Let’s shift the conversation on the college essay. Instead of dreading the beast of this college application requirement, we want students to appreciate and enjoy it for the great opportunity that it really is. Take it from our friend Kate at ScholarMatch, an organization aimed at helping students apply to college and succeed while there. Kate explains that the college essay, also known as the personal statement, “is a place for students to find and tell more about themselves.”
The college essay is a special opportunity for you to paint who you are to colleges, in your own words. With it, you can create a more holistic picture of yourself than can be gleaned from the standard college application information, like your test scores or grades.
Because ScholarMatch has been helping students with their college applications for over 10 years, we went to Kate and ScholarMatch to get the inside scoop on how you can fully capitalize on the opportunity of the personal statement. Here’s what she had to say.
How to shine in your college essay
Kate emphasizes the opportunity behind the personal statement by explaining how “it’s really the place for students to use their voice to talk about who they are. It’s really a place to shine a light on who you are.” Over the years, Kate has been asked many times, by both students and parents, about the secret sauce to writing a great essay. But the truth is there is no one formula to success. “It’s tough to write, if you think you’re writing for formula. When we write for what we believe other people want to hear, we aren’t really speaking from the heart, right?”
Kate says if there is a secret to success, it’s in your own truth. “I honestly think that the best essays are the ones that speak truth. Whatever that student’s truth is about their experience really is what makes it a good essay.” But what is the truth you should speak to? Kate suggests a few ways to get your juices flowing. “I really encourage folks to think about some really pivotal moments in their high school career that were big for them, both in learning and in growing. So it could be things that were both challenging as well as moments that they really felt like they shined.”
For some students, it can be uncomfortable to talk about these moments. Kate explains how for some students, “especially students we serve who are from an urban environment, and from low income backgrounds, they sometimes undersell themselves.” But the college essay is a personal essay — so stepping out of your comfort zone and being vulnerable is hugely important. “You’re talking about your personal life, who you are, the moments that changed your trajectory or made you think differently about what you want to do in your life. And there isn’t a formula there because everyone’s story is different.” Explore those differences and put them to paper.
How to get started on your essay
It’s often the case that the most difficult part about writing is simply getting started, and the same holds true for the college essay.
Start by looking at the prompt questions. These can vary by school, so give yourself the time and space to thoughtfully read through the questions and think about which ones resonate most with you. Then get to brainstorming by thinking through what stands out to you based on what the question is asking.
Do the brainstorming that works best for you. Kate explains how “some students like writing physically on a piece of paper. Old school, right? Some people will like outline, some people will bubble, and others will just start writing bullet points. There is no wrong or right because it’s all about your experience.”
If you’re looking for another way to kick off your brainstorming for your college essay, consider an exercise ScholarMatch does with their students – a day in the life. Think about and talk through with a thought partner, maybe your parents, a teacher or a friend, what a typical day looks like for you. Kate explains how in doing this simple exercise, “we start to realize very quickly that students have unique stories they can integrate into a college essay.” For example, maybe “before school, a student already taken a sibling to school or done translation for her family.” A day in the life exercise is a “great way to think about what you are doing with your time, because that’s helpful in understanding the kinds of different things that you’d like to focus on, depending on what the question is,” in your college essay. After you’ve brainstormed in whatever manner works best for you, themes will start to emerge that you can then start crafting and weaving a story through.
Lastly, Kate wholeheartedly recommends for students to get started early, because “writing gets better the more you work on it.” And a part of the writing process is editing. Having a thought partner to bounce ideas off of and having that person and maybe a handful of others edit your piece for you is extremely important. Another set of eyes can help identify pieces that need improvement that you might miss on your own.
Kate “embarked on the pathway to being an educator from the beginning” of her career and has experienced a diverse set of roles within the space. Before ScholarMatch, Kate taught, did research and policy work, and even got her degree in Counseling Psychology so she could best help students. At ScholarMatch, she has been a jack of all trades. She’s worked directly with students in helping them get to and through college, trained the volunteers at ScholarMatch to be the best supporters of students, and now runs all of the organization’s corporate relations and community engagement efforts.
With its roots in San Francisco, ScholarMatch was founded in 2010 by author Dave Eggers as a crowdfunding platform for college scholarships. But Eggers and the ScholarMatch team quickly learned that students’ needs for college extend beyond the monetary ones. They found that what students really needed, and could benefit from, was hands-on support in learning about the college process and getting there. ScholarMatch adapted to fill this need and morphed into the full-service organization that they are today — supporting students through college advising in high school and college, as well as offering scholarships.