Collegiate Questions Answered

College Essay Writing

Posted by Chelsea Hunersen

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6/13/13 7:17 PM

Welcome to our inaguary blog post. Since this is our first post at Collegiate Questions, and it is your first impression of us, we figured we would gear it toward something that helps colleges get a first impression of you. Yes, we're talking about

Writing the Admissions Essay

College application essays.

For those of you who need to catch up (or applied to college with a typewriter), the college application essay is a key part of a student's application to a college, it's pretty much a chance for each student to introduce him or herself to the college admissions office at any school. Each school may have different essay requirements. Some schools may pick their own essay topic, while others may let you share an essay from another application. Most college hopefuls will, at the very least, need to write an essay for the common application, so at the very least it is a good idea to have one prepared.

What is a Common Application Essay?

A Common Application (or 'Common App') essay is a piece of writing, approximately 250-500 words in length that answers one of six questions. These include:

  1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you
  2.  Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
  3.  Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
  4. Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence
  5. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
  6. Topic of your choice.

How Do You Pick A Topic To Write About?

There is a lot of controversy, and a lot of nervousness surrounding this question. Afterall, this is the biggest essay of your child's life, right? (probably, but saying this will only make it seem stressful, and these kinds of essays come out better when the writers are enjoying themselves.) While you can probably write a good essay about any of these topics, I think the more important question to start with is, what do you want a college admissions officer to know about you?

Think about it this way. What is your favorite fact about yourself? Your most proud accomplishment? Your fondest memory? Your funniest story? (these can all be different things, by the way.)

Now think about each of these things. What is the story behind them, how do they contribute to who you are as a person? What does that funny story say about you or your resilience? These are the kinds of stories the admissions officers want to hear.

The Four D's of Essay Writing.

Death, divorce, drugs, disease. Don't write about these because it will make you seem deep, interesting or compelling to an admissions officer, it won't. Also, don't write about an essay about it if they happened to someone else, this essay is about YOU, so only write something like this if it had a severe and compelling impact on how you are as a person.

Also to note, essays about Volunteer Work or winning the big game do not by themselves make you seem interesting. Think about why whatever event you're discussing would make me want to have a conversation with you.

The more unique and personal your story, the better.

The first admissions essay I wrote was about my love of acting on the stage, my enjoyment of becoming a character and the lessons in confidence I learned from it. The second essay was about my challenge in making the high school ski team due to my limited vision, the way I had to compensate by turning my head to see racing gates and what it taught me about perservearance. Which one do you think says more about my unique character? 

Yeah, admissions thought so, too.

If you want a second, or third, or fourth opinion on this Quora has a great thread on "What Makes An Extraordinary College Admissions Essay." 

Editing of Essays

Now, there is a lot to be said for editing your essay. Any piece of your application you submit should be meticulously reviewed to find any grammar, punctuation or logic errors (also, check to make sure if you are re-using an essay it is the CORRECT school name, Boston College does not want to recieve a letter stating Dear Boston University). Have your parent, teacher, whoever take a look, but make sure its someone you trust because here's where it get's tricky:


Careful when you're done editing that your essay does not sound like your dad wrote it or correct it for his audience. Make sure in editing out colloquialisms you don't edit out your unique voice. Make sure the version of you you are presenting in the essay is the one you really want admissions to hear from you.

Changing of Essays

It is possible over the course of your process you will write an essay for the common application, submit it, write an essay for another application, realize you like that better, and want to change your common app essay, that's okay. Sometimes a new prompt will cause you to think about something a different way. Once you submit an application, it's gone, but if you have any applications waiting, don't feel pressured to stick with your essay for future schools if a new one inspires you more.

The college application essay writing process can be daunting, and many people remember their topic well beyond their college years, but the key thing is not to lose sight of the real point of writing, to show admissions officers a little piece of who you are. Relax and enjoy the journey, because that can make all the difference.


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