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The College Essay

Tips for high school seniors writing their college essays.

Ah, the dreaded college essay. The cause of so much angst and stress – both for students and parents. If you search “college essay” on Amazon, you will find 9,889 books and other resources promising to help you “ace” this challenging facet of the college application.

As the Nov. 30 deadline to submit the University of California application looms just over three weeks from now, now is an excellent time for essay pointers. 

The essay needs to be from the heart, give an insight into who you are (you, the student, not you, the parent), and humanize you in a way that your grades and test scores cannot. Since every student’s journey before applying to college has been different, there is no single formula that can make the difference between a good essay and a bad one, or a good essay and a great one. But here are a few tips that can help you write YOUR best essay:

  • Don’t wait until the last minute! Brainstorm, outline, write, let it sit a few days, review, read it out loud, and edit. And then repeat until the essay really speaks to you. An essay written at the last minute looks like an essay written at the last minute. 
  • Show, don’t tell. Use examples that illustrate your point. As Ernest Hemingway said, “Details make stories human, and the more human a story can be, the better.” This is kind of like the advice that Food Network executives give contestants on the competition show, “Next Food Network Star.” Don’t tell us the food is “yummy” or “delicious,” they say, because these words are meaningless on the other side of the TV screen. Describe the food so that viewers can imagine what it really tastes like. Tell us about the flavor and the texture. Is it sour or sweet? Is it creamy or crunchy?  Help viewers imagine what the food tastes like, even though they aren’t actually tasting it. (unfortunately this analogy generally only works with girls; the boys give me a blank stare when I mention this show….)  
  • Dig deep. The college essay is your chance to tell colleges who you really are, how you got there and what you think your future may bring. They want to know how four years at their college will bring out your potential, both personal and professional.
  • Practice writing. Practice makes you a better writer! Author Molly Moynahan’s Pitch Perfect: How to Write a Successful College Admission Essay, gives students some excellent practice writing exercises as they get ready to write their college essays. Unlike many essay advice books, Moynahan helps students practice writing without launching right into the essay: pick an object and write about it; write a poem about a place you’ve been; write a letter to yourself in five years; draw a graph of the events that have happened in your life. These are all ways to get started on the college essay without the intimidation of actually starting it. 
  • Let others review your essay, but don’t let them take your voice away. It’s fine to have your parents, your English teacher and your favorite aunt read your essay, but don’t let them write it for you. [Parents – this means DON’T WRITE THE ESSAY FOR YOUR KID! As Jim Nondorf, the University of Chicago’s Dean of Admissions, said in a recent information session, “You do not sound like a 17-year old and we can smell you a mile away.”]
  • Make sure you respond to the prompt or the question. Leave the reader with a sense of satisfaction that you know how to follow directions, and that you gave them what they asked for.


Moynahan offers some wise “don’ts” for your essay: Don’t write about religion or politics. Don’t write in clichés. Don’t rehash your resume. 

(For other good “dos” and “don’ts,” read the comprehensive Admission Matters and William Poirot’s “What Not to Do and Why” in 100 Successful College Application Essays. Poirot’s chapter includes the obvious but important wisdom, “Don’t write an essay that any one of a thousand other seniors could write.”)

In the end, the essay is the most important part of your college application that isn’t a number (ie your GPA, grades, rank and test scores). This is your chance to shine in 500 words or so – go for it!!

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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