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Writing the College Essay

Many students feel overwhelmed by the task of writing a personal essay for college applications. But this essay is their opportunity to reveal their best qualities and to show an admissions committee what makes them stand out from other applicants. 

How Important is the Essay?

A recent report published by the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC) found that while grades, admission tests, and class rank remain the top factors in the college admission decision, a majority of colleges and universities consider the essay to be a key factor in determining which academically qualified students they would choose.  

In other words, when all else is equal between competing applicants, a compelling essay can make the difference. A powerful, well-written essay can also tip the balance for a marginal applicant.

What are Colleges Looking for in an Essay?

College admission officers look to the essay for evidence that a student can write well and support his/her ideas with logical arguments. They also want to know something about the personality of the student.

What are the different Types of Essays?

There are typically three types of essay questions: the "you" question, the "why us" question, and the "creative" question.

  1. The "you" question - This question boils down to "Tell us about you." The school wants to know the student better and to see how he/she will introduce him/herself.
  2. The "why us" question - Some schools ask for an essay about a student's choice of a school or career. They're looking for information about the applicant's goals, and about how serious his or her commitment is to this particular school.
  3. The "creative" question - The goals of the "creative" question are to evaluate a candidate's ability to think and write creatively and to assess the breadth of his/her knowledge and education.

Writing the College Essay

From John Conkright, Dean of Admissions, Randolph-Macon College
If you are like most students, you see the college essay as another hurdle that you must jump on the way to being accepted at the college of your choice. In fact, the essay is not a hurdle but a rare opportunity; it is a chance for you to "talk" directly to the college's admissions committee and to help them "see" you as a thinking and feeling person, rather than simply a set of impersonal statistics. Except for the interview, it is your only chance to share your thought, insights, and opinions; to highlight your accomplishments; and to convey your maturity and outlook on life. If you see the college essay in this way; as an opportunity- then it is clearly worth the effort to put some extra time, thought, and energy into writing it.

Purpose of the Essay

The college essay is extremely important for two major reasons.

A well-written essay can speak worlds about your attitudes, feelings, personal qualities, imagination, and creativity. For the admissions staff, it adds another important piece to the puzzle because it distinguishes you as an individual, different from any other student who is applying.

Choosing a Topic

Colleges and universities will either give you a topic to write about or present several rather specific topics from which you must choose. Other colleges may simply "suggest" broad general topics or give you total freedom to write about something that interests or concerns you.

Regardless of whether you must respond to a prescribed topic or come up with one of your own, here are a few general hints about the most effective way to approach your topic: Narrow your topic and try to be as specific and illustrative as possible.

The easiest topic to write about is yourself. No one knows more about you than you. Since one important purpose of the essay is self-revelation, it is no place to be shy or modest, although you should not exaggerate. If you choose to write about yourself remember that little incidents and facts are often the most revealing of character and outlook.

Do not be afraid to write about something you think is a little different. A unique topic or approach is often refreshing to a college admissions officer who has been reading applications all day. Further, an unusual or offbeat essay is an excellent way to show your creativity.

Preparing to Write

Before actually sitting to write a first draft of your essay, spend some time organizing your thoughts. Develop a framework for your essay so it will have a smooth and logical progression from one idea or incident to the next. Consider your purpose in writing, what you want to convey, and the tone that you think is most appropriate for the topic. Decide on a style that is comfortable for you, not one that you think the college admissions committee prefers. Finally, remember that organizing your thoughts and deciding on a framework does not mean you must be overly rigid at the start; leave room for flexibility and creativity as you actually begin writing.

Writing the Essay

You do not have to get it right the first time! Instead, write the first draft of your essay with the main focus on content; communicating your thoughts. Then set it aside for a day or two, reread it with a fresh perspective, and make any necessary changes. This is also the point at which you should consider matters of organization, style, grammar, spelling, and tone. Once you have rewritten your first draft, you may wish to try it out on your family, friends, English teacher, or college counselor. While the final product and final "voice" should be yours, they may be able to offer helpful suggestions for technical or other improvements. Within this general outline for actually writing the essay, there are some "do's" and "don'ts" which I would like to highlight.



Your college essay, along with your high school record, standardized test scores, and extracurricular involvement, will provide the basis upon which the college makes its admissions decision. A thoughtful, well-written essay can affect in a very positive way that final decision. Keep this in mind and take full advantage of the opportunity which the college essay affords you.

For additional guidance on essay writing, see this site.It's about nine short pages of detailed advice on essay writing.