College Essays from a Student’s Point of View

This month’s blog is by guest blogger, Marcus Cruz. Marcus and I worked together on his college and scholarship essays during the 2021/22 application cycle. Marcus’s final essays were absolutely amazing. I still remember the detail of each essay and the mastery of his writing voice in those pieces a year later. In this blog, Marcus talks about college application essay writing from the student’s point of view. Marcus is now attending his dream school in New York. I can’t wait to see all the great things he does in college and beyond!


As you enter the essay writing portion of your college application journey, be extremely thankful for your English teachers over the years. The skills they taught you in fluency, incorporation of information, and collective thoroughness will be incredible foundations for college essays. Be warned, there are many differences with major impacts between your college admissions essays and your high school essays. Your college essay and supplemental essays require you to fully develop, express, and conclude a personal subject. It is not academic commentary in the way you are used to writing. College essays serve as an elevator pitch of yourself, while also sharing what you value as true and aspirational. It’s the “I want” song in the movie that makes you root and sympathize with the character. It lives in its own category between creative writing and academic writing.

It took me a lot of time and many drafts before I was able to press the submit button on my college applications. I spent about an hour during my school day and two hours once I got home every day for about 2 months. In the end, I worked through roughly 10 drafts for each essay in my application packages. I would get stumped on sections, knowing if I just changed one word it would work, but I did not know what word would fit best. However, I did come out of the process with essays that left me feeling proud and that I still use for other things.

I started my process the summer before my senior year. I sat against a wall with my journal and a pen. I had taken a look at the prompts in the Common App to have a sense of what I needed to brainstorm.

I had learned an exercise in a playwriting masterclass and thought it would be a good starting point. You start the exercise writing a list of words. I grabbed some words directly from the prompts including, “identity, incomplete, fundamental, failure, reflect, and realization.” Rather dramatic and vague words, but that’s what you want for this exercise!  For the other words I used, I asked my family for words they would use to describe me. Then, I thought of words to describe my life. Finally, I wrote down some of my hobbies and interests. I cut them into little strips, crumpled them up, and put them into a jar. If you’re struggling to come up with words, use a random word generator like this one.

All that was left to do was to reach into my jar and draw out a word. The next part of the exercise was to free writing for a minute straight about the topic I picked out of the jar. The rules of this exercise say that you are not allowed to take the pencil off the paper. I had no pages left in my journal by the end of the my free writing. At first, it is hard to let the thoughts flow, but after a while, the thoughts came faster than my hand could write. Then, it was not long till, “RING!” the alarm cut me off in mid-thought. I revisited this exercise later in my application process when I did not know how to approach a supplemental prompt or how to flow into my next topic.

If writing is not fun for you, you do not need to complete this exercise in one sitting. You can also use it as a game with a friend at a coffee shop. Or, you can do it in the mornings to get your brain juices flowing before school.

Just make sure to start these pre-writing exercises early in the process to give yourself enough time to complete the experience and still have plenty of time to perfect your essay.

One thing that I was not expecting, and therefore was not prepared for, was the amount of introspective analyzing I had to do. I am going to be honest; I did cry a couple times during this process. Sometimes in frustration and other times in the catharsis I experienced from getting some feelings out. That does not have to be part of your process, but let this be a warning, you will have to look deep into yourself to respond to these prompts.

I sometimes used the exercise I mentioned above to get myself into the writing mindset before a session. Since the exercise requires you to keep writing no matter what, you inevitably write about yourself and your life. A memory comes back to you, and you giggle as you write. When I was stuck in the writing process, sometimes I looked back at my free writing to see if there was a hidden gem I could use in an essay.

I also looked up journaling prompts when I got stuck to help me get in touch with myself.

It is to your benefit to pour yourself into your essays, because it will give a heartbeat to your application package. Hit the admissions officers right in the pathos! This allows them to connect with you on an emotional and human level, seeing the person behind the black and white text who is more than a GPA and test scores. Doing that digging will also allow you to have more to write about. As you condense, you will end with an incredible, impactful, and rather impressive way of stating your thesis or the answer to the haunting question you will face in every application for schools and scholarships, “why?”

As an artist, I really appreciated having Dr. Jen to give me positive affirmations, suggestions, edits, and approval. It’s difficult to know when you’re at a good spot or where you could do some more. Sometimes my “too much” gene kicked in, and Dr. Jen had to reel me back to shore. She was an incredible resource, having the expertise to give suggestions on how I could incorporate everything I wanted and needed into a cohesive thought. I was fortunate to have Dr. Jen as I worked through all my college essays.

Despite its academic frame, college essays are like a piece of art. You will forever tweak, layer, and rotate. In the end, it will be a masterpiece that you feel proud to submit. Remember to be patient and honest with yourself. You will conquer this process!

Best wishes,
Marcus Cruz