Tips on Writing Your College Essay

A HBA senior works on her University of California college essay. Photograph by Marcus Mau ('19)

From filing the FAFSA to completing the Common App, the college application process can be a daunting, formidable task for students. While a large part of the application is simple but tedious—-inputting data like grades and financial information into short boxes or bubbles is a monotonous activity at best—essay writing is challenging for many students.

A stellar academic record like a 4.2 GPA and a perfect SAT score will go a long way in a college application. However, colleges are now paying closer attention to the individual than just test scores. U.S. News and World Report (the publication known for its annual “America’s Best Colleges” list) reports that admission officers are now looking closer at the student’s essay rather than his or her academic career. In the same article, Adam Sapp, Director of Admissions at Pomona College said, “The essays are important in part because this is a student’s chance to really speak directly to the admissions office.”

The author of the article, Kelly Mae Ross, states, “Prospective college students want their essay, sometimes called a personal statement, to make an impression and boost their chances of being accepted, but they only have several hundred words to make that happen.”

The Princeton Review’s Rob Franek, in an article offering essay writing tips, further stresses the importance of the college essay: “Selective colleges receive applications from many worthy students with similar scores and grades—too many to admit. So they use your essay…to find out what sets you apart from the other talented candidates.”

There is a wealth of information available on how to write the perfect college essay but here is a summary of what I’ve found to be helpful. Notable websites include U.S. News & World Report, College Essay Guy (his online seminar is great), Prep Scholar, and College Xpress.

  1. Don’t procrastinate. Allow for enough time to write a few good drafts, make important edits, and have others take a look at your essay. It’s easy to put it aside but when you’re staring down the barrel of a deadline, you’ll wish you had more time. If you have trouble getting started and feel yourself stressing just free write. Forget everything your English teacher taught you to do and write (just don’t show this to Mrs. Ustare; she might have a heart attack).
  2. Be authentic. No one likes a phony. You’re an individual and unless you’ve been living under a rock for your entire life, you have experience that makes you who you are. Also, it’s way too hard to be someone you’re not. If you write the essay the way you talk (without all the slang and PG-13 language) it’ll give the counselors what they want: an image of you as a person.
  3. Answer the prompt. This is a pretty obvious one but when you’re in the midst of writing and you have a great thing to write about, the prompt in front of you might get left behind.
  4. Tell a story. Not just any story but a personal story. Not just a personal story but a personal story of growth. No one wants to read about someone else; they want to read about you. But they don’t want to read about the great Tik Tok you made; they want to read about something special to you. And it’s great if you have a personal story but if it didn’t affect you then what’s the point? Write about a time that you impacted you as a person. (But don’t dump your life story on the counselor; just ONE specific event that changed you.)
  5. If you ignored tip one and you find yourself up against the deadline, take a deep breath and calm down. You’re not going to help yourself by hyperventilating. Take some time to calm down and do your best with the time you have.
  6. This last one is for parents. If your child is procrastinating, reminding them of their deadlines is fine but if you find yourself stressing out more than your child, STOP. You will save yourself so much stress. If you’re the kind of parent that can’t let your child fail, I say good luck; you’ll need it.

Learning from the experience of others is also invaluable. Senior Jazerine Nakamura gave this tip for writing college essays: “Definitely try to avoid the typical cliché essay [topics] that everyone writes about. When colleges read them, they’ll just see that you went through the same things as someone else who has a better portfolio than you. Obviously don’t lie in your essay, but I’d encourage people to look at the unique qualities they have and write about it. Show how you’re different and why you stand out from everyone.”

Senior Kasen Wong, added,, “Don’t flip out about it. I know it will seem like the hardest task to pull out something that defines yourself and your experiences but try to think more about specific scenarios that taught you something or that you found interesting rather than an experience itself. Inspiration from others is also important and don’t be afraid to address seemingly taboo topics (like sports) in your essays as long as it’s in an appropriate and insightful tone.”

Senior Alexis Nakabayashi has this tip: “Start early. Even if you have no idea about what you want to write, doing a little soul searching and digging through your memories can reveal a key moment that would make a great college essay.”

Unless your favorite thing to do is fill out bubbles and write essays, you probably won’t enjoy the college application process. By the time you are done applying to all of your schools, you will have probably spent hours, maybe even days doing it. Hopefully, if you’ve made it so far into this article, the tips will help to make everything a bit less painful. And in my opinion, the best advice from across the internet, from all of the best websites is this: Begin early and be yourself.

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