So you’re a rising senior, and it is officially college essay season. The rumor mill is actively swirling around you with lots of information about what makes a good essay. The stakes feel very high. After all, people probably can’t stop talking about how important college essays and supplements are. Friends, parents, random articles from the internet all offer competing, sometimes contrary, advice. All you know for sure is that you want to write something that sets your application apart from all the other applications Dream School University receives every year. And let me tell you, DSU is getting lots of applications.

Armed with these facts, a lot of students feel the temptation to panic. One common reaction to this rising sense of dread is to treat the essay as an extended resume, squishing in everything important thing you’ve ever done into 650 words. Another is to use the essay to detail/not-so-subtly brag about the most impressive award you’ve won or title you earned. But the essay is not supposed to showcase WHAT you’ve done. The college already knows you play soccer or took APUSH or placed 2nd in that coding competition. They have your transcript. They have your list of extracurriculars. They have your scores, if you chose to send them.

What they don’t have is a clear picture of you. A transcript doesn’t show if you are funny or curious or creative or hardworking or all the other wonderful adjectives you may be. Scores don’t show your role in your family or community.  None of these metrics encapsulate your identity. All of those little building blocks that shape who you are and how you move through the world are largely unexplored. The essay and any supplements are a huge opportunity to offer this more complete picture of you.

So…how do you do this?

An excellent question!

I often have my students begin brainstorming by writing a list of “25 Things About Me That Do Not Appear on My Transcript.”  It’s a great way to start generating ideas about things that college would have no way of knowing unless you told them. Hopefully, this list will make you think of stories or reveal interesting trends that are the seeds for a wonderful essay.

Another early brainstorming question I ask my students is how they want to come across in their essays. List the adjectives! If this is tough for you, you can ask your friends and family how they would describe you. Take the descriptions that feel right and keep them at the top of your documents in bold. These descriptions are going to be a great guide as you think through topics you could choose and stories you could tell.

To be clear,  your essay does not have to be about something that would be a literal secret unless you chose to divulge it (It can be, if you have something you are excited to share!). People write phenomenal, successful essays about things that do appear elsewhere on their applications. They write about classes they took or extracurriculars they participated in or research they conducted. However, these essays are still offering new information and insight into their character because they are not simply reiterating WHAT they do. These essays explore specifics about WHY they do it and perhaps a little bit about the unique way of HOW.

So delve deep into your origin story. As you brainstorm topics, hold your essay ideas up to your guiding adjectives as a litmus test. And remember to ask yourself HOW and WHY instead of simply WHAT.  Most importantly, good luck on your essay journey.  You’ve got this!