1. Worry less about picking the “right” topic.
Lenox asserts, “There’s no such thing as a golden-ticket topic. What makes the essay is not the topic; it’s how you approach your topic and what it reveals about you.”
When students stop trying to write the essay they think colleges want to read and instead start brainstorming about the essay they want to write, they create more authentic pieces that better reflect who they are. If a student is passionate about a topic, their natural enthusiasm shines through in the writing, giving admissions officers a glimpse into the type of student, roommate, and community member this person will be on campus.
André Phillips, director of enrollment management at University of Wisconsin Madison, explains that through each essay, “The voice of applicants becomes elevated as we imagine how they’ll be on campus.” The essay is really a key component that brings the student application to life, letting a college see a student beyond their transcript.
Students also need to worry less about trying to write about a topic an admissions officer has never read before. Most admissions staff read thousands of essays every year and admit to having read about every topic, from underwater basket weaving to winning the state championship, many times over.
However, students can be reassured that an admissions officer has never read their unique perspective on the subject. So while the topic may not be completely original, what will be inspired is the nuanced way the student tells the story and highlights their personal life experiences and values, putting a spin on the essay that only they can.
2. Use the essay to communicate what is not yet in your application file.
In The Truth About Colleges Admissions: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together, Rick Clark and Brennan Barnard declare, “A wasted essay is one that only reiterates what they already know.” By the time the admissions officers get to the essay, they’ve already reviewed the transcript, read descriptions of extra-curricular activities, and noted any special accolades; they are now ready to glean deeper insight from the essay.
Therefore, the essay is not the place for a laundry list of activities and awards. Instead, it’s an opportunity to look back on personal experiences and ask, “What do I wish they knew about me?”
For Leonard Satterwhite of Washington and Lee University, “The essay is personalization,” and the last part of the application he reads. He tells students that he likes to see how the essay fits into the bigger picture and pulls the application together: “It’s the way I can learn and appreciate distinctive parts of you.”
3. Brainstorm to generate ideas.
Reflecting on past experiences can be daunting, so I encourage students to turn to multiple brainstorming activities to get those creative juices flowing.
Search “College Essay Guy Values Exercise” to find a short 5-minute exercise that asks students to read through a list of 100 values and identify which ones are most important. Some students identify family, collaboration, and meaningful work. While other students highlight inclusion, self-expression, and patience.
When a student knows what’s important to them, they can think of stories, pivotal moments, personal objects, and past conversations that can highlight those meaningful values, serving as anchors or hooks to the essay. As Gelb instructs, students need to be able to answer, “Why do I want to write about this topic? Why does it touch me?”
Admissions officers always encourage students to ask their personal “why” questions. Clark writes, “That’s fundamentally the point of the essay—it’s important for the applicant to examine and articulate what matters to them.”
Another helpful brainstorming exercise is for students to list 20 things a college should know about them. Students who prefer to visualize can create a personal timeline instead to highlight meaningful events, people, and places. Through this exercise, students often find great “slice of life” or “aha” moments that help them paint a larger picture.
For students who are stuck getting words on paper, hitting the record button on a voice memo can be a good strategy to access their authentic voice. Vanderbilt University’s Admissions blog even articulates how an impactful essay can be conversational: “The most meaningful essays are those where I feel like the student is sitting next to me, just talking to me.”
4. Parents can be helpful, but they can’t write the essay.
In an October 2020 Washington Post article, Adrienne Wichard-Edds interviewed multiple admissions officers who articulated why “kids need to own their college essays.”
When parents step in and write their child’s essay, Lenox cautions that students suffer a huge loss of confidence: “By doing things for them, you’re saying, I can do this better than you. Part of our job is empowering them to be advocates for themselves; to be successful in college, you’ve got to be able to use your own voice.”
Not to mention, seasoned admissions officers can spot when the language, tone, or insight in an essay shifts from that of a 17-year-old teen to a 50-year-old adult. The student voice is so powerful, that Clark argues, “When parents become a second author, they rob the essay of the very thing we’re looking for, which is the student’s voice.”
However, there are ways parents can help, from brainstorming to editing. Whitney Soule, the incoming dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, advises: “Parents can be a sounding board for an idea, asking questions that help the student develop that idea further or let them know if a description is confusing.”
Lenox supplements with direct questions: “Parents can ask, What did you mean by that? Is it clear to the audience?”
And of course, parents can proofread their student’s essay, checking for spelling and grammatical errors.
5. Lastly, writing is a process. Embrace the fundamentals and leave plenty of time.
Any writing coach will assert that effective essays are not written overnight, especially self-reflective ones. Students need to allow time for edits and even the possibility of scrapping an idea when it’s just not working out.
Because time is precious to both the writer and the reader, students should anticipate that admissions officers will read their essays very rapidly due to the volume of their caseloads. Given this reality, students need to make sure their introductions, conclusions, and topic sentences are very strong and indicative of their essays.
Another editing tip is for students to read their essays aloud. This task gives the writer a better sense of the flow and pacing of their essay, making it easier to hear when something is missing or out of place.
Before a student finishes their final draft, it’s important to check for spelling and grammatical errors. Claire Carter, editor at Collegexpress.com, declares, “Nothing’s perfect, of course, but the grammar, spelling, and punctuation in your admission essay should be as close to perfect as possible. After you’re done writing, read your essay, re-read it a little later, and have someone else read it too, like a teacher or friend—they may find typos that your eyes were just too tired to see.”
When students take the time to brainstorm, write, and edit their essays, they show colleges that they’re conscientious about their work, and ready to think critically, articulate clearly, and ultimately tackle college-level assignments. These are exactly the type of stand-out students colleges around the world are seeking to invite to their campuses.