Set Yourself Up for College Essay Success

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?

Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.

Interview: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?

Hemingway: Getting the words right.

-Ernest Hemingway, The Paris Review Interview, 1956

Writing the college essay is one of the most difficult essays you have probably been called upon to write in your high school career. There is that quest to have a perfect essay which causes panic that can turn into a very nasty case of writer’s block. It’s so easy to procrastinate getting started in order to try to avoid the task, but don’t! Getting started on your essay early and allowing yourself plenty of time to write, rest the work, and revise will help you produce an essay that will make you proud. It also allows you time to get suggestions on your writing from others – your parents, a favorite English teacher or your college advisor. Great writers spend at least as much time revising and editing their work as they do in the process of writing, and so should you. Here are some tips to get you off on a great start to a fantastic college essay.

You should spend some time reading and thinking about each of the seven prompts for the Common Application. It’s not enough to just read them, you need to tear them apart and think about what they are really asking. Take for instance this prompt from the 2021-22 Common Application:

Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

To really analyze this question, first break it up into the three sentences that make up the question. So, the first sentence is “Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time.” This sentence is giving you a direct command – to describe something to your reader that intrigues you. A good place to start with the essay would be to brainstorm a list of things you are really interested in. Open up your computer to a new document, paste the essay prompt at the top, set a timer for three to five minutes, and write down every topic you can think of that catches and holds your attention.

Once you have this list, then look at the next two questions in the prompt, “Why does it captivate you?” and “What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?” For each topic you generated in your brainstorming exercise, jot down some notes on how you might answer these questions. You will start to see the topics that have the most fodder for an essay and those that would be difficult to come up with 650 words to describe them. This will allow you to narrow down your ideas to the top 2-3.

You can repeat this process with each prompt that looks interesting to you to help you decide which essay concept you should pursue. You might even take your ideas to a trusted mentor or advisor to get their feedback on the direction you are heading. We love working with students through this process at Bell & Arch Consulting!

Once you have picked your very best concept, it’s time to start writing. You already have a general idea where your essay is heading from your brainstorming and analysis work, but now it’s time to really let your creative juices flow. At this point, create a brief and informal outline of the ideas you want to include to serve as your guide as you craft your essay. Just a bulleted list of ideas that you can organize into a logical flow will work as an outline.

Let me fill you in on a rookie mistake. Many students want to write to the word limit and become so consumed with counting words that they don’t do a good job with the writing. Do not be concerned about word count as you write your first drafts! It is better to have too much written and carefully edit it to keep the very best than to constantly be juggling sentences as you draft your essay to reach the magical 650-word limit.

The very best college essays take the reader into a story about you that makes the admissions officers understand you as the unique and interesting person that you are. The college admissions officers who read your essay are pulling for you. They want you to show them a part of you that doesn’t come through in your list of extracurriculars or test scores and GPA. They want to see what makes you tick, your zest for life and learning, and your vulnerabilities.

When I taught freshman college English classes, I would always tell my students their essays should answer this question – “So what?” If you write something and ask yourself “so what?” and don’t have a good reply to the question, it is time for you to go back with a massive rewrite and add to your story of you. The readers need to hear loud and clear that this essay is revealing some very important information about the person who wants to attend their college. The essay is your chance to show that unique side of you as if you are there in the room talking straight to the admissions officers about why you are perfect for their school!

Happy Writing!