4 Reasons Why Keeping a Journal Can Help You With College Applications


4 Reasons Why Keeping a Journal Can Help You With College Applications

Keeping a journal or diary might seem to you like a pointless pastime, but writing regularly throughout high school will help tremendously when you sit down to complete your college applications. If you’ve kept track of your activities, as well as reflected on them, you’ll be ready to create impressive, detailed, and convincing college applications!

Here are a few ways that keeping a journal will dramatically help your college application process.

1. Keep track of your accomplishments.

On the Common Application, you’ll need to list your top 5 awards received in high school and your top 10 extracurricular activities during high school. You do a lot and experience a lot over four years! Don’t have time for lengthy diary entries every day? Keep a shorter list of your accomplishments and activities. That way, when you sit down to write these two lists for the Common App, you don’t need to spend hours trying to remember your accomplishments. Instead, you can look back at a list you’ve created in the moment over years. It’s easy to leave out something important otherwise!

I recommend this from my personal experiences with keeping a journal. Throughout high school, I kept a Word Document on my computer that I updated regularly. I described my classes, my extracurriculars, awards I received, memorable moments in my life, and conversations I had with my teachers.

I did the same throughout college, so that I was ready to apply to graduate school. And I do the same now as a working adult. Every time I need to update my resume, I go directly to this document, which has lots of important information I might otherwise forget. I don’t have to painstakingly try to remember the important stuff when I edit my resume.

I know I’ll continue to do this throughout my life. Keeping a journal is a great habit to cultivate. Not only does it let you keep track of what you achieved, so that you can report this easily on applications, it’s a great record to look back on and take some time to appreciate the last few years.

2. Remember why what you did mattered to you.

Being able to see connections among your activities and accomplishments, and to explain why you did these things, is a critical part of the college application process. Admissions officers don’t want to admit a high-achieving robot to their school! They want to see your personality, what motivates you, and why you care about your activities.

Sometimes it can be difficult to remember why you made certain choices. Keeping a journal or diary can help with this! Beyond your list of achievements, write down some thoughts on what you learned from each activity. Take time to reflect! Don’t just blindly join the activities others do. Instead, think about what you like and why. Your diary or journal will help you process what you do.

Then, when you get to the step of writing about yourself and your activities on your college application, you’ll have a lot to say about why you did what you did. You’re also teaching yourself an important skill: self-reflection.

Application readers look for maturity and self-awareness. They look for applicants who understand themselves. You cannot achieve this character development without self-reflection.

3. Generate essay content.

As I mentioned above, you’ll have to write a lot about why you did what you did in high school and why it mattered. Nearly every college application asks for supplementary essays beyond the personal statement. Some colleges want one extra essay...some want four or five!

One of the worst feelings is to be experiencing writer’s block when faced with five supplementary essays. But if you have a diary or journal to draw on, you’ll have lots of ideas. You don’t want to repeat yourself across your supplementary essays. As I’ll describe next, it is important to show consistency and commitment through your activities and your essays, but you also want to show variety. Schools want to admit student who will contribute to their campus environment through both academics and extracurriculars. Your supplementary essays are the perfect place to show what you’ll bring to the college community.

I’ve also seen students without a diary or an activities list jump blindly into writing their personal statement or supplementary essays. After a few drafts, they realize they should have focused on some other activity or experience that is more engaging and better reveals their strengths. Then they start over from scratch! Or else they don’t bother, but they sell themselves short in their applications.

If you start from a diary or activities list, you’ll be able to brainstorm your essays with all the possible topics in front of you.

4. Notice trends and preferences among your activities and achievements.

Keeping a journal will help you years before you reach the college applications themselves. Writing about yourself and your activities is an important part of self-reflection. When you articulate your thoughts, either through conversations with others or through your own writing, this will help you understand your opinions and preferences.

Very few high school students in 9th or 10th grade think about what they could be doing to improve their chances of college admission. If they do think about this, they tend to focus on scoring highly on testing, getting good grades, or starting some community service, “because that’s what everyone does.” While good test scores and grades are very important, one of the best things you can do in 9th and 10th grade to improve your chances of college admissions is to FIGURE OUT WHAT YOU LIKE and DO THAT CREATIVELY. How do you figure out what you like? Start taking notes! Did you hate your debate camp? Why? So you love your Chemistry class? Why?

Once you know what you like, you can find a new way to do more of this. It’s important to show commitment and focus through your college applications. If you figure out that you LOVE Chemistry in the fall of 12th grade, you don’t have a lot of time to prove that you LOVE Chemistry through your activities. But if you figure this out in the fall of 9th grade, you have time to start a Chemistry club at your high school, or conduct an independent research project, or submit your research to state and national competitions, or shadow a Chemistry professor at a local university, or get a summer internship in a medical lab. If you do all these things, everyone will know how much you care about Chemistry.

If you start keeping a journal in middle school or 9th grade, you can look through your activities and notice connections. Did you do three things related to Chemistry? Interesting. Maybe it’s time to try more Chemistry and explore whether you’d want to study this in college. Did you have a really interesting conversation with your history teacher? That’s great. Could this person write you a letter of recommendation someday? And, if yes, what else can you do to impress that person? Could you ask for reading recommendations, so you could learn more about the field? Could you join the quiz bowl team this teacher also runs?

You can observe these connections even if you keep a short activities list and don’t write a full diary. Throughout middle school, I used a calendar to write down 1-2 sentences every day. This helped me visually see what I’d done. It helped me see where I spent a lot of time. It helped me see what I cared about. If you’re a visual learner and thinker, and daunted by keeping a full diary, this might be the approach for you.

The goal is not to force yourself into any one thing as you think about your preferences. Don’t strategically pick something just because it’s unusual. Should I say on my application I’m going to major in Medieval French History because that will be an unusual choice? No. Not unless you love this subject. Instead, try to see what you’re already choosing naturally, think about why you like this, and pursue it further.


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