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Articles / Applying to College / College Essay Tips for "Ordinary Teenager"

College Essay Tips for "Ordinary Teenager"

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | Dec. 1, 2010

Question: It seems like everyone else has something significant to write about in their college essays … the death of a parent or winning some national music award. I am just an ordinary teenager. I have lived in my same suburban house my whole life and am in a bunch of typical school clubs. How can I write an essay that will be memorable?

College admission officials aren't looking for drama in application essays. Instead, they are more interested in submissions that reveal what's important to you and how you think. If humor is your strong suit, that can be a nice addition as well. Seven hours into a mountain of folders, most admission folks could use a good laugh! (But don't force the humor if you're not a natural Will Ferrell or Tina Fey.)


When I worked in an admission office, one of my all-time favorite essays was about a laundry mishap at summer school. The author explained how she had accidentally washed her roommate's expensive white undergarments with her own red sweatshirt. Of course, the essay wasn't really just about laundry … it was more about the boundaries of friendship, and the fact that it was beautifully written was more important than the subject matter. Other wonderful essays I remember include one about playing in a truly awful school band and another hilarious one called “Why I Shop at Wal-Mart."

While there are lots of books out there that serve up samples of “successful" essays, there are two that I like that offer helpful suggestions on how to craft your own. For years, I've recommended On Writing The College Application Essay: Secrets of a former Ivy League Admissions Officer by Harry Bauld. In particular, “Whole Sole," about a summer home-stay in France, which Bauld includes among his examples, is one that I often send to my advisees.

A newcomer to the essay how-to roster that I also highly recommend is Concise Advice: Jump-Starting Your College Admissions Essays by Robert Cronk. I just recently read this book to review it on College Confidential, and the author is a long-time College Confidential member, too. :)

Both of these books do an excellent job of showing readers how to build a meaningful essay out of the raw material of their teenage lives--even those readers who haven't published a novel or cured cancer (yet). And I bet you can do the same with your essay. Good luck!

(posted 11/30/2010)

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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