Why not? Before submitting your college applications you sign a statement affirming that all of the work included in the application is your own, so really no one else should be working on it. It’s fine to have a teacher or a guidance counselor review your essay and give you advice about how you should edit it, but it’s really not OK to have someone else write it or edit it for you. That’s why at Story To College we teach students tools to take charge of their essays.
What type of help can you get from other people at different stages of the college essay process?
Finding Topics: Parents often have strong ideas about what you should write your college essays about. Sometimes those ideas work for you, and sometimes they don’t, and in either case it’s hard to wrestle free from them. For most students it takes some quiet, reflective time to come up with a topic that is really your own and reflects your personality and the things that are important to you. I urge you to take the time and start with a handful of topics that speak honestly about what is most important to you. Many students tell us that talking to their friends in these early stages is very helpful, whereas parents and teachers — not so much!
Drafting the Essay: Once you have an idea you should write the first draft as quickly as you can in one sitting. The less time you stop to think about it the better. Write the essay as if you are having a conversation with a trusted friend just as you would say it out loud. Don’t worry how long it is at first. If it’s 200 words, that’s a great start; if it’s 1000, you’ll have lots to work with. For the first pass, try telling your story out loud into a recorder on your computer or phone and then transcribe what you said word for word. Students say that it often helps to have friends listening when they tell their stories, so it feels genuine and real. Before you edit your essay, let the transcript sit for a day or two before you do anything else.
Revising and Completing the Essay: Get three highlighters (ideally red, yellow or green) and review the essay like this:
- Red: Highlight anything that’s generic, or written in a critical voice, or just not how you want to present yourself to admissions.
- Yellow: Use this color to shine a light on places where you have good ideas that still need more detailed work.
- Green: Highlight all the parts that are clear, direct and stated in your own voice.
This is the place where you most want to trust yourself, staying close to your experiences and writing in your own authentic voice. Or try the Story To College 8-Point Application Essay Checklist for more details on a rapid revision process.
Grammar Check: You need to do this part yourself too! If the structure and grammar of your application essay are completely different from your SAT Writing essay (which many colleges do read), they will wonder if you actually wrote the essay yourself. And that can only work against you. Your English teacher can definitely help with a grammar check, but make sure you understand the recommended changes and are making them yourself.
At every stage of the application essay process, it’s really important to learn what you can from others and then do the work yourself.
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Carol Barash, who has a PhD from Princeton, is the founder and CEO of Story To College, a company that teaches students how to find authentic stories from their own experience and perform them powerfully in application essays and interviews. Barash taught for 10 years at Princeton University, University of Michigan and Rutgers University, and developed educational programs in diverse corporate and community settings.