Academics

Writing a great college admission essay

By Lucy Ewing

By the time our students apply to college, they are practically professional essayists. They have been writing essays since they were 10 years old (remember the five-paragraph “hamburger” model?). In high school they learned to spool them off after games and concerts and squish them into the four blank pages of annual state tests. If all those essays were put in a book, it would be an impressive volume.

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Yet when confronting the college admission essay task, students freeze. It seems as if more is riding on these 500-750 words than anything ever put to paper. Ever. So my first word of advice is to relax. (That goes for you, too, Mom and Dad.)

I have been advising students on college essays for fifteen years and have come to understand that the role of an essay adviser is part therapist, part writing teacher. Dozens of students have sat at my dining room table in various states of distress and digress, and all have produced a pretty nice piece and variations, much to their relief.

Best of all, this is a process students can do by themselves. Share this DIY essay-writing workshop with your soon-to-be high school senior!

First things first

QuoteAdmissions counselors stress that one main purpose of the essay is to give them an impression of the applicant. Consider it an open-ended interview with a nice, Jimmy Fallon kind of guy, in the safety of your own self.

Looking back can be difficult when so much of the college process is about looking ahead. The reflection that needs to happen to generate a strong college essay is not necessarily connected to what’s already on the transcript, resume or application form. It’s landing on a part of you that has an emotional connection. (This is the therapy part.) Try journaling about what makes you most proud of yourself on a very personal level, or something you have thought about or that has inhabited your memory for a long time. So much of what has given a person a sense of satisfaction or meaning comes not from the “end” but the middle of a moment or crisis or challenge. A debating student focused on preparing for arguments and the expanding file that contained them, not about the debates he won. It comes from the first times and the last times. It comes from personal relationships. It comes from insights you might never have shared with anyone, like the student who was ashamed that his mother’s broken English embarrassed him at his upper-middle-class school.When your heart starts beating faster and your pen can’t stop, you have probably landed on something that speaks to who you really are. Once you have arrived at this feeling, hold on to the idea. Do not discard it, thinking that it’s not “important” or “special” enough. It is special to you, and that will be the best topic for you to explore. Maybe you are the type of person who can’t let go of different possibilities. Perhaps you can find a common thread in them. Consider the tap dancer and artist who realized that what she really responded to were the patterns in both, which led her to remember her obsession with a tangram puzzle when she was young. This gave her a good foothold and also boundaries so she didn’t go overboard describing everything about these broad topics.

Does it fit the prompt?

On the topic of topics, college essay prompts are broad and plentiful, to help the brain get going with few other constraints. Colleges want to see something uniquely yours, and they devise prompts to accommodate that. Compare your idea against the Common Application essay choices, tweak if needed, and proceed!

Narrow is nice.

If you have followed this process, your topic is probably already a gem. But if it feels too big, drop down a level and sketch out three ways you could go with it, and then choose one of those ways. Choose a subset, a slice. For example, writing about being a circus performer is too large, but writing about how you were laughably bad at the clown summer camp in Canada is a good size.

Be yourself.

Let’s agree that one purpose of the college essay is to evaluate whether a student has suitable writing and communications skills for college level work. The other main purpose, admissions counselors will stress, is to gain an impression of the individual who is applying. Consider it an open-ended interview with a nice, Jimmy Fallon kind of guy, in the safety of your own self. Surely thousands of students have written about their love affair with Harry Potter. But what was your personal relationship with Harry? One of my writers confided that he waited up the night of his eleventh birthday for an invitation to Hogwarts, only to meet his furious dad on the front steps who shouted at him that it was a fantasy book and to go to bed. From that person’s essay, a counselor will see an imaginative, devoted, sensitive person.

Protect the process.

As you are developing the piece, make it your own creation. While parents know you intimately well, they might be tempted to put in points from their own perspective, or convince you why your GPA, Kiwanis Award, or track trophy would fit in nicely. Not. To ward off interference, ask your parent or mentor in advance to be a reader of your finished essay.

Show it, don’t say it.

Students have heard this mantra for eons, and it bears repeating. Follow claims with descriptive evidence. A reader will not believe anything was wonderful or terrible if you have not proved it with good, descriptive writing. Can your reader see what you are talking about? Hear what you are talking about? Feel what you are talking about? Let the reader experience the wonderful and the terrible.

Maintain a structure and active voice.

Not all essays follow the traditional five-paragraph model, but your essay should be well organized, with a strong introductory paragraph and concluding/reflective paragraph that expresses your higher understanding of the subject now that you have processed it through your writing. High school English teachers offer great advice on the format, and often include college essays as part of their junior curriculum. Programs like Microsoft Word grammar check will let you know the writing level of the piece and the percent of the writing that is passive. (You want to avoid the passive voice.)

Revise and refine.

Hopefully your piece is 100-200 words more than the limit. This means that you have made it rich and dense. Now it’s time to snip out repetitive ideas and superfluous phrases. Look for sentences that have more than one prepositional phrase and decide which one you don’t need. For example: “The book was on the highest shelf in the library of the basement” could be rewritten “The book was on the highest shelf in the library basement.” It might feel painful at first to have to cut words, but the result will be a cleaner, tighter piece. Other places to cut? Anything the likes of “It was the best/worst moment of my life” and “He helped me become the person I am today.” Look also at your opening sentence and your final sentence. Often the opening sentence is a warm-up sentence that appears in the second sentence, only better. The final sentence might be unnecessary, redundant, or dull. Leave on a high note — something that leaves the reader reflecting a little. Of course, give the piece a thorough grammar and spelling check.

Bring it to your reader.

Now it is time to ask a parent or close friend to read your piece. If the reaction is visceral, e.g. laughter, tears, or stunned silence, you know you have succeeded. If the “you” has really come across, that’s great. Suggestions might follow, which you can consider, especially if they are structural or grammar-related.

With these considerations, it’s obvious that this essay is going to take some time. Procrastination does not allow for much reflection, and pieces written under pressure often contain confusing ideas and unpolished writing. Parents can help their students plan ahead for the process. Summer is a great time to begin!

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