Writing the College Essay

The college admissions essay is the single most important essay most students will write during their high school careers. For a student on the admissions margin, in particular, it can be a deciding factor in the admissions equation. While schedule strength, grades, and scores all need to be within the acceptable range for admission to a given school, the essay offers the student a chance to come alive as a human being and present an aspect of himself beyond the data points and quantitative metrics of the application. A well-crafted essay can turn an admissions reader into a vocal advocate in the event that a student’s application makes it to the admissions committee.

Writing the college essay does not have to be a painful experience. If it is painful to write, there is a high likelihood that it will also be painful to read. Conversely, if a student is able to embrace the experience of introspection, self-expression and attention to aesthetic factors, writing the essay can be a source of pleasure. I’ve worked with students who struggled, (who am I to deny my students the invaluable gift of frustration?), persevered, and ultimately realized essays that were not only successful on the admissions front but were also sources of satisfaction and pride for my students.

An Exercise in Self-expression

One of the keys to writing a successful essay is that a student must write the essay that only he or she could write. The essay must be the authentic expression of the student and must be grounded in the student’s unique interests, passions and values.

As the essay is thoroughly rooted in self-expression, I’ve found that the greater the degree of external influence and input, the more the final product will be compromised. When working with students, I go to great lengths to keep myself, my phrasings, and my influence out of the essay. I give them my knowledge of the creative process and will regularly challenge them to hold themselves to a higher standard of excellence, but my words and expressions will only serve to confound the organic nature of their self-expression.

Parents need to encourage their children to write thoughtful essays, but they would be wise to minimize their influence over the specific content and language used. I’ve seen parents edit their children’s essays and sneak in phrases and vocabulary that stuck out glaringly. When parents assume a critical posture towards the essay, many students struggle under this pressure. I ask parents to adopt a supportive posture, and, in certain instances, I find that it is appropriate for parents to step entirely out of the process. I have requested that parents refrain from reading their children’s essays until they arrived in their completed form. This was a means of affording my students the freedom and space in which to experiment and come up with something that was uniquely theirs.

A Different Kind of Beast

Students preparing to write the college essay must keep in mind that the strategies that may have proven useful in writing academic essays (emphasizing logic and evidence), AP essays (the “brain dump”), or SAT Writing essays (the five-paragraph formulaic structure) will be of little or no use. The college essay is fundamentally different from these types of essays. The college admissions essay is about risk-taking rather than conforming to a predetermined structure. It is about writing from one’s personal voice about one’s own, often intimate, experiences while expressing one’s values and philosophy. Because this unfamiliar writing style may prove daunting to many students, they may benefit from support and guidance as they endeavor to compose their admissions essays.

Choosing the Topic

As an essay coach at both ATS and Emory’s Career Counseling Center, I have had the opportunity to help students select topics for their college or grad school admissions essays. For some college-bound high school students, choosing the topic is the hardest step in the writing process. How does one go about selecting a singular narrative moment to represent the totality of 18 years of life? The truth is, you can’t and don’t have to. There is no such thing as a perfect topic. What is important is to find a subject that inspires the student.

Brainstorming a topic

While some students know instinctively which life experience will yield a compelling essay, others need a little prodding to stimulate their imaginations and memories. When brainstorming with a student, I sit at the computer and open a blank word document. I ask the student to start spouting out every impactful experience she can recall. I don’t edit or offer any comments. I simply sit and type the student’s words verbatim in a bulleted list. If students are stuck, I try to jog their memories. How did you spend your summers? What are your hobbies, activities, passions? What do you read for pleasure? Have you ever taken any important trips? What were your key friendships growing up? Who do you admire and why? What were the risks you took, life lessons you learned, great successes or failures you experienced? I’m the scribe, and the students are free to flow unencumbered.

Only when the list is complete do we begin to review and narrow down our options. I am constantly trying to gauge a student’s level of passion or interest for a given topic. As we review the list, I am scanning for a change in expression, body language, tempo or vocal inflection to indicate that the student actually cares about a given topic. Where is the juice? Where’s the interest? Which of these really inspires you or moves you? Which of these do you want to write about? Forget trying to impress the admissions committee – what do you care about?

The scope of the essay

Often students have the mistaken notion that they must take on an “important” topic or recall an experience “worthy” of an admissions essay. In my experience, the most idiosyncratic and unconventional topics often result in the most compelling essays.

Over the years, I’ve come across some essay topics repeatedly. A few of the classics include the peak experience on the Outward Bound trip, the leadership/growth experience at summer camp, the culturally expansive trip to Europe/China/South America, the culturally or socially expansive friendship, the big move to a new city or school, the illness or death of a loved one, the championship season, the impact of a mentor, and the meaningful community service experience. None of these is an inherently bad topic, and I’ve seen students craft outstanding essays with one of these topics as a foundation. However, successful students will make these topics their own, infusing their essays with novelty and vitality.

Often the experience that most inspires a student may seem relatively insignificant or minor in the scope of a life. But this “thin slice of life” often provides the clearest picture of an individual. For this reason, I encourage students to be specific and narrow in their focus. I ask my students to choose a reasonably sized topic that they can bring to life: a life-changing weekend, a book that changed their perspective, a conversation with a stranger, the act of overcoming a particular fear. Huge topics are rarely good for 500-750 word essays. It is possible to convey a big idea convincingly through a small story. Selecting an isolated incident often yields a tighter, more coherent essay and allows students to show off their values and insights. Sweeping topics rarely pack the emotional punch of a tight, intimate essay. There is no “right” narrative to tell; if a story inspires a student, it can become the driving force behind a compelling essay.

Enriching the application

It is often good to use the essay to tell the admissions officers something new, something that is not already mentioned on a student’s transcript or activity list. A good essay will broaden an application and give the admissions folks another point of human interest rather than hitting the same notes again and again. Gavin Bradley, former Columbia University admissions officer, acknowledges that the essay is the “single place a student can come alive, do or say what they think is most important, and add depth to the application.”

If you don’t know what to choose, just pick something

Some students grapple with choosing the “right” topic. I will eventually make them choose “a” topic to begin the process. Once they see how the essay-writing process works, they often come back to me with a new topic that came to them after the conclusion of our first session. This is perfect.

Fleshing Out the Topic- Letting the Student Flow

Once a student and I have zeroed in on a topic, we need to begin to flesh out the content, the specific details that enliven the anecdote. Some students are off and running but others need more guidance. For these students, I fire off provocative questions and type down their responses without interrupting, commenting or editing. I always push for details: “Can you be more specific?” “Tell me more.” “Why does this matter?” “What about this impressed you?” “What was this like for you?” “What did it feel like?” “What did you see?” “What did you learn?”

Like MadLibs, I often start sentences and make the student fill in the rest.

  • When this happened, I felt…
  • The reason I cared about this is…
  • I knew at that moment that…

This is a good method to get students talking from their own experience.

As I’m recording my student’s responses, everything goes down verbatim. I’m essentially a stenographer. I need to illustrate for a student exactly what her own voice sounds like. A student needs to find her speaking voice and integrate that into the essay. Some students think their essays have to sound impressive and scholarly. But most efforts I’ve seen in this direction have fallen far short of the desired goal. The most successful essays are personal, highly engaging and conveyed in the student’s voice.

Could you be more specific?

If a student is being overly general in his descriptions, I help him take the leap towards specificity. I remind my students: No clichés! Describe the experience to me vividly. Take me there. Show me what you experienced. Recreate it for me. Focus on the details that add character and personality. Stay in the weeds, in the sights, sounds, and physical memories of the experience. Focus less on abstraction and more on tangible details.

Be yourself, no matter what they say

The essay is a student’s chance to let the admissions committee know who he is and what he values; it is important that a student is able to take some risks and really put himself out there. Playing it safe is rarely the recipe for a successful essay. The key here is to reveal one’s true persona rather than try to craft an artificial one that the admissions folks might respond to. I advise my students, “write what you know and only what you know. Write from your experience and your reality. If you are funny, use humor to round out your essay. If you are serious and analytical, don’t pretend you are otherwise. If you write from a place of integrity, your essay will be more impactful.”

Looking to the masters for inspiration

Many students could prime the pump of self-expression by looking to authors who have previously inspired them. The college essay is not a good time to attempt to mimic or imitate a favorite author, but reviewing some well-crafted prose can certainly stimulate and prime high-level self-expression. Perusing the output of authors who take risks, who are playful, who explore the possibilities of language can inspire courage in students about to take some literary risks of their own.

Getting everything on paper

Once a student understands what it’s like to flow- to trust his voice and write without judgment- it is his turn to flesh out the essay. I advise students to get into a groove and just write until every detail is on the page. I tell them not to worry so much about the structure, as that will come later. What we want is to see all the content in one document. Once everything is laid out before us, we will begin to winnow out the most salient ideas and select the details around which we will build the essay. Structure will come eventually, but typically content comes first.

Structuring the Essay – Crafting a Coherent Whole

To engage a reader, a student must abandon the simplistic five-paragraph structure and drop any formulaic devices that may have helped her in class, on the AP exam, or on the SAT. Writing an essay that consists of an introduction, several body paragraphs, and a conclusion is a sure-fire way to craft a flat, uninspired essay. Students should view the admissions essay as a chance to experiment and try out alternative structures.

Using the hook: A dynamic introduction

With the limited space allotted in an admissions essay, it is pivotal to involve the reader as quickly as possible. If a student is stuck with the introduction, I tell her to start with the 2nd paragraph, find the anecdote, and do away with the introduction altogether. Immediately dive into the most interesting details. Start in medias res, in the middle of the action. Or better yet, start with a hook – a provocative first sentence to capture the attention of a bleary-eyed, application-weary admissions officer. A solid first sentence will engage the reader so she will want to learn what you are talking about. When students bring in their essays for editing, we often immediately cut the first two paragraphs and begin with the rich, riskier content. You can give the reader some context in the 2nd or 3rd paragraphs, but the first should be about grabbing the reader’s attention.

The fine art of editing: Wielding the Samurai sword

When students bring in content-rich essay drafts, it is time to begin to separate the really juicy content from the flat, uninspired material. A good editor has to be willing to cut away everything that weakens an essay. This often means striking down whole paragraphs at a time. The metaphor I love is, as an editor, you must wield a Samurai’s sword. (Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, helps writers hone this skill in her writing workshops). A writer must learn to cut away the dross, the dead parts. In a good essay, every sentence feeds the whole of the essay. Nothing is extraneous. If you only have 500 words, each one must count.

It is not unusual for me to make dramatic cuts when I first review a student’s initial draft. At times I’ve had to cut everything except for a single sentence. A single outstanding sentence can raise the bar for an entire essay. Either that exceptional sentence must go, or all the mediocre sentences must go. The courageous student takes on the challenge and uses that solitary, illuminated sentence as the cornerstone of a riskier and more engaging essay.

I aspire to teach my students fearlessness. “Cut it out! Let it go! Make room for something vital and alive!” Some students become attached to their creations, but I must teach them the art of creative sacrifice. I have even asked students to commit the ultimate sacrifice and offer up their favorite line to the editorial sword. But in the name of creativity, a writer must withhold nothing.

Other questions that help students with editing include: What is the weakest part of this essay? Is any part of the essay vague or general? Is every sentence necessary? Is every paragraph necessary? Does each paragraph support the main argument I am trying to make? Is there a better or more powerful way to say this?

If you model good editing to the students and show them how to get rid of the weaker parts of the essay, they will learn how to do it themselves when they are working on the essay at home.

Enhancing the flow of the essay

The essay needs to work organically and progress logically. Whenever I make a change, I read the paragraphs preceding and following the change in addition to the change itself in order to check the flow. The essay should move gracefully with good and logical transitions. This process also helps me check for redundancy. Economy of word is key, especially with tight word limits.

How’s my closing?

It is great to start with an anecdote and tons of rich detail, but by the closing a student must arrive at a clear statement of the purpose of her essay. She needs to be clear why she chose a particular topic and articulate that to the reader.

A student must ask herself: Does my conclusion provide insight and satisfactory closure, or does it just summarize the points made earlier in the essay? Does it effectively tie together the main points? It is important to leave on a high note with a strong closing. An interesting detail which references a previous section of the essay can be a very effective way to tie everything together.

Enlisting help with editing

A good rule of thumb is that a student should have her essay read by at least 2 pairs of fresh eyes before submitting it.

Back when I was filling out my college apps in the fall of my senior year, I had my English teacher, my mom (former journalist) and my sister (editing goddess and lawyer extraordinaire) all take a look at my essays before I submitted the final drafts. Too many cooks can spoil the broth, but a few pairs of fresh eyes can be very helpful in catching any errors that a student may have overlooked. Admissions officers are fairly discriminating and quite literate. An error-ridden essay will not create a good impression. The admissions folks will expect a student’s college essay to be relatively polished. This shows that a student cared enough to give some time and attention to the essay and demonstrates maturity.

Specific Writing Techniques: Advice for Students

Use better verbs rather than fancier adjectives

The key to good writing is good verbs. Some people put lots of energy into selecting adjectives, but good verbs make an essay stand out. Weak verbs detract. Active, colorful verbs enrich. If you are having problems coming up with strong verbs, Shift F7 (Thesaurus) can be your friend, but be careful not to become Thesaurus happy. Moderation is key.

Keep your vocabulary under control

Rich vocabulary is good, but be sure you are not putting every big word you know into the essay. Keep the essay in your authentic voice. An overabundance of $10 words in the midst of an otherwise casual and conversational essay will make the essay seem contrived. Honor the integrity of your voice, and don’t try to show off too much.

Don’t write: In spite of my profound proclivity for entomology, I focused the preponderance of my energies upon esoteric philosophical discourse.

Do write: Though I liked my ant farm, I really wanted to learn more about Tibetan Philosophy.

Find the proper voice

You want to use your voice, but minimize your usage of slang. Ain’t that the truth! Also, avoid being overly casual. You know what I’m saying?

It is highly appropriate and often advantageous to use dialogue in an essay. My mom told me this years ago: “Jed, remember to use dialogue in your essay; nothing brings an essay down to the human level like good, old-fashioned human discourse. Dialogue is generally quite engaging,” she advised.

Don’t be wordy. Brevity is the soul of wit. Economy of language is a cardinal virtue. Rather than rambling on, be pithy, poignant, and to the point. Short sentences can be more forceful. Especially when used to punctuate longer sentences.

Avoid needless repetition

It really is pointless. There’s nothing to gain by repeating yourself. What’s the point anyway? You’re just saying the same thing over and over again. Does anybody gain anything through this mindless recycling? Repetition ad nauseum. Please find a way to avoid repeating yourself.

Vary your sentence structure

Stick with your language, but find a way to flex some of your grammatical muscles: use participle phrases and semicolons; use colons and appositive phrases, when appropriate, to showcase your grammatical talents.

Specific Essay Topics

Why are you applying to _____ University?

This is a very standard essay. 250-500 words. The key here is specificity and thoughtfulness. Don’t give them back the brochure they sent to you. The schools know their own stats. What they are looking for are passion and personalization. “When I was standing on the main square I felt……” “Talking to the students, I clearly got the sense that ………” “I truly believe that I …….”

Also, give them specific things you hope to do at this school. Name activities or clubs you want to participate in. Talk about classes you want to take or professors you hope to work with (ten minutes on the school’s website can help with this). Talk about the environment. Why this city? Why this kind of campus? Why this size student population? Really show your knowledge about the school in this type of essay.

Tell us about an activity in which you are involved.

This is generally a brief, 250 word essay. The key is show passion. Why do you care about this activity? What is it like? What about it has inspired you? What has it taught you? Specificity, as always, is the key. Don’t just laundry-list your achievements or give a chronology of your involvement in a particular activity. Here, too, focus on the tree rather than the forest, the blade of grass rather than the lawn. Richly describing a single event or interaction can be the most effective way to convey your passion for an activity.

Don’t be generic! Avoid “cut and paste” essays

Some students are tempted to cut and paste essays they wrote for one school into the essay field for another school with a similar, though not identical, question. Be careful with this. On the Common Application one essay fits all, but be careful that you don’t force-fit an essay for a school-specific application. Make sure each essay really answers the essay question asked.

Essay Coaching – A One-on-One Approach

At ATS we assist students each fall with their college essays. We can coach our students through the creative process and offer the kind of guidance an English teacher or college counselor might offer. If our students are not fantastic readers and writers, it is unlikely that they will come up with Pulitzer-prize winning essays, but we can certainly help them put their best feet forward and optimize their essays according to their levels of writing ability. Students who come to us for help must expect to work hard on their essays. I tell each student that it is normal to spend 10 hours on their college essays. Students need to take ownership of this process. If they need support or guidance, we are here to offer that service.

An Example of a College Essay

One of my former students, Ellie Berg, granted me permission to reprint the college essays she wrote when we worked together. I consider these to be solid essays which stem from Ellie’s experience and convey her passions, her spontaneity, her sense of humor, and her values. As a junior at Tufts, Ellie ran into the admission officer who had read her application, and, amazingly, the admissions officer remembered and was able to recall details from her main essay! Now that’s making an impression.

Me…and My Jeans

My jeans are not casually ripped at the knees for show, nor are my back pockets studded with sparkly pink rhinestones. Although today’s fashion trendsetters wear denim marked with manufactured tears and stains to simulate a “ready made” individuality; each and every mark on my jeans is genuine. My pair of jeans, with all of its hidden stories, bears witness to the myriad experiences of my adolescence.

Every single one of my belt loops is ripped from its original stitches. I am extremely active, running from activity to activity, playing Ultimate Frisbee with friends, and dancing at concerts. As a result of my dynamic and jet-set lifestyle, pants are constantly slipping from my waist. Impatiently pulling my jeans upward, I jerk the loops from their foundations, and each rip is the result of both my impatience and my hyperactivity.

The first stain on the left leg of my pants is a large brown misshapen mass, what was once part of a molten chocolate soufflé. I love to cook for everyone- friends, family, even strangers if I have the opportunity. I experiment with every dish under the sun, but my specialties are desserts. My signature dishes include blueberry lemon squares, sugary cupcakes, and the aforementioned chocolate soufflés. I have just recently mastered my grandmother’s top secret chocolate chip cookie recipe and am looking forward to conquering our new ice cream maker.

Penned into the waistline on my right pants leg is my favorite quote-“Sans vous, les émotions d’aujourd’hui ne seraient que la peau morte des emotions d’autrefois,” (from the French, loosely translates into “Without you, today’s emotions would be the scurf of yesterday’s.”), from my favorite movie, Amelie. I am head over heels in love with French culture- the fashion, the language, the food, the literature, the history.... My friends truly believe that I was Simone de Beauvoir in a past life.

Just below the soufflé stain, a small doodle, shaped like a hand with a spot on the palm, may not be noticeable at first glance. The hand is called a hamsah, a Jewish talisman meant to bring luck, to protect the wearer from general misfortune, and fend off the evil eye. Although I do not identify myself as religious per se, I am very spiritual and proud of my heritage. I have always been fully attuned to Israeli politics, and since visiting my family in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv this past summer, I feel a much deeper connection with my faith and culture.

Below a faded knee-shaped oval on my right pants leg, a giant tear exposes my pale legs to the world. The rip bears witness to a losing battle with a renegade woodchip. As I was removing fallen logs from a nature trail at Big Trees Nature Lodge, my pants snagged on the sharp edge of a fallen limb and added even more personality to my already charismatic jeans. Although to the naked eye I do not seem like the outdoorsy type, at heart I truly love to roll around in the dirt. Volunteering at nature preserves, in my opinion, is one of the most rewarding and fun ways to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Above the left cuff, there is a small green stain. Because oil paints do not wash from fabrics, I will always be left with this reminder of my artistic side. Since I was very young, I have loved all forms of art: painting, sketching, and molding play-dough sculptures. Recently I have discovered the wonders of oil paints and canvas, to the chagrin of my parents. They dread explaining to guests the abstracts and landscapes strewn around our basement (in my mind, “the studio”).

Of course, like every other person below the age of 25, my pants’ hems are completely frayed. Again, this destruction is not a corporate ploy to overprice clothing, but instead is the result of my height and clumsiness. Although I am taller than most of my friends, my jeans are still too long, and I am always tripping over threadbare cuffs, despite every seamstress’ best efforts.

Jeans today are considered the “urban uniform,” but mine are not carbon copies from any J.Crew catalogue, nor are they an intentional work of art. My jeans are unique, a testament to my non-conventional lifestyle and many of my life experiences. During the school year at Tufts, I will continue to wear my favorite jeans and hope the new adventures will further embellish these jeans, adding to the scars and stains and tears as I continue along my life’s journey.

What a fun essay! Although the college counselor at her high school, to my surprise, was not a huge fan, Ellie was proud of this essay and wanted to submit it. She trusted herself and sent this in with her early application. The very positive response of the Tufts admissions officer was her vindication. Trusting yourself is paramount, especially when you are writing about yourself.

Beyond the primary essay, Ellie also crafted a response to the shorter, college-specific essay: “Why Tufts?”

Why Tufts?

I am extremely attracted to both the Tufts University curriculum and undergraduate program because I will be able to pursue all of my very diverse interests through the classes, extracurricular activities, and unique opportunities. Tufts, unlike many other liberal arts schools of similar class size, has an extremely wide range of academic courses. Because I’m not sure exactly what I would like to study, this setup is ideal for me. I can take French, Biomedics, Middle Eastern studies, and Modern poetry in the same semester and still have ample space to fulfill the core requirements.

I’m also very excited about the extracurricular activities Tufts has to offer, such as the Premedical Society, the new Descript Magazine, and my personal favorite, the Monty Python Society. It’s reassuring to discover that extremely intelligent students at a prominent research university could have such a well-developed sense of humor.

I am also interested in the international focus that exists at Tufts. Tufts’ diverse student population, as well as its esteemed language departments and active International Center, make the university stand out in my mind. Also, I fully intend to take advantage of Tufts’ well-reputed Junior Year Abroad Program to further explore my interest in foreign cultures.

When I toured Tufts in early August, I was immediately attracted to the beautiful campus, the vivacious students, and the animated atmosphere. The glowing reports from current students were icing on the cake. I felt at home in the dorms, in the cafeteria, in the classrooms, and on the quad. It was easy for me to envision myself thriving academically and socially in this stimulating environment. I look forward to the opportunity to bring this possibility to life.

Note the high degree of specificity and the personalization in this short essay. She’s not giving them text off of their brochure; she’s writing about her specific interests and passions.

Final Thoughts

If a student is willing to put herself out there, take some risks and be genuine, she can put together a memorable essay. Students should not try to attempt this in one night. Creativity takes time. Likely, a student will have to work through several iterations of an essay before realizing a satisfactory final draft. Students must remember to start early, get help when they need it, and aspire to be more playful and less rigid. I tell students, there is no “right” essay; there is only “your” essay. This is a challenge, but it’s the good kind of challenge. And, if a student is not too careful, she may even learn something about herself in the process.”


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  • Essay Writing

    Excellent helpful tips for college essay writing!

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    i liked this essay. it was fun to read

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