The College Essay

Written by Shereem Herndon-Brown for Understanding the Choices

Writing a college essay is hard. Very few students go into the writing process “pumped” to sit in front of a computer to tell a story. It’s part laborious, oftentimes frustrating, and occasionally embarrassing. The most common thing I hear is “I don’t know what to write!” and then it becomes my job to help the student to brainstorm and believe in the idea that we have thought of together. 

Know what’s far easier? Documenting life. Instead of trying to devise some cleverly creative epiphany that they think will change the landscape of college admissions and help them get into the college of their dreams, students should simply share what has happened in their lives or what is happening. Documenting is the key to storytelling. College essays are not supposed to be imaginative per se, but rather revealing. This is what colleges want and this is what your story or child’s story is all about.

  • Tell their unique story
  • Be real and authentic
  • Share details about something not already in their application

So how can they do this? Here are 4 key tips:


1.  Start Early, like NOW!

Rising seniors, you need to use this summer — July and August — to write drafts of their essays. Yes, “essays” plural. Beyond the personal essay, there are often additional supplemental essays for each school that will need to be written. Starting early buys you the luxury of revising and rewriting the essay. You can write it, put it away for a few days, then take a fresh look at it later. Walking away and then coming back brings a fresh perspective to the work — without the pressure and stress that comes with a time crunch. 

2.  Brainstorm.

Starting the essay can be the hardest part.  Brainstorming about your personality traits and defining your strengths is a good place to begin.  Your goal is to reflect about who you are as a person.  Don’t think of it as bragging.  Think about it as a self-commercial.  No one will see it except the admissions officer who will probably never meet you in person.  Be honest and generous with yourself!

3.  Organize your thoughts. 

After you’ve gathered your notes, create an outline to organize your essay and decide where you want examples to appear. 

4.  Let your first draft flow

Don’t worry about making it perfect. Just get your ideas flowing and your thoughts down on paper. You’ll fix mistakes and improve the writing in later drafts. Be personal and, if it comes naturally, add humor. Imagine that you’re talking to a close friend when writing your essay. This technique should help the real you shine through. Remember, a rough draft doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be a start.

Once you get through this part of the process comes the most important proofreading. While “most” admission offers are not grading your essay, they will judge it if you have not made sure that it is grammatically and structurally sound. For this reason, you cannot do this the night, week, or month prior to the admission deadline. Your voice and story is a significant part of your application and you should take it seriously and be very thoughtful about what you want to share. While these 4 steps may not guarantee admission, it will allow one of the most important parts of the admission process, allowing admission officers to get to know who you are and the voice you will have in that class and community.

Happy brainstorming, writing, and revising! It’s a process, but it will all pay off! 

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