College Essay


Most colleges require students to submit a personal statement in essay form with their applications. For some students the essay tends to create a great deal of stress. It is the main reason students miss application deadlines; they put off writing the dreaded essay until the very last minute and then try to fit it in with all of their other pressing senior obligations. An essay written in haste is not what you want read by your admissions counselor. The essay is your opportunity to distinguish yourself from all the other candidates. Use this opportunity to your advantage.

To help you get started, I'll attempt to answer the most common questions asked during this process.

  • Are there colleges that don't require an essay?

Some colleges do not require personal statements and don't use them in the admissions process. They may not read an essay even if one is sent. However, it is unlikely that you will be applying only to colleges that don't ask for a personal statement. Therefore, you should plan to write one anyway, use it at the colleges where it is appropriate and even send it to the institutions that don't ask.

  • How important is the essay? 

Depending on the college to which you apply and on your other credentials, the essay may be the factor that gets you accepted or rejected. Your resume of courses, grades, test scores and accomplishments will determine whether or not a college will seriously consider your application. The essay usually becomes a factor when a college has to choose between many qualified candidates. Most of the time, students write essays of a quality that is consistent with what the admissions committee would expect by looking at test scores, grades, curriculum and other factors. In such cases, the essay usually makes very little difference. A superior essay will tip the balance in a candidate's favor when several applicants of equal credentials are being considered. A remarkably interesting essay can earn acceptance for an otherwise unremarkable applicant, but not if the applicant is otherwise unqualified. A dull, uninteresting, poorly executed essay can get you passed over if your application is one of many from equally qualified candidates and the college does not have room for all of you.

  • What is the admissions committee looking for? 

They are looking for the unique, original, special, one-of-a-kind, individual, uncommon you. Because every applicant is different in some way from every other, the college is expecting every essay to differ from every other. In other words, the admissions committee does not have in mind a model of the perfect essay against which your attempt is being measured. Your essay will succeed or fail on whether it depicts the unusual nature of the unique person you are. In your essay, first they will look for you. After that, they will look for how well you organize your thoughts, present your information, express yourself and handle the mechanics of the English language. They know your success in many college courses will depend largely on your ability to put your thoughts on paper in an organized, understandable and interesting way. Your essay helps them see your present writing level. Therefore, in writing an essay, you should be concerned about what it says and how it says it.

  • How do I pick a topic? 

Remember that the topic is you. The college will provide you with a prompt to answer or a point to address, but those are really just vehicles by which you are asked to tell the college something about you that is not found in the details of your application form and that makes you different from other applicants.

Common application questions include: (1) Evaluate a significant experience or achievement that has special meaning to you. (2) Discuss some issue of personal, local, or national concern and its importance. (3) Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.

An example prompt maybe: What does success mean to you?

  • How long does it have to be? 

Long enough to get the job done. That's a bit too flippant to be helpful. As an exercise, write a 500-word essay. Two typewritten pages, double-spaced. The essay you eventually submit will depend on the requirements of the colleges you choose.

  • How can I work all of my long list of accomplishments into an essay? 

You don't. The essay is not an opportunity for you to list your awards, activities, offices, team involvement, etc. Those will appear elsewhere in your application. If, however, there is no place on the application for them, fill out a career resume sheet (which we'll provide) and send it in with your application. Be aware that this list does not replace the essay.

  • How can I make my essay interesting? 

You make your essay interesting through content and structure. I suggest that you build your essay around an extended anecdote. Pick an experience, an event, an encounter, etc. that had a special impact on you. Pick a topic you care about; unless it really interests you, it will not interest the reader. Choose something that helped you discover a personal characteristic you had not realized before. Something that moved you deeply and made you feel a variety of emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, wonder, or others. Pick something that generated a strong feeling and use it to introduce that feeling and explain why it caused that feeling. Select an incident that happened over a relatively short time frame; you are, after all, usually limited to about 500 words. In other words, don't write about your winning season in basketballl, but write about a turning point in the crucial game. Don't write about the summer you spent in volunteer work with the Family Resource Center but about an incident with one of the people you aided. Don't write about your trip to France but about a unique encounter there. Don't write about the impact your mom or dad had on your life but about the time you most realized how much you can count on them. Don't write about the life of your horse and how much you've enjoyed riding it but about a time your horse needed help and you were there. For each incident, use the larger picture only as background, explaining just as much as needed to get the reader to bring the incident into sharper focus. Your content will be the incident, the background details of the larger picture, and what you found out about yourself.

Let's think about structure.

Your essay is going to be a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Begin with the most interesting statement you can make about the event, which is probably not the chronological beginning. You need to hook your reader in the first three sentences.

Move through your essay logically to keep the flow smooth. Each paragraph should have a topic sentence, should expand on the point of the paragraph, and should carry a smooth transition into the next.

That's the basis for a first draft. Once that is down on paper, you want to brighten, tighten and enliven your essay with some writing techniques. To keep your reader with you, begin each paragraph by tugging a little harder on that hook to keep it set and end each paragraph with a sentence that will want the reader to read on to the next paragraph.

Write for the senses -eye, ear, nose, skin, and nerves. In other words, make the reader see what is happening, hear the sounds, smell the smells, feel the temperatures, skin prickles, bruises, and the emotions as you feel them. You need to close your eyes, relive the experience and create a picture of what happened, how you reacted and why you reacted the way you did. You have been successful if your reader lives the experience along with you and feels what you felt. Then, you captured the reader's attention and made yourself come to life for them in a way that does not show up in the tests and measurements section of the application.

Move your reader along to a conclusion that is at minimum as satisfying as the opening paragraph. You may find it helpful to circle back to that original theme and restate it in some form, perhaps with an amusing, wry, witty, etc. twist. You know that you have been especially successful in a short essay if you can satisfy the reader with the final sentence or the final word.

Let's review. For a successful format, introduce the essay with a personal experience in an area that interests you a great deal, develop the anecdote with information from your background or future hopes, use the anecdote to reveal your character, skills, special qualities, and show how the experience helped you grow and develop . Keep your focus throughout. Provide enough details to prove your sincerity to the reader.

  • Are there any examples I can use to help me? Examples can tend to limit the creative muse, especially when you can only see a few of them.
    • Barron's "Write Your Way Into College" by George Ehrenhaft in just about any bookstore.
    • The College Board's "Writing Your College Application Essay" by Sarah Myers McGinty.
    • Other useful books: "Essays That Worked" by Curry and Kasbar, Mustang Publishing and "The Admissions Essay" by Power and DiAntonio, Lyle Stuart, Inc.
    • We also have books in the Academic Advising Center for you to use.
  • Are there any taboos? 

Don't be boring or insincere. Don't be predictable, tasteless or crude. Don't fall back on prepackaged sentiments. Don't be vague and general.. Don't be afraid to take risks. Don't get someone else to write the essay for you. Don't write a muddled essay no one can follow or understand.

  • Can I get someone else to help me? 

That depends on the kind of help. Remember that this is about you and is most effective when it is the essay only you could write. Once you have produced a second draft, ask others to read it for clarity (do they understand what you are talking about?), flow (does the essay move smoothly from idea to idea or do you ramble off to the side and lose your reader?), and pace (is it as tight as necessary to keep the reader moving through it?). Once you have moved to a third draft incorporating the comments you feel really helped, have this draft read for sentence structure (are your sentences awkward or nicely phrased?), diction (have you chosen the right words for the job?), spelling, grammar and punctuation.

Good luck!! I will be happy to review your efforts. In past years, Mrs. Simpson, Mr. Tetu and I have read and edited college essays. Please do not hesitate to ask us for help. And, of course, we'll assist you with your essay writing right up until deadline time.