The college admissions essay is perhaps the most dreaded part of the college application process.
The essay creates frustration for students, stress for parents, and an overall feeling of dread as the deadline for submission approaches. The essay, however, doesn’t have to be an insurmountable project. With the right information, realistic time management and good proofing and editing, it should be easy to write the best college essay you can.
These FAQs about the college application essay should help you tell your story with an end goal of making a good impression on a college admissions officer.
What do admissions officers look for in the best college application essays?
Quite simply, the best college essays make a personal statement and give admissions officers a window into your soul. Many students write essays that are too clichéd or shallow, or too impersonal and uninformative. For some students, the essay itself will be cause for rejection.
So how do you make your college essay stand out?
Admissions officers look for these five things:
Can the applicant write?
What does the essay say about the applicant?
Are there authentic personal reflections?
What will the applicant bring to the college community?
Do the qualities represented in the essay resonate with the rest of the application?
What are the best essay topics?
Most students apply using the Common Application, which provides specific essay prompts. It’s up to the student to personalize the essay topics and make them unique and memorable. The 2016-2017 essay prompts are as follows:
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.
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?
Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
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.
Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community or family.
What Common App prompt should you choose?
Ethan Sawyer, a college essay advisor, says the first prompt is the best because it’s the basic “tell us your story.” He recommends this prompt because it’s the most open-ended and is easy to personalize. His second favorite is the fourth prompt: Describe a problem that must be solved. He gives an example of this type of essay on his website, “I Shot My Brother.”
But the best way to choose a topic is to brainstorm with a parent, teacher, advisor or friend what would make the most interesting story for you to tell and give an admissions officer the most insight. Brainstorming should be imaginative and free-wheeling. You don’t have to commit to anything yet; you can always rein it in later. Think about the moments in your life that had the most drama, conflict or humor. What moment would tell an admissions officer the most about how you would contribute to the college community?
You could “draw” your essay as an infographic or word map or even as a graphic novel. Do what you need to do to imagine the story in your own head. Then, you can start translating it into a more polished form.
Writer Anne Lamott refers to the (expletive) first draft, or the “child’s draft,” where “you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.” So play with your first few drafts. Not even famous writers get it right the first time.
What is the best way to start a college essay?
You want to grab readers from the first paragraph. You can do this by using some classic writing techniques:
Story hook. Jump into the story immediately. Use what might be a second paragraph as in introductory paragraph. Instead of starting with, “I want to study history because …,” use an imaginative hook ... “If I could have dinner with Napoleon….”
Originality. Start with an unconventional statement or event. “That day at the airport, I decided I never wanted to be a superhero.”
Visual description. Start with a vivid description of an image or event that pulls the reader in a scene. Don’t “tell” readers your room is plastered with posters of violinists. Show them. “In my room, Mark O’Connor hangs next to Itzhak Perlman…..
Solve a problem. Show how you used creativity and resolve to find a solution for yourself or someone else. “Serving dinner at the dorm, I realized how much food was going to waste. So I contacted the shelter.…”
Create mystery. Make your essay start with a puzzle and keep readers engaged to find out more. “Who had my father been in China? It was only standing in a small village I understood how his struggle had made me who I am.”
Whichever introduction you use, stay away from the conventional statement: “I want to go to this college because....” Any admissions officer will disregard what comes next and place your college application at the bottom of the pile.
What is the best format or structure for a college essay?
There all kinds of ways to write a college essay and there is no perfect form as long as your piece is engaging, logical, revealing … and answers the prompt.
The classic essay starts with an introductory statement that hooks the reader and continues with a strong topic sentence. It ends with a strong closing paragraph or summation. The body of the essay is where you make the sale that your thesis is true.
That might be a good form for you if, for example, you were trying to convince a school that your summer job working on a landscaping team taught you a lot about chemistry, your chosen major.
But you can also write about yourself in a short story style, with a beginning, end and dramatic arc. If you aren’t a natural story teller, imagine how you might film your story or draw it. What specific scenes would be needed to describe, for example, how you saved a friend from making a bad mistake?
If you’re having trouble organizing your piece, try talking it out with someone, writing it a few sentences, creating it as an infographic or even a graphic novel - whatever helps you see it. Then, try writing it in a more traditional format.
No matter the style, in the body of your piece you need to answer some important questions, such as, so what? Why should the reader care? What is the impact on you or on the greater good?
And pay close attention to your transitions from one section to the next. You don’t want your essay to read like a list. Transitions should give information, not just be links. Beware of words like “but” or “meanwhile” as transitions.
Ask someone to help you proofread for spelling and grammar. Don’t rely on spellcheck! And be you follow the essay guidelines as far as word count and topic are concerned. This is a test. The college wants to know if you can follow directions and how creative you can be within set limitations.
How do you make a college essay creative?
The best way to make your essay creative is to brainstorm with a friend, teacher or parents. You can also use this technique if you encounter writer’s block. Don’t just write down essay ideas, but make a list of everything about yourself. Think outside the box. Make a list of your likes, dislikes and/or achievements. You are searching for a unique topic that will catch your reader’s attention. Start with easy prompts, and see where they lead. Such as:
What is your favorite movie and why?
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
What class in school inspires you and why?
Where would you never go again and why?
How did you and your best friend meet?
What object/person is important to you and why?
What is your favorite/least favorite food and why?
You get the picture. You are creating a guideline of ideas and topics to choose from that are uniquely tied to your life.
It is important to think deeply about the meaning of things in your life. Determine what about your experience is unique to you. That’s what will make your story different from the next essay in the pile.
Where do I find examples of colleges essays that worked?
Some schools and some college advisors post good essays on the web.
Many colleges, including Johns Hopkins University and the University of Connecticut post “essays that worked” going back several years.
Big Future, run by the College Board, has sample essays and tips.
The New York Times college blog, The Choice, has essays that worked and some that didn’t. (this blog is old. Are you sure you want to use it as a resource?)
Some college advisors, such as The College Essay Guy and Essay Hell post winners.
Your college advisor or English teacher should have examples.
How do I avoid college essay plagiarism?
It’s acceptable to look at someone else’s essay as a sample and a creative tool. It is not OK to copy it or to excerpt anything without proper credit. That’s plagiarism. And don’t even think about having someone else - parent, friend, tutor or writing service – create your essay for you. This is your story, your statement. Admissions officers have seen it all. They will know.
The best way to avoid plagiarism is to make the essay personal. If it’s your story, your ideas, your thoughts and actions, you won’t be at risk of plagiarizing. Once your essay is complete, a plagiarism checker like this one from Grammarly just to make sure you were paying attention.
Are there tools that will help with college essay checking or editing?
There are numerous tools available to help with spelling and grammar along with editing. Of course, you can use a word processing program with spell check and grammar check. Also, find a proofreader: parent, teacher or mentor.
If you are looking for other online tools to help turn your rough draft into a polished essay free from spelling or grammar errors, here are a few:
How do I find a college essay writing workshop, college essay tutor or get help with a college essay?
Many high schools and libraries offer writing workshops for college applicants. Your counselor should be a good resource for these. Use social media when searching as well: type in #collegeessays on Twitter and search the results for coaches and workshops. You can find college advisors and tutors on the TeenLife website as well.
Are there good books/websites on college essays?
There are also books (both paperback and ebooks) that can guide you through the essay process. Here are my top picks:
College Essay Essentials by Ethan Sawyer
On Writing the College Application Essay by Harry Bauld
Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps by Alan Gelb
The best advice I can give when writing the successful college essay is: Be yourself.
Give the admissions officer a picture of who you are and the type of college student you would be if they offer admission. The essay should be more than words on paper or a glowing example of writing skills; it should be your story.
I (Ethan Sawyer, College Essay Guy) love it when articles and conference presentations offer a few take-away gems. But why not just create a presentation with *only* the gems, I thought? So I reached out to some of my favorite counselors and asked for their best essay tips and—voila!—this document came into existence. I’m grateful to the following folks for making important contributions to this article: Evelyn Alexander, Casey Rowley, Piotr Dabrowski, Chris Reeves, Susan Dabbar, Noah Kagan, Devon Sawyer, Josh Stephens, Lisa Kateri Gilbode, Randolf Arguelles.
Problem 1: How can I build rapport with my students more quickly?
1-Minute Solution: On your intake form, ask students to name a band or musician they're listening to lately. Then, when they come in for their one-on-one session, have that artist playing on Pandora.
Pro-Tip: Get Pandora One for just $3.99/mo to avoid getting interrupted by annoying ads.
Another idea: Ask a more interesting question than “How are you?” when you’re first checking in with a student. For example, “What are you celebrating today?” or “What mixed emotions are you experiencing at this moment?”
For more ideas, check out this list of 100 Brave and Interesting Questions.
Problem 2: How can I keep students engaged during a three-day essay boot camp (and even get kids to talk about my sessions long after the fact)?
1-Minute Solution: Invest in great snacks. “Chocolate is a must,” says Chris Reeves, “and a Costco or Sam's Club membership can be key. Last year,” he adds, “I found Hot Fries to be pretty epic with the guys.”
Pro Tip: Ask attendees if they have allergies. If so, research the best snacks that won't kill anyone.
Another idea: Myers-Briggs (MBTI) mini-session
During multi-day essay workshops, I (Ethan) like to break things up after lunch on the second day with a mini Myers-Briggs assessment. How? First, I’ll introduce MBTI—what it is, how it was developed. Then I’ll give students a brief Myers-Briggs assessment by going through the preferences and having them self-select as they look at this chart. (I do this with lots of jokes and personal examples.) Next I’ll have them go to www.16personalities.com, take a brief assessment, and see what resonates. We spend 10 minutes or so on this, as it’s a great energizer, then we dive back into the essay work.
Problem 3: What are some ways to beat writer’s block?
1-Minute Solution: 4 ways to break free:
1. Move: Put on your headphones, blast your favorite tunes and talk a walk. Rake some leaves. Shake it loose with movement. Remember physics? Momentum will create new energy.
2. Play: Toss a ball with a friend. Color in one of those cool adult coloring books, grab a hunk of clay and mold something. Get dirty and tactile.
3. Motivate: As Elizabeth Gilbert says in her TED talk, you’ve got to sit down at the keyboard and invite the muse to show up. In short, don’t wait for your moment of inspiration; create it. Or give your perfectionism a rest and give yourself permission to “get a B+”.
4. Freewrite: Don’t necessarily start at the beginning and try not to overthink things. Do think randomly. Begin with a raw, non-linear, brain-dump. Or try writing morning pages. If writing or typing slows you down, use a dictation app like Dragon.
Problem 4: I just want to record a quick video (for example, to show a student where to click on a particular website) but I don’t want to go through the hassle of setting up a camera, etc.
1-Minute Solution: Use Jing to record a quick video of your screen, then share it via Screencast.com. Jing is here. Or record directly from your Mac using QuickTime (no download needed)! To record from Mac: Open your Applications folder to find QuickTime (or use Spotlight). Once it's open, go to File > New Screen Recording and then click the Record button. You can choose between recording a portion of your screen or the entire screen. QuickTime tutorial is here.
Problem 5: Sometimes I just want to explain something quickly but I'm afraid it will take me too long to type it out and I'd rather not schedule a whole session with a student to explain a small thing. What should I do?
1-Minute Solution: See above! Record notes via video and then share it via Google Drive.
Problem 6: I have a student who seems to forget everything we talk about in our sessions. What can I do?
1-Minute Solution: Refer that student to another counselor! (Kidding.) Try Skype Call Recorder. Record the session in dual screen and then drag the file into a Google Drive folder with that student’s name on it, so that student can go back and remember what you discussed. You can record sessions remotely or in person.
Heads-up: This will start to take up a lot of space, so you’ll want to be diligent about dragging those files onto a separate hard drive and deleting them from your computer.
Bonus tip: One back-up drive isn’t enough. You need a back-up drive for your back-up drive that doesn’t live in the same place as your first back-up (i.e. your home/office). Keep a second back-up of your files elsewhere—perhaps on the Cloud. I recommend getting two of these. They’re inexpensive and haven’t failed me. I also back everything up on Google Drive.
Problem 7: I’m worried about liability with my students. We get pretty personal and I’m not 100% certain what might happen, but I just want to cover myself.
1-Minute Solution: Record your sessions. How? As mentioned above, record remote sessions via Skype Call Recorder or in-person sessions with the Quicktime method.
Problem 8: Sending drafts back and forth via microsoft word seems to take too long. (OR) I’m tired of typing in all caps.
1-Minute Solution: Are you using Google docs (aka Google Drive) yet? Maybe. But are you really using it? Here are three things you may not be doing:
- Restoring an earlier version of a document.
- Changing your status from “Editing” to “Suggesting” in the upper right corner.
- Typing with your voice. (Really, Google docs does that? Yup.)
Click here for seven more Google docs hacks that teachers (and counselors!) should know, including How to Create and Organize a Table of Contents.
Problem 9: How can I help keep students from missing sessions or coming without homework finished?
1-Minute Solution: Set up text reminders with AppToto.
Problem 10: How can I help my students avoid cliché language?
Idea #1: When you re-reading an essay draft, highlight all the clichés. Take as long as you need to replace them with expressions of your own phrasing. Even if your phrasing doesn't seem as "clever" or "eloquent," the essay will instantly become stronger and more genuine.
Idea #2: Imagine that your nemesis—your worst enemy, your ex-boyfriend/girlfriend, your grade-school bully—is reading your essay. Highlight the parts that they would pick up on as being unconvincing, confusing, not credible, melodramatic, or disingenuous. Then strengthen it accordingly by making it more honest, more clear, more realistic, and more grounded.
Problem 11: How do I let students know that they are driving this process and I am the navigator?
1-Minute Solution: Lisa Kateri Gilbode gives each student a set of pilot wings. “They become sort of like their superhero capes,” she says, “And when we meet they wear their wings and it reminds them that they are in the lead.” Get sets of 10 pilot wings on Amazon for $18.88.
Problem 12: How can I be sure I'm listening more than talking in my one-on-one sessions with students?
1-Minute Solution: Along with their pilot wings, Lisa’s Gilbode’s students get a cricket clicker and because they are in the lead they get to click it when I do more of the talking and less listening. Get 12 clickers on Amazon for $7.71.
Problem 13: How can I help parents feel they have contributed during the essay-writing process but still keep healthy boundaries?
1-Minute Solution: At the start of the process, have parents complete a set of parent homework questions, which offers them a chance to feel heard and, in some cases, dump all of their hopes and fears. Then ask: Anything else? Then say (to those parents who want to be CC'd on drafts): “Sorry, we don’t do that, as we worry about too many cooks in the kitchen” (OR) “we like to make sure the student is really in the driver’s seat.” Then say, “I’d love to give the student a chance to work on the essays for a while with me, and we’ll check back in for feedback once the essays are in a good place and the student is ready.” Note that this questionnaire can be just 10 good questions long.
Pro Tip: I (Ethan) give parents the Values Exercise and have them complete it, then say, “Once finished, please list the top three values that you’d like to impart to your son/daughter, with a brief explanation.” Why do this? It 1) can help parents feel more connected to the process, 2) offers parents a sense of what exercises their student will be doing, 3) sometimes sparks neat conversations within the family.
Problem 14: I’m an independent counselor and I want more people to know about me and the great work I do with my students!
1-Minute Solution: Check out Sujan Patel’s “100 Days of Growth” PDF. For the first 26 pages, click here. To purchase the rest for $27 (and it’s worth much, much more), click here.
Problem 15: I’m an independent counselor and I really have no idea if my marketing is working or not!
1-Minute Solution: Do you have as many clients as you want? Great, you’re done! If not, use Dorie Clark’s Recognized Expert Evaluation Toolkit, which has great ideas for creating content, establishing social proof, and building your network, plus it has a self-assessment to help you rate how you’re doing.
Problem 16: How do I get my students to show and not tell?
1-Minute Solution: Have your students write down a list of adjectives that they want the colleges to know about themselves. Then tell the students they are not allowed to use those adjectives in their personal statements. Instead, make them tell stories that will force the reader to conclude that the students have those qualities. This takes practice, but great writing is rewriting.
Problem 17: How do my students know if their personal statement is personal enough?
1-Minute Solution: (Speaking to a student) Get together with a group of friends after you've written your first drafts of personal statements. Don't put the authors' names on the drafts. Mix them up and pass them around. Your friends should be able to tell which draft you wrote. If they can’t, your personal statement may not be personal enough.
Problem 18: I want to show my students good examples of personal statements, but I don't want to show them college application personal statements because I’m concerned they might just copy the structure and content of the examples. Where can I tell them to look for good examples of non-college app personal statements?
1-Minute Solution: Check out NPR’s This I Believe.
Pro-Tip: Some teens like the piece by pro skateboarder Tony Hawk.
Problem 19: How can I get my procrastinating student(s) to focus for just 25 minutes on an essay draft?
1-Minute Solution: Have them download the Tomato One app, which is a simple timer that counts down from 25 minutes. It dings, then gives a five-minute break, then counts down another 25 minutes. Note that this has been responsible for all of my most productive days.
Problem 20: How can I liven up a boring/CLICHÉ essay topic?
1-Minute Solution: Play the UC (Uncommon Connections) Game. All will be explained on that page.
Problem 21: How can I improve an essay in just one minute?
1-Minute Solution: Look at this Values Exercise and ask these three questions:
- Which values are coming through really clearly in the essay?
- Which values are kind of coming through but could be coming through more clearly?
- Which values aren’t there yet but could be?
For more: Watch the Great College Essay Test.
Problem 22: How do I get students to come up with interesting topics for the “intellectual vitality” supplemental essay (for Stanford, and other schools)?
1-Minute Solution: Check out this Google spreadsheet with every TED talk ever. Have students search for topics that interest them (e.g. neuroscience, climate change) and then binge watch some TED talks.
Problem 23: Tired of pestering a student who won’t respond to deadlines and is constantly making excuses?
1-Minute Solution: Outsource the pestering by hiring a personal coach via Coach.me. For as little as $65/mo, the student gets unlimited emails and in-app communication. This has positively changed the game for a couple of my students—and either you can suggest it to parents and let them pay the cost or work it into your fee, as I do (it’s worth it!). I recommend Kendra.
Problem 24: The majority of my students are overseas and work with me online. How do I create a welcoming environment when we are not working in person?
1-Minute Solution: On the intake form, ask where their happy place is. Where does the student feel most empowered, comfortable and/or creative? Then use green-screen technology to create that space in my location. How? Use Zoom Meeting Pro which has built-in chromakey technology ($14.95/mo for a single host). You can also use WeVideo, which is a bit more finicky, but some students overseas don't have the power to support Zoom.
Here are some how-to videos:
Problem 25: What do I do when a student is incredibly anxious about essays/college admissions/testing, etc?
A. Check-in at the beginning of the meeting. Often we have a small window to meet with students and when they come in we’re not really sure where they are mentally before diving into a conversation about their future, which often involves heavy self-reflection/decision making. It can be incredibly helpful to “check-in” with a student for literally 30 seconds to see where they are mentally.
B. Stop Breathe Think is an app and website with short meditation and mindfulness resources. On their homepage you can complete a few questions and add your mood/feelings and it will give you suggestions on everything from gratitude, to short meditations, breathing and journaling. I’ll ask a student to do one of these exercises between now and the next time we meet and then I’ll follow up with their experience.
C. Listen to the most relaxing song ever. Or click here for a guided meditation I created using that song as background.
Problem 26: How can I improve every essay workshop I give… in just one minute?
1-Minute Solution: Spend one minute answering these three questions:
- What do I want them to know?
- What do I want them to feel?
- What do I want them to do?
And that’s just what I did for this article… I wanted you to know a wide range of tools, tips and tricks. I wanted you to feel informed, energized and inspired. I wanted you to return to your work with more ease, purpose and joy.
So go do that now.
Here are a few more contributions shared at the IECA Conference in May, 2017:
- Spread comfy pillows on the floor of your office!
- Ask students to pick three (and only three!) people to receive feedback from.
- Write three drafts and ALWAYS start fresh each time.
- Turn on the voice memo feature on your phone and just let the student talk. Then give them the audio and say, “Go write that down.”
- For students who feel they can’t write *anything*, have them write for one minute, then count the words they wrote and ask, “Could we do a few more in the next minute?” Build little wins.
- Have the student list their superhero characteristics. (Student is the superhero.)
- My favorite: Use the visual mind-mapping tool called coggle.it , which helps students create an outline in just a few minutes.