Writing The College Essay

By Anthony F. Capraro, COO, College Outreach USA.


o the colleges read the essays you write on their applications?  You bet your diploma they do.  Here is your chance to strut your stuff, stand up, be counted, and stylize your way into the hearts of the decision makers.

Write it, edit it, review it.  Rewrite it.  Show why you are unique and how the college will benefit from having you in its student body.  This is not a routine homework assignment, but a college level essay that will be carefully examined for spelling, grammar, content, and the style of a high school senior.  As strenuous an effort as it may be, your completing the essay gives the admissions committee a chance to know the real you: a three-dimensional human being with passions, preferences, strengths, weaknesses, imagination, energy and ambition.  Your ability to present yourself will help the deans and directors of admission remember your application from the thousands that flood their offices each year.

And the best way to promote yourself is by writing to your strengths – use your essay to say what you want to say.  Even if an essay question seems specific, you can include your interests, ambitions, and insights while answering the question.  The essay that asks you to name your favorite book and the reason for your selection could be answered with the title of a Dr. Seuss book if, for example, you are considering a career as an elementary school teacher.  If you are interested in business, read about a famous entrepreneur you admire, and then discuss your interest in business.

Whatever the essay questions may be - autobiographical or otherwise - select the person or issue that puts you in a position to discuss the subject you know best.  All of your essay responses are autobiographical in that they illustrate something important about you, your values, and the kind of person you are (or hope to become).  If personal values are important to you - and they should be - then here is your opportunity to stress their importance.

Because many colleges will ask for more than one essay, make sure that for any one college, the sum of these essays covers your best points.  Do not repeat your answers even if the questions sound alike.  Cover the most important academic and extracurricular or personal activities (the ones in which you excelled or spent the most quality time).

If you are fortunate to have a cooperative English teacher, you might request a critique of your first draft, but be sure to allow enough time for the teacher’s careful evaluation and your revision.

Write the essays yourself – no substitutes or stand-in authors. College admission professionals can discern mature adult prose from student prose.  Don’t be tempted to borrow an essay from an online source, because colleges know the cheater-sites and you will be caught. 

The Personal Essay

The Common Application asks for two essays –first, an activity essay of about 150 words, and second, a personal essay, usually about one page of single-spaced twelve-point type.  You may write your long essay on a topic of your choice or on one of five suggested topics. Almost any topic you can imagine can be coaxed into an original personal essay, as long as there’s an honest connection to you.

Not sure where to begin?  Talk about it with your friends and family, the people who know you best.  They might remind you of a family tradition that defines who you are.  They might suggest an achievement or an anecdote, or capture the essence of you in a few words.  Yes, they probably won’t be able to resist telling those embarrassing stories one more time; but because they love you, they will point out your best and truest attributes.

Another great seed for an essay is some encounter in your life that made you wake up with a new realization.  It might be a piece of advice you received, a line from a book that rang true, or the moment when you overcame a fear.

Your personal essay should tell your story past, present and future.  You don’t need to write an autobiography – good thing, since you won’t be allowed that many words! -- but rather use a smaller story to represent the big picture.

  • Include a glimpse of your younger self to tell what formed your values or interests;

  • tell what you have done, or what you do actively that reveals those values or interests; and,

  • declare your future, or at least hint at what you plan to do.

Given an almost infinite range of topics, try to pick a positive one.  Some students, of course, have traumatic events that have affected their lives and deserve to be addressed.  If that describes you, you will have to show how events changed you and how you are looking forward.  Before you write about trouble in your life, seek the advice of a trusted adult.

Don’t list your good qualities with adjectives, show them with actions.  If you write “I am responsible, intelligent, compassionate, and a team player,” it makes you look conceited.  If you tell a story that reveals those qualities, it makes you look amazing. 

One gentle nudge for you, the good student whose writing is so absolutely serious, straight, and formal in tone:  please liven it up, warm it up, and make it a little funny and personal!  It’s okay.  Transcripts can’t show your generous heart or your passionate dream-- that’s why colleges ask for essays.