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Turning 'What I Did Last Summer' Into a College Essay

Sep 30, 2011

College application essays can be an important component of a student's overall application package. This can lend a nerve-wracking quality to writing the essay, and students might approach the task with dread. But treating the essay as a way to tell stories about one's own experiences is one way to make the exercise both effective and enjoyable.

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By Sarah Wright

college application essay tips

Be Honest - and Don't Worry About It

The process of writing a college application essay is one that forces us to think of our most interesting, appealing qualities and experiences. Some might be tempted to embellish, borrow or even make up a story that makes themselves look smart, sophisticated and capable. But in reality, admissions officials want to learn about you - the real you - in your essay. Starting to make stuff up is a rabbit hole you don't really want to go down. Who knows what kind of nonsense you'll end up with?

A recent article in The New York Times discusses the fact that some students are working with consultants to plan summer vacations that will result in one-of-a-kind experiences to then be turned into outstanding essays. One example in the article is of a student who spent a significant amount of time in China, including trips to ancient and exotic locales. Another example has a student using a paid college counselor to arrange a day trip with a 'renegade' group of artists. These experiences doubtless led to interesting essays, but the fact of the matter is that it's just not necessary to spend the money to arrange these kinds of trips.

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Use Your Experiences - No Matter What They Are

If your summer vacation experiences do include something like a trip to ancient tombs in South America, and that event did have a significant impact on you, that's great. You shouldn't feel ashamed of your experiences, no matter what they are. But the Times article includes discussion with admissions professionals who point out that it's the quality and personality-revealing content that matters in admissions essays, not the exotic and far-flung nature of the essay's topic. Going out of your way to artificially create an experience to be used in an application essay just isn't necessary.

Instead, you can draw from your experiences, no matter how mundane they may seem. If your essay about a summer spent working in a fast food restaurant is one in a sea of stories about expensive travels and hoity-toity cultural experiences, you're going to stand out, and that's a good thing. Not everyone's summer can be filled with expensive, curated activities. And if you're a good student with a good work ethic, that will help round out the whole of your admissions package.

Plan Your Summer, But Don't Obsess

Still, it's a sign of maturity and focus to have an area of interest that you can display involvement with. These are good qualities to emphasize on a college application essay. It's not a bad idea to plan summer activities that emphasize your interests, particularly if you're planning to pursue those interests academically. It's fine to do this within your means, though.

That means that you can go to your local art museum and talk to a curator rather than going to the Uffizi in Florence. You can spend the summer tackling The Oxford History of The United States in the comfort of your own home instead of taking an expensive road trip to historical sites around the country. Whatever you choose to do, just make sure you're staying true to yourself and your interests. You don't need to pretend to be something you're not to get into college.

Another unrealistic perception is that having a part-time job take the place of extracurricular activities is damaging, but in reality, a job can be an asset on a college application.

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