Navigating Your Child's Education: Grades 9-12

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Three Do's and Four Don'ts of Writing a College Admissions Essay

Feb 18, 2021 8:00 PM

The landscape of college admissions has changed significantly since 2020. Perhaps the biggest change to college admissions policy has been that many colleges and universities have made standardized tests (the ACT and SAT) optional rather than a requirement. Long hailed as the chief benchmark of college admissions, optional test score submission deeply affects the entire process.

Institutions are now relying on other factors to get a better idea of a student's capability or potential. Though letters of recommendation and essays have been a part of the college admissions process for quite some time, one can argue that they are more important than ever now that test scores are optional. While some high school students may be relieved to know that their college career doesn't hinge on a test score, some may find writing the admissions essays to be just as difficult.

I spend a lot of time working with high school juniors on developing their writing skills, and I teach a class specifically on essay-writing as an elective for students who want to improve in this area. The college essay-writing process can be overwhelming, but it also offers potential colleges a front-row seat and glimpse of who a student is. Here are some thoughts that students and parents should consider as you venture into college essay writing:

The Do NOTs

Do not approach the college essay as a piece of academic writing.

Writing an essay for college admissions is not like writing an academic, five-paragraph essay. This is a particular difficult thought for students to understand. Many high school English classes emphasize the structure and style of a five-paragraph essay, and certainly that's an important writing style--but not for the college essay. In an academic-style five-paragraph essay, students are taught to not use their personal voice in writing and to hold to a very specific writing structure.

The college essay is vastly different, almost like creative writing. A student ought to use the college essay to show their personality, who they are, and what is special about them. Any student who tries to write a college admissions essay as an academic essay will lose their voice in the midst of it, and miss out on the opportunity to showcase their uniqueness.

Do not expect to write an essay in one sitting. 

With all of the school work and extracurricular responsibilities that high school juniors and seniors carry, it's easy to let writing college essays lay by the wayside until the final hour. Waiting until the last minute to complete a college essay typically leads to panic and poor writing.

The reality is that a strong college essay takes time and thought, and it will not be completed in one sitting. Pacing yourself for this process ensures a better finished product. As I mentioned, first take time to read prompts and brainstorm potential ideas. Then, write several sentences in response to multiple prompts. Read each one over and carefully consider which one may be more interesting. Write a full essay. Read it over and think about it over time. Edit. Edit. Edit.

Do not neglect brainstorming.

Brainstorming--taking time to generate lots of ideas--is not just an English classroom exercise. It's an indispensable step in the college essay writing process. I have my students read essay prompts and think purposefully to come up with a host of possible things about themselves that they could write about that fit each prompt. I even have my students write five or six sentences to start several prompts, just to get a feel for different topics and have options to choose which is most interesting.

Upper School Boy

The Do's

Tell the story that grades and test scores can't.

Admissions counselors will be able to see your transcripts, complete with courses you've taken, grades you've earned, and even a list of extracurricular involvements. The essay offers a chance for students to show something of their character, development as a person, a life-changing experience, or a part of you that can't be quantify or readily seen through a resume or transcript.

If you have a funny personality, be humorous in your writing. If you have a sensitive, contemplative disposition, demonstrate that through your words and reflection.

Make it a story that is unique to you.

It is crucial for students to offer a wholly unique perspective or experience in a college essay--something that demonstrates who you are as an individual. Hundreds of higher education institutions accept the "Common App," which basically mainstreams the college admissions essay. Each year, the Common App has a short list of essay prompts from which students can choose, such as recount a time when you faced a challenge, describe an accomplishment, or share an essay on any topic of your choice. These are intentionally somewhat broad and open-ended--allowing plenty of creative space for self-expression. Take advantage of this opportunity!

College admissions counselor will read thousands and thousands of essays on someone scoring the winning shot in a game or landing the lead role in the school play--such stories are not attention-grabbing unless they are told from a unique perspective.

One thing that I encourage my students to do when trying to express their unique perspective is to "zoom in" on a particular experience they've had. Perhaps they do want to write about an unforgettable game they played in or encounter they had, but by zooming in on a 30-second window of that particular experience--they might be able to look at it differently and offer that crucial unique perspective.

Consider the school for which you're writing the essay.

Maintaining your sense of identity and voice in a college essay will certainly grab the readers' attention, but it is also worth considering the school to which you are writing a particular essay. Since many schools accept the above-mentioned common app, it is possible for students to write just one essay to submit to all of their schools of interest via this platform. But I recommend that students at least consider writing more than one essay depending on the types of schools to which they are applying. 

Factors to consider may include the size and context of the school (large, small, rural, urban), the type of school (liberal arts, religiously-affiliated, etc.), and the culture of the school (highly research-driven, experience-based, etc.). It's important to maintain your individual voice, but it will serve you well to also consider your audience (i.e. the school).

Include others in the process.

Trusted friends, family, and teachers should not be disregarded in the college essay process. People that truly know you and care about you can provide feedback and offer insight through every stage of the writing process. Brainstorming together, sharing samples of your writing introductions, seeking input on which writing topics are most interesting and unique, allowing others to read your full essay(s) to determine whether or not an essay expresses who you are--this feedback can prove invaluable.

[To learn more about the changing landscape of college admissions, make sure to check out the podcast episode "The Changing Landscape of College Admissions" on "Navigating Your Child's Education: Podcast for Parents."]

Christina Hoverman
Written by Christina Hoverman

Christina holds degrees in English and Secondary Education from The Ohio State University. She also has five years of teaching experience, and currently serves as the 11th grade English teacher at Worthington Christian School. She and her husband Trent have two school-aged children and are avid football fans. She enjoys sharing her love of reading and writing with high school students.