Top Five Questions About College Essays

As we move into summer, rising seniors should be getting ready to focus on their college essays.  To help you get started, here are the top five(ish) questions people ask us about essays:

What’s the goal of my college essay?

Your college essay should help colleges understand WHO YOU ARE, what you value, and how you will be a contributing member of their campus community.  Your essay should make you memorable and likeable. Don’t rehash your resume; you share that information through your activities list and/or resume (here’s some advice from the University of Richmond about how to craft your activities resume).  The essay, rather, is to show your humanityHere are the five questions you should ask about your college essays before you consider them “final.”

How can I find a unique topic for my college essay?

This one’s easy – YOU CAN’T! College admission officers read thousands of essays each year – almost all of them from 17 or 18-year old high school students.  It will be nearly impossible for you to write about a topic they’ve never seen before (here’s what Georgia Tech Admissions Director Rick Clark has to say about finding a unique topic).  So while the topic may not be unique, YOUR VOICE will be.  From your essay, we should learn how YOU experienced and moved through the situation you want to discuss, which will be different from how someone else experienced it!  Focus on going deep – give us some emotion.  That’s how your essay will make you likeable.

Sub-question > Are any topics off-limits?

Yes and no.  Because you’ll be applying to college at the same time as hundreds of thousands of other students the same age as you, many of you have commonalities in your life experience.  Many teens have experienced the death of a pet or a grandparent – and sometimes essays about a grandparent leave the reader thinking the grandparent is amazing but not knowing much about the student!  We also recommend staying away from mental health challenges UNLESS you’ve come up the hill and can really show how you moved through and overcame the situation.  An ongoing mental health situation could be a red flag for a college.

Should my college essay have the standard five-paragraph structure?

Definitely….NOT! Here’s a quick article on why this template is fine for school essays but horrible for college essays!   Your college essay is completely different from your English class essays (more on that here) – there’s no topic sentence, no supporting evidence – and most importantly, the subject is  YOU!  Additionally, you’re probably used to writing in the passive voice, which is not your college essay’s BFF.  This article will help you transition your passive voice sentences to be more active, and more about YOU.

This is a very different type of essay than you’ve written before, and it takes some introspection and thought to effectively say what you want to say.  It also takes revision!  Plan on following these six steps as you write your college essay.

Can parents help with students’ college essays?

Yes! The issue is how MUCH you help.  Remember that the most important goal of the essay is to help colleges understand the student’s lived experience – from the student’s perspective.  So even though you KNOW everything that the student has done, you can’t tell those stories from their perspective.  Help with brainstorming topics, help with grammar and polishing.  You won’t be doing the student any favors if the essay sounds like it was written by a 48-year old lawyer!  More tips on what you can and can’t do in this article.

How many people should review my college essay?

It’s fine to ask people to review your college essay!  But you probably don’t want 10 people to chime in with their opinions.  And you REALLY don’t want them to actually mark it up.  We recommend you ask people to read your essay and just give you their thoughts, without editing or commenting directly in your document.  If you do give them access to edit, ask them to review in SUGGESTING mode, so that you can see their suggestions and decide for yourself if their words are an improvement over your own.  Most of the time, the more people who review/edit an essay, the more likely it is for the writer to get conflicting advice and input, drowning out the most important part – the student’s voice.

Here are the Ten Commandments of college essays!  They may not be a religion to you, but to us they are!

Over the past dozen years, we’ve helped hundreds of students share their stories with colleges through their college essays.  Let us know if you need any help as you work your way through your college essays and your application process!

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