For many students, sitting down to write a college essay can be the most challenging part of submitting college applications. While grades and scores are relatively objective measures of a student's qualifications, writing a memorable essay isn’t as straightforward. Many students are overwhelmed by the task of writing an essay that distinguishes them from thousands of other applicants.
Luckily, with a little reflection, dedicated time, and editing, most students craft an essay they’re proud of. Writing a great essay isn’t necessarily about coming up with the most unusual topic or recounting a big accomplishment. Colleges are more interested in students’ capacity to reflect on their experiences and beliefs and present them in a meaningful way.
Write a College Essay Following These Five Steps
No two college essays are (or should be alike), so there’s no foolproof path to success. When sitting down to write a college essay, keep in mind that there are several elements any strong essay will include.
1. A Great Topic
A college essay can be beautifully written, but if the topic is boring, cliché, or inappropriate, it won’t impress admissions officers. Many students look at the Common Application prompts and immediately feel stuck.
Rather than focusing on the prompts, I recommend students make a list of important people, places, things, and events in their lives. Then, without worrying about structure, spelling, or grammar, they should just start writing! Chances are this brainstorm will produce usable ideas, even if the details need work.
2. A Clear and Interesting Story
An essay topic is nothing without a great story. Every student is some combination of their past, present, and future selves. Whatever your child writes about, they should address how it has shaped them as a person thus far, as well as its current and future significance in their lives.
For example, if your child is writing about their passion for collecting coffee mugs, they shouldn’t just write about why they love coffee. They should address how the hobby started, what it means to them now, and how it will continue to influence them. While this may sound like overkill for an essay about coffee mugs, a personal essay, like a short story or novel, needs to have a plot. Just as characters evolve over the course of a fictional narrative, your child needs to show how they’ve grown and will continue to do so.
3. A Big Takeaway
So, your child has a great essay topic and has told an intriguing story. But what’s big takeaway? Of course, not every story needs to have a “moral” at the end. But the conclusion of your child’s essay should somehow illustrate why this story has influenced their life direction so far. They need to show their ability to reflect on experiences and learn from them.
For example, prompt #2 below asks students to write about a time they failed, and what they learned from the experience. The conclusion of the essay (what they learned) is the “big takeaway,” because it shows a capacity to deal with failure and turn it into something constructive.
4. An Opening Sentence That “Grabs” the Reader
It’s important to make a good impression when meeting someone for the first time. The same idea applies to a college essay: the introductory sentence is a reader’s first impression of your child’s thinking and writing. It should be a positive one. Students should think about what draws them into a book or article and keeps them reading. If they’re bored by their essay, readers will feel the same way.
5. Lucid, Grammatically Correct Prose
The content of your child’s essay is half the battle. The quality of their prose is equally important. Plenty of students don’t consider themselves “writers.” Colleges do recognize that everyone has different interests and talents. But to be successful in college, students must be able to express themselves clearly and creatively in writing.
Your child should know the first draft (or first few drafts) of their essay will be far from perfect. Drafts are about getting your thinking down on paper and revising until the structure of the essay is right. Editing for spelling and grammar should be the last step before your child submits their essay to colleges.
How to Approach Real College Essay Prompts
Here are three personal statement prompts from the 2016-2017 Common Application, and a few general tips on how to write a college essay on each prompt. Keep in mind that every student is different, so there’s no universal formula for a successful personal statement. The best essay will showcase a student’s personality and how they’ll uniquely contribute to their college campus.
“Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”
Tips for this essay:
- Go back to the brainstorm. Have your child go back to their list of important people, places, things, and events in their lives. If they feel one of these items has been overwhelmingly significant to them, they should be able to answer this question.
- Think big, but not too big. Make sure your child’s essay is focused. They should be writing about just one “background, identity, interest, or talent.” In the past, college admissions experts encouraged students to be “well rounded,” or participate in as many activities as possible. These days, colleges are more interested in creating well-rounded classes, composed of a wide variety of unique students.
- Be unique, but don’t overthink it. Many students consider writing about a lifelong hobby or interest, such as a sport, artistic pursuit, or academic subject. Chances are other applicants will choose the same topic. In this case, your child will have to work harder to make their essay stand out. Even a popular topic can yield great essay, as long as your child has a personal and engaging story to tell.
“The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”
Tips for this essay:
- Choose an appropriate failure. Students should use caution when deciding what kind of failure to write about. For example, they might want to avoid writing about a serious disciplinary issue (if they’ve had one). At the same time, they shouldn’t lament a B+ on a quiz. There’s no hard and fast rule for choosing the “right” failure. But students should use their best judgment, and consult a teacher or college counselor if they have any doubts.
- Focus on the lesson. Students don’t need to spend the first two thirds of this essay talking about how and why they failed. They should briefly describe the situation and transition to the lesson fairly quickly. This will show admissions officers that rather than dwelling on failure, your child is able to turn obstacles into something positive and constructive.
- Connect to the future. A great college essay not only tells a story about your child’s past, but describes how an experience will influence their future. If your child can connect a lesson they learned from failure to how they’ll use it in college, this shows maturity and an ability to think ahead.
“Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.”
Tips for this essay:
- Make it personal. If your child is writing about an academic challenge, such as a science experiment or historical study, they need to be sure the essay isn’t too dry. Rather than writing about a general problem, such as “climate change,” your child needs a story that shows why this issue matters to them. A good place to start is explaining how they first became interested in a topic, and how this interest has evolved over time.
- Don’t oversimplify the issue. Even if your child solved the problem they’re writing about, they should avoid bragging. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with recognizing an accomplishment. But any problem worth solving is complex, and your child should acknowledge there’s more work to be done. Colleges want to see applicants with ongoing motivation, curiosity, and humility.
- Again, connect to the future. If your child has a particular discipline they want to pursue in college, this can make a great essay topic. Writing about why they’re interested in conducting research, joining the debate team, or studying music directly shows your child will take advantage of opportunities on campus. Colleges want students who are excited to work hard and collaborate with their peers.
Whichever prompt your child chooses, their essay should come from the heart. Students shouldn’t be reinventing themselves through their essay, or writing about a topic they hate. Colleges are most interested in genuine, thoughtful applicants who took the time to show who they are and how they can contribute.