A Guide to College Essay Writing

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A Guide to College Essay Writing

Teachers and students share their advice on how to write a college essay that stands out

If you look at the schedule of a high school student, they likely don’t have a minute to spare. They slave away on weekdays doing homework, spend their evenings at soccer and softball practice, rush to school an hour early for student council and thespian club meetings, and dedicate Saturdays and Sundays to running food drives and reading to elementary schoolers. These actions are all in the pursuit of proving to colleges that they are well-rounded individuals, so that come senior year they have a shot at being accepted to the school of their choice.

With packed resumes and soaring GPAs, students feel that they are prepared to submit their application, ready to be judged and scrutinized by college admissions. But there’s one aspect of the application that often throws even the most qualified students for a loop – the college essay.

A college essay is an original piece of writing that shares some aspect of an applicant’s life or personality that isn’t apparent in their resume. Some colleges or applications have specific prompts for students to answer, and some just ask for a piece of writing on any topic the student wishes to write about.

Even students who are well versed in writing can get stumped by college essays. Writing about yourself is difficult, and the pressure of writing an essay that perfectly encompasses who you are and why you are a good candidate for a school seems insurmountable. One of the first things students can do to relieve this anxiety is to start early.

English teacher Jason Walker recommends beginning to plan a college essay during the summer before senior year. The first step is researching what each college requires. Some colleges don’t require an essay anymore, while others not only require a personal essay, but other essays specific to their university. For example, to apply to the University of Virginia, students need to submit a personal essay, an essay responding to a UVA specific prompt, and another essay responding to a prompt specific to a student’s major. Once students figure out what kind of essays they need to write, they can begin brainstorming and drafting.

“When you look at the prompts, start a process of elimination. Look at those five prompts from the Common Application or the Coalition [application], and immediately eliminate the ones you know you don’t want to write, and choose the ones you do want to write. Then go through a pre-writing exercise and think about the topics you can write about,” said Walker.

The most important part of writing a college essay is choosing a strong topic. The goal of an essay is to reveal something about an applicant that a college wouldn’t know just by reading their application, so essay topics should be personal and share an individual’s voice. Senior Sarah Donovan believes that the key to picking a topic is choosing one that sets a student apart.

“A good essay topic is one that gives you a chance to show something unique about yourself. Try to think about what you care about, and what you want to share about yourself with others,” said Donovan.

As with most essays, a college essay should be edited and rewritten several times. This is the point in the process where students can, and should, seek a second opinion on their essay. Senior Jared Tyranski edited his essay with the help of a trusted teacher.

“The advice I would give is talk to your English teacher about it, because they’re always helpful and there for you, and can give you the advice you need,” said Tyranski.

Students can enlist teachers, parents, or other students to help them clean up grammar mistakes and advise them on other concerns they have about their essays. However, students should limit the amount of people they have edit their essay to make sure it remains true to their own voice.

“[Colleges] are looking for you to reveal something about your identity and about your life in a story that’s worth telling, that indicates to them that you’re the type of person, the type of student that they should invite to their community for the next four years. I think that if students decide that they have a good story to tell, and if they are honest and sincere and write with their voice, they are going to stand out in their paper,” said Walker.