Writing Your Essay: Practical Advice

Janet Huseby began reading college essays twenty years ago. Since then, she has read thousands of essays and personal statements from Berkeley High students applying to college. Below is her tips of writing your college essay:

University of California applications are due at the end of November. Regular Admission deadlines for private colleges range from December 15 to February 15. Early applications for private colleges are usually due some time in October. Scholarships are often due even earlier. The UC application asks for four essays, with each response limited to a maximum of 350 words; the Common App wants one essay that is between 250 and 650 words and one short essay of 150 words; most private colleges also request a supplementary essay; private schools want to know “why” you are applying; some scholarships ask for even more personal information. Are you confused yet? Don’t worry. You can write two or three essays and then ADAPT. Be smart.

The following timeline should cover all types of students while ensuring efficiency.

1. Senior Profile. One of the keys to efficient essay writing is doing a good job on your BHS Senior Profile. Not only does the Profile provide information to your counselor and teacher for recommendation, the Profile is a working document that will serve as an outline for all of your essays and applications. Take time to go over it several times. Do NOT fill it in at the last minute. The profile does not have to be perfectly written but it should contain all the information you will need for your applications and essays.

2. The “Why” essay.
This is a short essay required by most private colleges. Why do you want to attend their school? They do NOT want you to go to their website and cut and paste. They know their campus is beautiful, their goal is to be diverse, their departments are excellent, their location ideal. They WOULD like to know what you will bring to their school. Think really hard before you respond. Why, exactly ARE you applying? For example: “Tulane intrigues me because it offers Portuguese and I would like to study public health in Brazil…” “ Whitman’s small town setting means a lot to me as I am interested in the history of the old west…” or “Occidental’s film department is what attracts me. I have studied film making all four years at BHS…” A lot of kids dash this essay off at the end of their essay season and then just substitute one college name for another in the same essay. Colleges know when they have received such a slap-dash essay. Think of this short essay as one last opportunity to tell them a little more about yourself.

3. USE the college essay readers.
Starting the second or third week of school the College and Career Center has college essay “readers.” These readers are professional writers or college counselors who volunteer to work with BHS students. Most of the readers have been working with students for many years. Take advantage of the readers.
• Their schedules will be available at the CCC desk in early September. They are on site before school, during lunch, and after school most days.
• The schedule includes the essay readers’ email. Once you start working with a reader, it is helpful to email your current draft BEFORE meeting up again in the college center. Of course, ask the reader if that is what they would like.
• If you are comfortable with your reader don’t go shopping for other opinions. Stick to one or two people (a teacher, a parent, a private counselor and an essay reader). There is no one-way to write an essay. The more people to whom you show your essay; the more opinions you will receive. It is easy to lose your way.
• When you are finished, show your essays to someone who doesn’t know you—such as a different essay reader. Tell them you have worked on the essay and you do not want editing help but a first impression. If the essays work, this new person will come up with a pleasing list of adjectives to describe you. If you are not happy with these adjectives, well, time for some rewriting.

6. Special Thoughts on the UC essay.
The UC system does not ask for recommendations from counselors or teachers, which can flesh out and substantiate your story. (Note: UC Berkeley sometimes asks for a letter of recommendation if they feel that they need more information after the initial application review). Students are admitted on the basis of high school classes and grades, test scores, a short list of extracurricular activities, and the essays. The lack of accompanying recommendations gives these essays a special burden. Unlike Common Application essays, UC essays must do more than give the reader a glimpse, however illuminating, into the your life. The 4 responses must cover EVERYTHING: challenges overcome, summers, family background, ethnicity, special achievements, and a fleshing out of activities outside the classroom. Think journalism: who, what, when, where, why. In the end, with four questions completed, you should ask: Is this who I am? Is this everything that is important about me? Have I left anything out?

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