Expert Advice to Get You Started on Your College Application Essays

hands writing and on keyboard representing starting your college application essayIf you haven’t started your college application essays yet, it’s time to stop procrastinating and get to work. Why? Because even though the college application essay would seem to fall under academic tasks you have already mastered in high school, it is an essay after all, the reality is that it’s not. By that I mean it’s not an academic task.

The college application essay has nothing to do with your ability to craft an essay to demonstrate to a teacher your analytical abilities in literature or history. It has everything to do with figuring out who you are and how to show it to the people reading your application. Now which high school class covered self-discovery?

Your college essay needs to be about you

One way to think about your college application essay is that your application in general shows what and how many hoops you’ve jump through, your essay is your chance to explain why. The reality is that most successful high school students jump through the same hoops.

Ethan Sawyer, also known as the College Essay Guy and author of College Essay Essentials: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Successful College Admissions Essay, points out that “Writing an essay about volunteering at a hospital, for example, or playing an instrument can be incredibly difficult to pull off, as the student is essentially putting him/herself in a category with thousands of other students who have done these things.” Your why needs to be different from everyone else’s.

This is why the founder of Essay Hell and author of  Escape Essay Hell!: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Narrative College Application Essay, Janine Robinson, suggests that a student should see “if your essay could only have been written by you as a litmus test to its effectiveness at helping you stand out from other applicants.” You do this by being specific.

Debbie Merion, of Essay Coaching and author of Solving the College Admissions Puzzle, gives the example, “a student will say, ‘I’m a hard worker.’  To that I say, ‘Sally, I worked really hard last weekend.  Do you know what I did?  Did I run a marathon or read an encyclopedia or dig a ditch?’ Sally will reply, ‘I don’t know.’  The point is to be specific!”

It’s not that the process of writing will take weeks. Rather, it’s that students need the time to adjust their mindset to dig deeper into what’s important to them, what makes them tick. This is the exact opposite of jumping through hoops. It’s a process of self-exploration. So of course students are likely to put it off, after all it’s not something adults are generally eager to do either. But it’s definitely learning a new skill that’s going to take more time than simply watching a YouTube how-to video.

You need to revise your essay multiple times

Now we’re getting into the need for actual time because you need to revise your college essay multiple times. Of course, most high school students will probably have had to revise an essay or two in high school, but nothing like this. The fewest number of revisions any expert offered came from Dotti LaVoy of College Connections in Illinois, “This often takes 3 writings…but boy are they usually pleased with the end result after the initial struggle. The final draft sure looks different from the first and the depth and scope of the essay is much more powerful.”

Jill Shulman, of In Other Words, states that she has never seen a truly outstanding essay that went through less than four drafts. Ethan Sawyer finds that the actual number of drafts can vary anywhere from four to ten but that “most of the example essays in my book represent more than 10 hours spent writing and revising.”

The reason for this need for multiple revisions goes back to the focus of the essay. Betsy Heafitz of Smart College Match summarizes the situation, “It takes a while for them to understand what they need to be writing about and they spend a lot of time writing about everything BUT themselves.”

You need to find the right people to review it

Of course, all of these experts are available to help with the college essay. But they recognize the need for other options and have suggestions. All believe students need to get another set of eyes for grammar and spelling, English teachers are a favorite suggestion.  However, beyond the technical aspects, students need to find someone who, according to Ethan Sawyer, “Understands how to create a safe space where a student feels free to open up about anything (yes, actually anything).”

Janine Robinson believes this can be parents “as long as they do their own homework to understand what makes a great essay—and know when to help and when to back off.” Sometimes parents don’t have to say anything. Debbie Merion suggests that just by reading an essay aloud can be helpful and all this requires is for a parent to listen and just say “thank you” at the end.

The key is that editors provide feedback, and not rewrite the essay for the students. Jill Shulman states that

Any reader who “reviews” and provides feedback to the writer about what’s working, what’s not working, and why, can help inform students’ revisions. Anyone who can’t resist making sweeping “edits” to a student’s essay can sabotage the very person they’re trying to help when they stiffen the genuine, heartfelt writing and alter the student’s unique voice.

It’s a fine line. Some parents will be able to facilitate without taking over while others won’t. Hopefully, as the adults in the picture, they’ll know when to suggest someone else for the role.

So what are you waiting for?

Yes, there is so much more to cover about writing your college application essay. But the following takeaways should be enough to get you going:

  1. Whatever the topic, it’s about you.
  2. Revise, revise, and revise some more.
  3. Find someone you trust to provide feedback.

Waiting isn’t going to make it any easier.


I didn’t have room for everything the experts shared with me in the article so I’m including my favorite comment from each below.

Janine Robinson
Essay Hell
Escape Essay Hell!: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Narrative College Application Essay
I like this because it emphasized this is a new experience for the student.
A lot has to do with how determined the student is to teach themselves about what makes a great college application essay, and then get a plan to write their own and sit down write it out
Be sure to check out Janine’s post on How to Manage “Helpful” Parents.

Debbie Merion
Essay Coaching
Solving the College Admissions Puzzle
I think this is a great way to provide students feedback.
We play a game where they share what they wanted a reader to learn about them, and I reveal what I did learn about them.  Then we compare our lists and talk about how to edit to strengthen the essay. Students learn how to strengthen their essay.  Hopefully, they also learn writing skills to use in college and beyond.

Ethan Sawyer
The College Essay Guy
College Essay Essentials: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Successful College Admissions Essay
This is one way to separate your hoop jumping from everyone else’s.
Writing an essay about volunteering at a hospital, for example, or playing an instrument can be incredibly difficult to pull off, as the student is essentially putting him/herself in a category with thousands of other students who have done these things. The key, then, is to brainstorm what the cliché version of their essay might sound like—what values, in other words, might the typical essay on this topic choose to focus on? To do that, I have my students look at this list of values and pick the cliché ones for their topic. Then I have them agree to not use those values in their essay and to instead focus on finding several uncommon values.

Jill Shulman
In Other Words
I take this as more advice for potential reviewers.
Students should feel empowered to write what they want to say, instead of writing what they think admissions readers want to hear.
 
Betsy Heafitz
Smart College Match
This seems to me a sure sign of treating it like any other academic essay.
A common mistake …being overly concerned with the word count in the early part of the process usually its at the end that the essay really gets going, but they spend too much time counting words, vs letting it flow to get to the true nugget

Dotti Lavoy
College Connections
Another sign that process is about self-discovery.
Students also sell themselves short on what they have accomplished in their years. They often do not see the significance or value in many of their interests or activities. When I point out how that activity aligns to their personal interest or area of concentration at college, they are usually surprised…the easiest relationships sometimes escapes them.

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The college application essay has nothing to do with your ability to craft an essay to demonstrate to a teacher your analytical abilities in literature or history.
  1. […] You may have heard the expression “Show, don’t tell.” Students sometimes “tell” (“I’m a hard worker”) rather than “show” (“I work 20 hours a week at Krogers as a bagger to save money for college”) because it takes fewer words to tell. But what’s wrong with saying “I’m a hard worker” when colleges clearly want hard workers? I always ask students that question. They’ll answer in many ways, all correct: “Anyone can say that.” Or “That’s not unique.” Or “It doesn’t show what you can do.” Right!  Read more about saying “I’m a hard worker” in  Expert Advice to Get You Started on Your College Application Essays. […]

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