About an Essay

Summer is the ideal time for students to begin drafting college essays, yet this is a task they often put off until the last minute.  Why? 

  • "I've never done ANYTHING."

Students are convinced they've done nothing impressive enough to write about.  First of all, we’re here to tell you that EVERYONE has something to write about.  The key is not to think the topic has to be about some monumental experience--college admissions officers know that few high school students have won a Pulitzer Prize.  In fact, it's often a small, seemingly insignificant moment that leads to a first class essay.

The fact is, we humans have many experiences in common, so students shouldn't waste their time searching for a topic that nobody's ever written about before. The key is to write about an experience, however commonplace, from YOUR POINT OF VIEW.  How did this experience make a unique impact on you?  How did it help shape you?  What does it tell the reader about your values and character?
Once students know that their essays don’t have to be about climbing Mount Everest, they’re more willing to dive in.


  • If I ignore it, maybe it will just go away.

Some find the whole college application process so stressful that they avoid the essay until the deadlines are around the corner.  This is completely understandable, but only works against a person who is experiencing stress.  Knocking off one of the largest pieces of the application process early can only help to make the process run more smoothly.  That’s why we encourage our students to get started on the essays before senior year begins and the application season is in full swing.  


  • Most 17 year-olds love writing about personal stuff.  NOT. 


If you want to stand out to college admissions folks, you have to have your own point of view.  The only way to exhibit that point of view is to get personal.   We often have students do a lot of free writing on topics to loosen up and allow thoughts to emerge.

  • Writing is hard.


Many students have been challenged by the writing they've done in school, so feel daunted by the task.  Beyond that, this is a different kind of writing.  It’s not the traditional five paragraph persuasive essay kids have been writing since the advent of the fountain pen.  In the personal statement students are telling a story, inviting readers into some aspect of their lives, and explaining what the story means to them and their future.  It can actually be fun!


How to get started on the essay process:


  1. Know what you have to write – review the prompts for the UCs, Common App, and supplements for each school on your list. Create a spreadsheet by college. Look for overlap so that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

  2. Understand the different approaches required by the Common App personal statement, the UC Personal Insight questions, and supplements.

    -The Common App Personal Statement is not a typical English class essay.  It’s a story the writer tells in order to convey his values and the kind of person he is.  Listing accomplishments in this essay is a waste of space because those items are listed elsewhere on the application.

    -The Personal Insight questions for the UCs are briefer essays that can include a personal statement tone, but they should also provide concrete examples of what the writer is saying.  Example:  If photography is your path to creativity, tell us what you love about photography and then tell us when and where you take pictures and if any have been published.

    -Supplements are required by many schools that use the Common App.  These can range from “Why our school?” to “Have you had any experience with diversity?”  Sometimes a school may call these essays “optional"--to us, that means required.  Your answers should reflect a deep level of research showing the reader you’ve thought carefully about your answers.

    -Many schools, including the UCs, offer a section for “other information.”  This is a spot where students can write about special circumstances that may have affected their performance/results during high school.  Here’s a place to talk about financial hardship, illness or loss to help admissions readers understand any glitches on transcripts.


  3. Prospect for ideas in any way you feel comfortable.  Use brainstorming exercises, talk to friends and family, review other writing you've done and begin to put together possibilities. 

  4. Free-write before you draft. Just write and let the ideas flow. We believe that free-writing will yield nuggets that will be the basis of well-crafted essays.

  5. Write, then write again, and then again. No one we’ve ever met gets this right the first time...or second, or third. Rewriting is the key to making an essay sing and stand out among the hundreds to thousands of others being read.

  6. Finally, finish early and enjoy the feeling of not having your back against the wall the night before applications are due.


Click here for some examples of essays that worked.  And let us know if we can help.