College Prep: Tackling the College Admission Essay

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There is nothing more terrifying to a high school senior than sitting down to write the essay portion of a college application.  The challenge of describing oneself in 500 words or less is indeed daunting, but the essay (also known as a personal statement) is a critical part of the college application.  It gives students an invaluable opportunity to share something new and insightful about themselves with the admission officers.

According to the College Guide published by the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (, “the essay is the living, breathing part of your application to a college.”  It is what distinguishes one applicant from another, especially at highly selective colleges.  If a student has written a successful essay, he or she will be able to answer “yes” to the question “Is this something that only I could have written?”

Selecting a Topic

Personal statement prompts vary from college to college.  Some are open-ended, such as the ubiquitous “Tell us something about yourself” or “Why do you want to attend our university?”  Others ask unusual thought-provoking questions, such as “Define success,” “What is your favorite word and why?”, “Describe a character in fiction or a historical figure that has had an influence on you and explain that influence,” and “You have just completed your 300-page autobiography.  Submit page 217.”

In On Writing the College Application Essay, author Harry Bauld declares “There are no good or bad topics for college essays, only good or bad essays.”  That said, Bauld goes on to identify nine overused topics—including foreign travel, sports, and the death of a pet—that often result in trite, superficial essays.  The goal is to describe yourself in your own words and to add something to the facts presented elsewhere in your application.

As you brainstorm essay topics, think about your character traits, personal values, and meaningful experiences, and remember these strategies:

  • Make sure to answer the question that’s being asked.
  • Don’t try to second-guess the admission officer—write about what’s important to you, not just what you think the college wants to hear.
  • Keep the focus of the essay on you, even if you’re writing about how someone else has influenced your life.
  • Be careful when tacking controversial subjects; the person reading your essay may not share your beliefs.  Express your opinions honestly, but avoid displaying an intolerant or offensive attitude.
  • Don’t worry if you haven’t overcome major obstacles or endured a tragedy in your brief lifetime.  Often the most creative, dynamic, and revealing essays are ones that deal with ordinary small moments in a student’s life.

Style Matters

While the content of the college admission essay must be compelling and captivating, grammar and spelling do count, and admission officers respond to well-crafted pieces that follow these classic guidelines:

  • Begin your essay with a strong opening sentence that will arouse the reader’s interest.
  • Describe why you did something, not simply what you did.
  • Show it, don’t tell it!  Use vivid descriptions that make the reader see it, smell it, taste it, feel it, and hear it.
  • Don’t use fancy words from the thesaurus or SAT prep just to impress the admission officer.
  • Don’t write in broad, general terms—use details to make your writing come alive, and include plenty of supporting examples.

Final Tips

  • If you’re using one essay for several colleges, check to make sure that you haven’t used the name of another college in your essay by mistake.
  • Follow each college’s rules about length, headings, etc.
  • Don’t get overly creative.  The admissions officers at Colorado College advise students to “avoid gimmicks of any kind.  Writing on a ball is cute, but it doesn’t fit in your folder!”
  • Have at least one adult read your essay and give you feedback.  Is the essay a clear reflection of who you are?
  • Proofread your essay several times, and then ask someone else to proofread it.
  • Be sure that your own voice comes through.  Never let anyone write your essay for you.

Crafting a strong personal statement requires self-reflection and introspection.  It is undoubtedly hard work, but the secret to success is allowing plenty of time for the writing process: brainstorming, drafting, revising, getting feedback, and proofreading.  A good essay is the way to help colleges get to know you as a unique individual who is more than just a compilation of grades and test scores.

Marilyn C. Morrison is an independent college consultant who guides students and families through the college planning and application process.  Visit Morrison Educational Consulting’s website at, or contact Marilyn at (818) 781-3476 or

About Karen Young

Karen Young is the founder of My Daily Find.