The College Essay. Those three words can elicit many emotions and reactions to a rising senior who needs to write one in the next few weeks and months. While I am the first to say the essay is probably the most challenging part of the college application, it does not need to be the most dreadful. Here are some great tips to help any student as they embark on the college essay and share with an admissions committee something important about themselves. 

1 – Your essay is a window into your soul – be honest, open, & vulnerable

In 500-650 words, students need to be their most vulnerable self. They need to share stories, insights, values, experiences, they have had that helped make them the person they are today and will usher them to become the person they want to be. Providing opportunities for a student to be honest, open, and vulnerable will not only help with telling the great story, but provide a window into the soul of who they are as a person. 

2 – Don’t share your entire life story – find a snippet that reveals a lot about you

With a word limit, there must be a limit on what a student shares. While the essay can be either a narrative (or chronological telling of a story) or a montage (a thematic telling of experiences), it does not need to include every step of a teenager’s life. Have the student identify 1-3 snippets in their life that can be shared with detail and focus. 

3 – It is not about the ashes, but how you have risen from them

Students who have faced challenges often ask if they should write about them in their college essay. The answer is, yes if you want to and no if you do not. For those that choose to share a challenge, failure, or setback, the essay should focus on pushing through the challenge, what is learned in the process of overcoming the challenge, and what motivates them to move ahead. The most effective essays highlight the rise from the ashes and not just the ashes. 

4 – Know the “why.”  Why are you writing the story? Why does this matter to you?

The Common Application, Coalition Application, and many college-specific applications have essay prompts they want the student to use to provide focus for the essay. These prompts help students also answer that important question of why is this story important? Knowing the motivation behind telling a specific story and why it is important to the writer. The most effective essays focus on why the student thinks the story is important and not what the reader might want to read.  

5 – Make sure you use a prompt – prompts provide guidance for you & the reader(s)

Ever read an essay or memoir or narrative and not quite sure why the writer wrote it? This can lead the reader to miss some of the important purposes of the written content and the writer’s intended meaning. Using the prompts can provide great direction for the writer to stay focused in their storytelling and can help the reader focus more on the content and less trying to figure out what direction the writer is asking them to go. 

6 – Grammar matters and so does editing – get an extra set of eyes to review your essay
Many students are not conditioned to ask for help with their regular writing requirements for school. However, with the college essay, having 1-2 editors/reviewers is a fundamental part of the writing process. Students should be encouraged to find a teacher, counselor, or mentor, who is familiar with the college essay writing process to serve as an editor/reviewer. These people should be a resource for the student to ask for honest feedback, suggestions about how to handle certain aspects of the essay, and who have the time to make edits and comments that are constructive without having the student lose their voice in the process. 

7 – Make the essay sound like you – write it like how you speak
College admissions counselors expect to read essays written by high school students, not adults with multiple years of advanced education. While the essay should be well-written in terms of content and grammar, it needs to “sound” like the student and not the editors/reviewers/adults that are helping to support them in the writing process. If a student does not use certain words in their everyday speech and writing, it should not find a place in the college essay now. 

8 – Ask yourself – what can be learned about you that is not found anywhere else on the application?
The essay provides the reader the chance to learn about the student in a way no other part of the application can do. While it is fine to mention things in the essay that have been highlighted somewhere else in the application, the essay should provide context to the reader about why a student chose that activity or course or experience. Just keep encouraging the writer to think about what values or personality or characteristics they want the reader to know about them that cannot easily be extrapolated from other objective or data-driven experiences shared in the application. 

9 – Have patience while you write many drafts – with time comes the story meant to be told
Students need to realize that a great essay goes through two or more drafts before it is a solid document. It takes time to develop a well-constructed essay and a decent amount of effort should be put into the process for a positive outcome. Most students can complete a great essay in 1-2 weeks if they put a decent amount of effort into the process, but it is a good idea to start early and then go back to the essay after a few weeks away from it, so they see it with clear eyes and can make any necessary changes and/or adjustments. 

10 – Tell the audience what you want them to know, not what you think they want to read
College admissions counselors do not have a specific story they want to hear. They do not want to just read about tragic stories or challenges, they love to hear the triumphs too. Be sure to share the story that is authentic to you and that you are proud to share with a group of strangers. Counselors will tell you that they remember the essays that make them laugh, that make them think, that make them cry, that make them excited to keep reading. They are not interested in reading what you think they want to know about you, but what you are excited to share. 

If your student needs advice, assistance, or an editor or reviewer for the college essay, we are happy to provide the support. To learn more about NYC Admissions Solutions and our college counseling services, please visit our website at where you can also schedule a complimentary initial call with Dana Ponsky, Senior College Admissions Counselor.