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Your College Admissions Essay

By Austin Webb
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #72, 2006.

How to write a college application essay that will make you stand out and make a good impression.
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Austin Webb

It's been a long, long day. A lone admissions officer is slumped over his desk, surveying a towering stack of applications with bloodshot eyes. He pulls your application from the stack and starts to read your essays... The scenario above can have greatly different outcomes depending on how you filled in the white space. For admissions officers, essays are probably the most memorable part of the application. They are the best and most controllable channel for your talking points, which we discussed in last issue's column.

Colleges ask you to write essays in order to give the admissions officers a better idea of who you are, as well as to assess your writing abilities. Upgrading your writing ability rapidly is hard to do, so let's talk about how to write your essays so as to best present yourself. This is accomplished by:

  • Picking essay topics wisely
  • Writing essays that give an accurate, intriguing picture of your talking points
  • Polishing these essays into an effective final product

The essay writing process can be viewed as a sequence that alternates thinking, working, and revising, starting out at the most general level and moving gradually to specifics.

As in all phases of the application process, honesty is paramount. Though it is important to have assistance brainstorming and editing, do not have anyone write your essays for you. The admissions officers frequently compare writing assessment scores with the essays, so someone who is a poor writer and cheats on the essay will probably get caught and be rejected.

What Your Essay Should Do

Since the main goal of your essay is to communicate relevant information about you, your essays should generally stay as personal as possible. Additionally, since you are limited on space, you should avoid listing your accomplishments. These things will appear on your transcript and in other parts of the application. The essay should communicate depth and context, not resume factoids.

When possible, the essays need to illustrate growth, background, motivation, and your contribution to society.

A good essay will generally deal with a single incident or a small part of your experience. Don't try to cram everything in. This is your opportunity to be creative and show the unique things that set you apart from the rest of the applicants. This means that you need to keep the focus on you, not on another person or on an accomplishment itself. With this in mind, you're ready to pick your essay topics.

Your Topics

Some colleges will give you a range of choices with respect to essay questions. You need to be sure that all important main ideas come across somewhere in the application, in the short answers, in the recommendations, or in the essays. However, it is critical that you pick a question that will allow you to write an essay that is personal, while at the same time providing a framework for the activity lists and numbers found in other parts of the application.

Writing Materials

You should try to get illustrations and points for your essays from your marketing plan/talking points, but these things might not be specific enough. If so, go back to the experiences that first inspired your talking points. When possible, reread your journals or look through photo albums. Find anecdotes and ideas to flesh out and back up the point you are trying to illustrate in the essay.


Beginning the writing process without careful planning can result in wasted effort and disjointed work. Use your ideas to outline the essay, maybe writing out important parts. Make sure the structure is tight and logical, that it "flows" and fits with your marketing plan and the rest of the application (including other essays, if any).

Don't expect this to come together quickly. In my own experience, it can take days or weeks.

Rough Drafts

Working from your outlines, write out a rough draft. Don't be concerned about perfection or spelling at this point; just get the ideas down in a decently logical and structured fashion. Keep in mind that you might not stick exactly with your original outline. Writing projects tend to take on a life of their own. However, be sure to keep the essay within what is needed for your marketing plan. Once you have a rough draft, take a break, a few days even, before looking at it again.

Successive Drafts

The rough draft will require editing and rewriting-lots of it. Initial editing and revisions should be concerned with overall structure and making sure the requirements of your marketing plan are being met. As the structure becomes more refined, revisions need to focus on the dirty details: spelling, grammar, punctuation, and word choice.

Through it all, make sure you are answering the question. It is possible to write a great essay that doesn't answer the question posed by the application. This shows admissions officials that you are unable to follow directions.

Though you don't want too many editors (as with cooks and soup, too many spoil it), it is good to have a person whose insight and writing ability you respect look over and comment on the essay in its various stages. Parents are often useful here, but you should also try to get the opinion of someone further removed.

When Less Is More

A good piece of writing can serve you in many capacities. While one must be careful reusing your essays, doing so can save you a lot of effort if you do it intelligently.

If your marketing strategy is different for two colleges, be careful of using an essay written for one college when applying to the other.

In my case, I wrote the essays for my top choices first, taking lots of time and care with them. Since my marketing plan didn't change greatly from school to school, I was able to reuse a few key essays (entirely or in part) for many different college and scholarship essays as well as use sections for short answer questions.

One advantage of this is that you can rely on writing that is carefully vetted and that you know to be good.

Write from Your Heart

The essay is where the admissions committee really gets to know you. Keep this in mind throughout the writing process. I highly recommend George Ehrenhaft's book Writing a Successful College Application Essay. In it he states, "Present your reader with a little something to remember you by, a gift -an idea to think about, a line to chuckle over, a memorable phrase or quotation... Send your readers off feeling good or laughing, weeping, angry, thoughtful, or thankful, but above all, glad that they stayed with your essay to the end."

His advice is sound. If you write from your heart, you just might reach theirs.

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