College Essay Tips: How to Craft Your Best Story
Writing a Common App essay can make any student feel anxious and making it “great” creates even more pressure.
This is especially true when the essay will help determine their admission into college.
Fortunately, if you start early, there’s plenty of time to brainstorm, write, and edit the piece.
You can help your student stay calm and excel on their essays by following some simple tips.
Remember that you are there as an advisor and reader…not a cowriter.
In addition, don’t second-guess their topic choice–think hard about the feedback you will give them.
(If they ask for it.)
Here’s how your student can ace the Common App essay…
The Purpose of the Common App Essay
There are two kinds of college essays.
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It should be about one of the prompts from the Common App or the Coalition App, depending on the school.
The good news is that your student only needs one main college essay.
They can use it to apply to multiple schools quickly and easily.
As long as they put in the work up front, they’ll be putting their best for forward for each school.
If your student is applying to highly selective colleges, there will also be a supplement that they will need to complete.
This generally consists of additional questions and at least one additional essay.
Your student can work on these supplements after their main essay is complete.
When to Start Your College Essay
It’s vital that your student write the essay at the right time.
If they can avoid working on it during the school year, that would be optimal.
There are too many other stresses and concerns, and distractions during that time.
Instead, have your student work on their essay during June and July after their junior year.
Once the main essay is done, the supplements can be started in August.
You don’t want to write the supplements early because the annual update for supplements is done August 1.
There’s no sense in writing a bunch of material that no longer applies!
Choosing the Right Essay Topics for College
Choosing the topic can most daunting part of the main college essay.
What are “good” essay topics?
First, your student should decide on something about themselves that isn’t well represented in the other application paperwork.
Writing about a job or extra-curricular can be repetitive unless there’s a really unique angle.
Don’t be too worried about the prompts to start with.
Generally speaking, anything your student wants to write about will fit under one of the application prompts.
If it doesn’t seem to, simply select the “create your own topic” option and you’re set!
As your student considers topics, don’t be worried if they feel “normal” or like they don’t have anything extreme to talk about.
Extreme events often overshadow the application anyway, said admission expert Sarah Harberson in a recent Facebook live.
Talking about the death of a loved one can feel heavy and be hard for the admissions counselor to relate to.
Instead, focus on something that makes your student really themselves.
Sarah calls this your “you-ism.”
Whether it is culture, family, a special tradition, or a specific encounter that helped them rethink life, the essay should show a slice of themselves that others don’t often see.
Make sure your student doesn’t spend too much time talking about the event or the specifics of a tradition.
Instead, the essay should be focused on how it impacts who they are as a person.
The admissions counselor wants to feel like they discovered something new about your student.
You also want to avoid topics that everyone uses.
- Death of a grandparent
- Transferring schools
- Getting a driver’s license
- Entering high school after middle school or junior high
- Death of a pet
- Overcoming fear of heights/roller coasters/etc.
Finally, you should avoid topics that can trigger discomfort or discrimination from the admissions counselor.
Unfortunately biases still exist, so it’s best not to write about controversial topics like religion or disabilities like OCD, social anxiety, or other impairments.
Use the Right Format
Your student’s main college essay should be a traditional essay style.
Nothing fancy or outlandish is needed here, so try not to be overly clever, submit a poem instead of an essay, or try other unusual tactics.
That could just mean you’re trying too hard.
The main college essay is really about your student showing a little of their interior life to an admissions counselor.
If the main essay doesn’t do this, it will not be the kind of boost you want for your application.
If you want to submit additional materials, especially if they are relevant to your major, use the supplement or look for an invitation to send additional work.
If there isn’t one, you’ll want to leave it out.
It’s vital to use as much of the maximum word count as possible.
Don’t title the essay, though.
That’s a waste of words that could be used to say something more.
Essays don’t need a title, so just get right into the story.
Avoid writing an essay that’s too chronological.
The admissions counselor wants to get to know the student, not read a series of events.
Also, the student shouldn’t include too much dialogue or too broad a scope on their life.
It’s better to focus closely on a single event and how it affected them.
If your student would like assistance moving step-by-step through the essay process, look into using our College Essay Helper.
We offer several options to help your student navigate this important and challenging aspect of the admissions process.
Don’t Be Afraid of Humor and Fun!
If your student is a fun, playful person, they should let that shine in the essay!
Showing a sense of humor isn’t a problem unless it overshadows the point of the essay.
(No two-sentence essays!)
Life isn’t all about the events that shake us to our core– in fact, those events are few and far between.
If your student wants to write a momentous, heavy essay, point them in another direction.
A light slice-of-life that reveals their true personality will make more of a positive impact.
Consider things like an important memory, a treasured family tradition, or a key part of the student’s culture.
Remember, college admissions counselors read hundreds of these applications and essays a day, and thousands in one admissions cycle.
There’s only one person in the whole world like your student, though.
Make sure that shows in the main college essay!
Finding the Right College Is a Journey
As your student works on their essay, you may be thinking, “How do we know what schools to apply for – that we can afford?”
We’re here to help.
If you’re still reviewing schools, find out which ones are best for your family with our College Insights tool today
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