College Essays

Below, you'll find my College Essay advice, the prompts from the Common App website, and a sample essay.

Almost every college application essay question is really an excuse for you to write about yourself.  Even if you're asked to write about a person who influenced or inspired you, or an event/experience that changed you, you should be the focus of the essay.

Spend most of your essay describing how you are a better, stronger, wiser person now (include lots of details and examples) because of this person/event.  In fact, about 75% of the essay should describe you:  your actions, your thoughts, and your feelings.

Whatever assertions or claims you make about yourself, back them up with DETAILS, SPECIFIC DESCRIPTIONS, EXAMPLES, and ANECDOTES.  The essay is not a resume, not a list, but rather a focused narrative, a story about how you've become the person you are today.

Be yourself.  Be honest.  Write about something in your life/experience you truly care about. There's no substitute for passion.

The Admissions Committee wants proof that you can reflect on your life and experiences.  They want students who understand themselves deeply, people who know who they are, why they are who they are, and how they got that way.  A certain amount of self-analysis is necessary.

Try to provide information about yourself that you have not included in any other part of your application.  Don't repeat information that is already part of the application.

Don't discuss negative aspects of your life unless you can show how you've overcome obstacles, solved your problems, or changed your life for the better.

Don't swear.

Humor is risky.  If you can't make your friends laugh, you won't be able to make total strangers laugh.  And besides, not everyone laughs at the same jokes.

Your essay should be unmistakably yours! No one should read your essay and think that any other high school senior across the country could have written this. You are you, and no one else! Write an essay that you, and only you, could have written.

If you're given a length requirement, stick to it.  If the application asks for 500 words, that's what you should provide.  If there is no stated length requirement or limit, then write two full pages, no more, no less.

Have lots of people read your essay: the more feedback, the better.  I will not require you to turn in a revised College Essay for class, but I will give up a class-period so that you can read each other’s essays. Your Advisor will also read your essay. Ms V-B may also be willing to read it. If, beyond all this, you still want my feedback, you will have to follow my directions below. (Later in the year, I will also read your scholarship essays if you give them to me well in advance of the deadlines.)

PROOFREAD, PROOFREAD again, and PROOFREAD yet some more! Don't ruin your chances by making careless errors.

The application essay is a covert writing test:  put all your writing skills to use.  Be clear, direct, focused, and specific.  Excessively flowery or convoluted prose is out of place here: don't sacrifice clarity to creativity.  If you're creative, but no one on the Admissions Committee can figure out what you're saying, you're done for.

Don't use a thesaurus.  Don't try to use words you're not familiar with.  You've had nearly two decades to develop your vocabulary:  last minute cramming won't help.  (If you try to sound more sophisticated than you truly are, it'll show and work against you.)

Don't try to write one essay for all the schools you apply to, unless the essay requirements are exactly the same for all of them.

If you ask any adult to read your College/Scholarship application essay, use this heading:
            Your name & mailbox #
            Name of college/scholarship
            Length requirement (put “none” if none) & word count
            Application deadline

NOTE:  In most cases, the essay should be two full pages, no more, no less, and it should be typed and double-spaced in a standard academic font in a standard size.  If the application question is an unusual one, please include it at the beginning of your essay, but don't include it in your word-count. 

Don’t write a draft like this:   

Here’s my story of an experience or person that changed me.
My story is full of great descriptions, pretty details, and clever
phrases (but actually, I’ve used lots of unnecessary phrases, 
wordy sentences, vague generalities, generic bits of pseudo-
wisdom, and I haven’t really said all that much…).  And I
think it proves that now I am a great person (but, in fact, I’ve 
provided no proof, no anecdotes, and no examples!). 

Instead, please (please!) write an essay that follows this pattern: 

Here’s my story of an experience or person that changed me; it’s full of great descriptions, pretty details, clever phrases.  I am now a great person, and here are three examples to prove it: (MIDPOINT OF ESSAY) my ACADEMIC EXAMPLE makes the Admissions Officer want a brilliant student like me at his/her school; my heart-warming SOCIAL-LIFE EXAMPLE makes
the Admissions Officer weep and wish I could be his/her child's best friend; my EXTRA-CURRICULAR ANECDOTE proves that I am now the reader’s hero.    

I will not read any essay that doesn’t follow the suggested pattern above unless it is as compelling and brilliant as Ian Peters’ essay (see the text below). If I get to the mid-point of your essay and you are still telling your back-story, I will put it back in your mailbox unread.
Here are the prompts from the Common App Website (and here's a really good article with practical advice for responding to some of these prompts): 

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. 

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? 

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? 

4. Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution. 

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. 

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? 

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. 
Essay by Ian Peters (2014):

Ian Peters, #51
QuestBridge National College Match
800-word limit; 782 words
Due 9/27/13

Prompt: We are interested in learning more about you and the context in which you have grown up, formed your aspirations and accomplished your academic successes. Please describe the factors and challenges that have most shaped your personal life and aspirations. How have these factors caused you to grow? 

                  The single most influential person in my life is someone I have only seen twice in the past year: my father. He has given me more than any other single person on this planet. He gave me the desire to do better. He gave me the focus and the hunger to be intellectually curious. He gave me these things because he never had them.
          My father has been in and out of prison since April 29th, 2011. He gave me an understanding of adult life at far too young an age, and he left me with trust issues. He gave me the only prominent memory from my elementary school years: waking up at 2:00 AM to go find him when he went missing. He gave me loneliness during the two years of elementary school my parents were separated. He gave me a love for tossing the Frisbee around in the backyard during the years he was here. He gave me a longing nostalgia for it once he got arrested.
            He robbed eight houses. He took things from others in an effort to give things to me. We’ve always been poor. We could tell when it was his gambling addiction speaking for him. His addiction claimed that he would give me money for college, but he just gave me a sense of worry and distrust. He gave me the worst day of my life, and he gave me a hatred for the media that knocked on our door for the next week. He gave me an understanding of those with mental disorders whenever his bipolar acted up.
            The house was torn apart by the police search when I got home. He gave me a trust in my friends, and he gave me the confidence to stay with one that night, because he gave me too much fear to sleep in my own bed. He gave me resentment. He gave me apathy, at least for a time. He gave me a chance for healing, and I took it. He gave me opportunities.
            His brother bailed him out in August of 2011. My father gave me momentary hope. He got a job as a cabbie, and he gave us some extra money. We were still behind on all of our bills, but he gave us some peace of mind.
            I had surgery on April 11th, 2012. He gave me that last goodbye before we drove to Minneapolis for the operation. My mom called home on our way back the next day, and the cop answered the phone. They had searched the place again. There was a ninth charge now. He gave me the new worst day of my life.
            He gave me independence that day. He gave me the ability to make my way in the world as an adult. He gave me an opportunity to teach others about my story. He gave me the desire to speak up.
            He gave me the need to escape from my daily life, and acting became that escape. He gave me one of the best feelings of my life every time I took that final bow. He gave me the wish that he could see me on that stage, but he gave me the assurance that he was proud. For all the lies he’s fed me, I believe him.
            He gave me a distrust of those in my family who saw him as the enemy. He gave me a distrust of Minnesota’s justice system, specifically when it wouldn’t allow him his bipolar medication. He gave me Axe deodorant for Christmas because that’s the only thing the prison allowed him to buy and send to me this year. He gave me a laugh when he called and said his prison nickname was Cornbread.
            He gave me the motivation to do better than he did. He gave me the determination to raise my children better than he did. He gave me the desire to never hurt someone who loved me, because he showed me the destruction it causes.
            He gave me advice about girls over the phone, and he gave me letters written from behind bars. He gave me a $50 check he earned doing manual labor in prison to take my mom out on Mother’s Day. He gave me hope. He gave me everything he possibly could, even if it was not in the most conventional method. He never gave me a scar. He never gave me a bruise. For every opportunity he took away, he gave me a new one. He did the best he could. He only ever gave me love.
            He gets out June 15th, 2015. I can’t wait to give him the thanks he deserves.
As you work on your college/scholarship application essays, you will come up against length requirements that test your writing skills in challenging but healthy ways. What do you do when your essay is 773 words but you're only allowed 650 words? Well, you don't come to me and ask me to cut 73 words from your essay!  You grab a pencil, you sit down with your essay, and you go over that sucker word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, cutting ruthlessly.  

The English language is fabulous! It offers you countless ways of saying what you need to say. Consider your multitudinous options and rewrite as much of the essay as necessary to meet the guidelines. Think of this task as a game or puzzle in which you are charged $1.00 per word. You don't want to spend more than $650 on this essay!  

To get some idea of how to do this, read the following passage from Strunk and White’s classic guide for writers, The Elements of Style

Vigorous writing is concise.  A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.  This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell (William Strunk, Jr, 63 words).

Now, read my revision: 

Vigorous writing is concise.  Good sentences and paragraphs include only necessary words and sentences; likewise, good drawings and machines incorporate only necessary lines and parts.  Sentences needn’t be short or abstract, but every word must tell (Dr N’s revision, 36 words).

Now, take your college essay draft and revise it to fit the length requirement.