College Essay: Be Sure to Answer the Question!

At this time of year most high school seniors have their standardized testing completed and are deep into completing their college applications, which means they are busy writing essays both for the Common Application and for college supplements.

Having advised countless students on their essays, I see there are a few common areas they struggle with.  The following points serve to guide students as they prepare to write a college essay.

  • Be sure to answer the question asked. Students often talk around the answer and include information that is nice to know, but not necessary to the story they are trying to tell in a limited number of words.  Often college essays are in two parts:  “Tell us what you like about XYZ University and let us know why you think it is a good fit for you.”  Four of the five essay prompts on the Common App this year have two or more parts to them.  It is easy to answer the first part of a multipart question, and forget to come back to the second part.
  • The best way to figure out what to say is to brainstorm before you write.  Get all possible ideas written down and then select the points that best answer the question(s) asked.
  • Take time before writing to establish exactly what you want the college to learn about you from the essay.  If not, an essay can ramble on and not really convey anything new or interesting to the college. A good essay will describe events or situations that tell a college something of note about the writer.  The essay does not need to be about some earth shattering experience or amazing feat you have accomplished.  It may be about a small moment in time that you did something that demonstrates a passion, your hard work, or your ethics. You should be able to tell yourself the “story” you are trying to tell the colleges.
  • The essay should “show”, not “tell” an important message through giving an example.  A good essay always gives anecdotal evidence of points made.  For example, say you want to convey your love of US history class.  You could say, “I always loved the way Ms. Smith began her classes with a short story about the period we were studying.”  Or, better, you could say, “As we sat down to class, Ms. Smith began recounting a human interest story about teenagers in the Civil War era.  It was moments like this that really brought the class to life for me.”  While the first example is ok, and does give an example of why the student loves history class, the second one is better because it brings the reader into the actual event itself.
  • Don’t get hung up on details before you get main ideas down. Fine tuning, grammar and syntax corrections, elimination of extra words or side stories, and devising an interesting opening few sentences can be done after the main thrust of the essay is on paper.

To recap, when you are struggling with an essay, begin by brainstorming — list in bullet format all possible answers or ideas that address each part of the prompt.  Ask yourself, “What do I want the college to learn about me from this response?”  “Why am I including the information I have listed?” “What is the story I want to tell?” “Is the information I have included going to make me more interesting to the college or tell them something about me that they may not get from the rest of the application?”  Finally, tell yourself your story out loud in your own words, clarifying it and making note of any new ideas that arise.  At this point, you should be ready to begin writing the essay itself, and it should flow a lot easier because it will have focus and direction.

Although it is a difficult thing to write about yourself, it is really a wonderful opportunity to put your own imprimatur on your college application…and it may be just what your application needs to help you get admitted!