High School 2 College

July 20, 2009

What to Write When You Write Your College Essay

It hasn’t been much of a summer here in New York.  It’s been cold and rainy and hasn’t hit 90 degrees even once so far.  No matter.  The summer is passing quickly and if you’re going into your senior year in high school, it’s time to write your college application essay.

I know that many high schools provide time for you to write your essay in English class in the fall, but don’t wait.  First of all, your English teacher isn’t an expert in college essays.  In most classes, he will distribute an article and/or a sample essay, and then sit back while you struggle with what to write and how to write it.   He can’t help you much because in most cases he only met you a few weeks before and doesn’t have the slightest idea what you should write.  Secondly, your English teacher has dozens and dozens (and dozens) of essays to grade and at best will scan your essay for obvious spelling errors.  Most of all, if you think you’re busy now, wait to see how busy you’ll be in September and October.  So don’t wait.

But what should you write about? The first step is to answer the question.  What question?  The question that the college wants you to answer.  Most colleges accept the Common Application, a generic college application that purports to allow you to apply to many schools at once.  In a few weeks, I’ll write about my concerns about the common ap, but some schools only accept the common ap, so start there.

Print out the common application. Go to https://www.commonapp.org/CommonApp/default.aspx (www.commonapp.org) and click on “download forms” at the top of the page.  From the download page, click on “application (student form) only.”  This is the common ap.  Every college application is some variation of this form.  You’ll want to complete this in pencil, so hang on to it (again, more about this in a few weeks). At the end of the common ap are the essay questions.

Print out applications of other schools that you are interested in. Nearly all schools have their applications available online now, so just print them out and read the essay topic.

Group the applications by essay topic. See if you can write one essay that would fit for 5 or 6 colleges.  Sometimes kids spend all summer writing an essay that will only work for one college.

I might as well confess this now (buried as it is in the middle of my blog) that there isn’t one college essay.  You’ll probably have to write at least 3 different essays because different schools want you to respond to different questions.  Sorry to be the one to break that news.

Think about what you want to write.  The goal of the essay is to let the college know something about you it couldn’t find out from your transcript, your resume, or your application.  They already know from your application if you play a sport.  They know about your community service activities.  They know how smart you are by your grades.

But what makes you different from the other kids on your team?  What makes you different from the other B+ students in your English class?

The best essays portray a moment in time, an insight into the “real” you.  The best essay I ever read was written by a student of mine, Chris Montesano.  He was just an average student in high school, about a C+ student if I remember.  But he wrote about his first hunting trip with his father and his uncle, a trip he had longed for as a child.  Now here he was, in the frost of fall morning, alone with his gear and his gun, praying that a deer didn’t come by because he realized he didn’t really want to kill a deer after all, remembering his grandfather who had died hunting, and thinking that this was way more important than sports or girls.  It was brilliant, charming, engaging, honest.  Sure, it needed cleaning up, but every line showed me a Chris I hadn’t known in all the weeks we had done SAT tutoring together.  (He got into his first choice college.)

Have you had an experience that shows us an insight into who you are, what makes you vulnerable?

Here are essays that you should avoid. I’ve read DOZENS of each of these, and if I gag reading these, so do the admissions people.

  • I play sports, and I blew the big game, but I worked hard and came back to victory
  • I play sports, and now I understand about personal effort and teamwork
  • I went to Nicaragua (or Arkansas) and now I realize that there are poor people in the world and I’m very lucky
  • My mother/father/aunt/cousin had a dread disease and now I’m going to cure cancer/multiple sclerosis/heart disease
  • I most admire my dad because he’s a swell guy and he works hard for our family
  • I’ve gone to Israel/Italy/Argentina on vacation and now I understand people of the world
  • My family moved when I was 8/10/15 and I had to really define myself

I do a lot of work with kids on college essays, and I know we’ve hit on the right topic when they begin to smile.  If it’s something you really want to write about, it’s more likely that someone else will want to read it.

Lastly, keep it to 500 words. That’s about one side of a typed page at size 12 font.  The common ap used to limit the essay to a strict maximum of 500 words.  Now they ask for a minimum of 250, but some colleges still want 500, so you might as well keep it to a maximum of 500 words.  Moreover, colleges are used to looking at essays of that length.  If you go over by more than a few words, college admission people will start to get cranky.  They’ve got hundreds of these to read — what makes you think that what you’ve got to say is so important that you can use up the time they should be spending elsewhere?  It’s just arrogant to write more than 500 words, so don’t do it unless you are a brilliant writer with something  charming to say.  (Just so you can judge, this essay is 1020 words so far.)

Write an essay or two and leave it for a few weeks. Look at it after a while.  Is it as good as you thought?  Should it be revised?  Or should it be scrapped for a new topic?  Show it to a friend or family member.  Take your time.

But don’t take so long that the summer passes by completely.  Get started now!

Wendy Segal


  1. My mother asked me to read this, and as I was reading, I found a typo. In the seventh topic, “Here are essays that you should avoid,” you typed “and if I’ve gag reading these.” Nevertheless, I found the blog post very helpful.


    Comment by Samuel Safranek — July 21, 2009 @ 11:27 am | Reply

    • Good catch! I fixed it. Someone who is as careful in writing as he is in editing should write a wonderful essay. I can’t wait to read yours!


      Comment by highschool2college — July 21, 2009 @ 2:41 pm | Reply

  2. there are some solid ideas in this post, but if you are still looking for direction on how to find engaging topic ideas, how to structure an essay, or even just how to start, check out my blog:


    best of luck!


    Comment by lagunawriter — July 11, 2010 @ 12:44 am | Reply

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