. These kernels, results of deep soul-searching, will resonate with your audience, whether it’s a Yale admissions officer or your future 40-year-old self. It’s a snapshot into the mind of a 18-year-old, grappling with identity, figuring out what they want on the cusp of the world. This may all change—nothing you say in a college essay is set in stone—but in this moment at least, it sings true: beautiful, brilliant, and bold.

I found myself through thousands of drafts, each a different version of me. If you trust the process, and be honest with yourself, you can find yourself too.