College Essay. Learn What It’s About.

You Beyond the Numbers

In the middle of all that data surrounding grades and test scores and class ranking, the application essay is a chance to just be yourself. Isn’t that a relief?

The Harvard Graduate School of Education recently released a report, “Turning the Tide,” through the Making Caring Common project. This report details how and why colleges should work even harder on expanding the admissions process beyond statistics:

. . .college admissions can send compelling messages
that both ethical engagement—especially concern
for others and the common good—and intellectual
engagement are highly important.

In other words, sure, that 5 on your AP Spanish test is nothing to sneeze at.

But neither is spending extended afternoons helping your grandmother in her garden. Or volunteering long-term (not just an afternoon or two for a quick “application filler”) in a community literacy program. You were not created to
perform, but to live. And living can’t always be quantified.

Sarah Watkins, an admissions counselor at the University of Michigan, explains that “application essays are like student interviews, a chance to hear their voice” amidst a swirl of information.

Your essay is a chance to show the admissions counselors one glimmering slice of that life

First Things First: Take It Off Your Stress List

“An essay is valuable when it gives us a glimpse into the authentic personality and core of a student, a real aspect of the student’s life that has played a role in developing them into the person they are today. That’s important because we’re admitting people, not academic profiles or great stories.”

– Nick Spaeth, Associate Vice President for Admission, Monmouth College

“Don’t write about your grades. We are the experts at knowing how smart you are and how you performed in high school. The personal statement will help us understand other areas of your life.”

– Mike Cook, Senior Associate Director of Admissions, Michigan State University

As a private writing, reading, and college admission essay preparation tutor over the past 15 years, I’ve witnessed some…stress. Parents wanting their kids to study for the SAT as early as sixth grade. Students Skyping me between violin and swim practice to wrangle out topic sentences comparing Atticus Finch to Abraham Lincoln.
Copies of The Scarlet Letter flung across the room in frustration. (Okay, I confess).

So why would I add to the academic anxiety by suggesting that high schoolers start thinking about their college admissions as early as their junior, sophomore, or even freshman year?

Because the essence of a good college admission essay isn’t about learning the “secret,” squeezing in a house-building trip to Haiti to have an impressive topic to write about, or working hard to get an edge on the competition. It’s about being your best self. And it’s never too early to be you!

Everything You Need to Know about College Application Essay

I’ve guided thousands of students and parents over the years who believe the college application process is just another form amidst the dizzying pile of paperwork (or digital fields) that must be filled out, submitted, and quantified.

Without a doubt, you’ve amassed a lot of data over your high school years: grades, test scores, and activity lists. But the application essay? That’s your time to shine, to truly be you. To—get ready for this—have fun.

In this guide, we’ll be exploring what the college application process is all about.

Why do you have to write it? What kind of writing is it? When and how should you start? What can you learn about writing—and yourself—through this milestone process?

Meanwhile, the best way to prepare as a college-bound student—or a teacher of one—is to get a taste for excellent short-form autobiographical writing (often called “flash” nonfiction or “shorts”). Still months or years away from your senior year? You can start this part of the application process at any time. It’s never too early to get inspired by good prose!

College Essay Writing Workshop Part 3

The Wow Method: Ten Steps to a Great College Essay

20 minutes

The Wow Method: Ten Steps to a Great College Essay

  • There are ten steps to writing a great college essay … and you don’t even get to the first draft till step #5.
  • We will be following the 10-step Wow Method in this workshop, focusing on steps 1-4 today. You will have an opportunity to finish the remaining steps with me in the coming days and weeks. We’ll talk more about that at the end of today’s session.
  • Briefly review the handout.

Discuss what and why

  • Write on board: WHAT WHY
  • Ask: What is a college essay? And why are you writing one (or two or ten)?
  • Record student responses on the board
  • Be sure to cover the items below
  • Write on board next to WHAT: A STORY ABOUT YOU
    • An essay is a story about you
    • You are not writing about a topic.
      • Each person is writing about an experience and what he/she learned/gained from it.
      • The essay is not about the vacation, the job, the illness.
      • It is about why you would be a good student, what you learned from an experience, etc.
  • Write on board next to WHY:
    • To illustrate something about yourself
    • To demonstrate your writing skills
    • To show that you are a good fit for this school

Discuss who

  • Write on board: WHO
  • Emphasize the importance of knowing your audience
  • Choose an experience one of the students shared from their “Who Am I?” handout to illustrate your point.

Example: My trip to Belize was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life because I learned that being afraid of dirt, bugs and the unknown didn’t have to limit my experiences.

  • Encourage students to identify three different audiences and purposes for this story. Write them on the board. Examples:
  • Audience= Parents

Purpose = Let me go on another adventure next summer

  • Audience= Best friend

Purpose = You should go on an adventure too

  • Audience = Admissions counselor

Purpose = I am an interesting person who takes life-enhancing risks and learns from my experiences

  • Write on board next to WHO: COLLEGE ADMISSIONS COUNSELOR
  • In this case, your audience is the college admissions counselor. Keep that audience in mind at all times.
  • Briefly review what we know about a typical college admissions counselor:
    • They read college applications all day.
    • They read them quickly.
  • Tie this discussion back to the previous segment on voice.
    • Point out that everything they write is for the admissions counselor.
    • With that in mind, each essay should be …
      • Specific
      • Clear
      • Direct
      • Unique (but that does not mean it has to be something that no one else has ever seen or done)
  • Your voice will differentiate you!

College Essay Writing Workshop Part 2

Introduction: Finding Your Voice

10 minutes


  • Before we talk about what makes a good essay, we are going to complete a writing exercise that has nothing (and everything!) to do with personal statements.
  • You have a unique voice, and a personal statement offers a valuable opportunity to showcase it.

Discuss the concept of voice

  • Note that this is one of the most important things you will discuss in this workshop.
  • Talk about the elements of a speaking voice (tone, volume, word choice, etc.)
  • Ask what makes a “writing voice.” Answers should include:
    • Word choice
    • Images
    • Details
    • Sentence structure

Voice exercise

  • Ask student to take out something to write with. They will each need 1 or 2 blank sheets of paper or a laptop/tablet.
  • Explain the rules:
    • This is a journaling activity.
    • Think about your morning (THIS MORNING – not “mornings” in general.)
    • What happened to you from the moment you opened your eyes? What did you see, hear, smell, feel. (Not “breakfast,” but “vanilla Dannon yogurt that I ate in the car with a plastic spoon.”
    • Write as fast as you can.
    • Don’t try to be creative. Just write.
    • Don’t worry about making sense.
    • No crossing out or correcting what you write. JUST WRITE!
    • Don’t think about writing in full sentences. Just scribble down whatever comes to mind – images, fragments, sights, smells, tastes, sounds, textures, memories, associations.
    • Do not pick up your pen. If you get stuck, keep going. List whatever comes to mind when you recall that moment/experience.
  • Allow 10 minutes for this activity. If students stop writing, gently encourage them to continue. There are no right or wrong answers. The goal is to not think too hard. Just write.
  • At the 10-minute point, say STOP. Everyone should finish the thought they are on, then put down their pens.

Find the great details

  • Say: Before we talk about what you’ve written, I want you to go back through it.
  • Say: Circle 2-3 great details from your journaling. The idea is to find fresh images, ideas or bits of language – each one could be one word or an entire chunk of text. These details should be things that differentiate the writer in some way (experience, word choice, etc.)
  • Allow 5 minutes.
  • Conclude by asking volunteers to share one great detail each.
    • Go around the room quickly.
    • If time and interest allow, go around a second time.
    • Praise their choices. This is the quality of detail you want to see in their writing for the rest of the workshop.

Note to instructor: This concept will come up again in Step 4 (Free Write for Details)

College Essay Writing Workshop Part 1


10 minutes

Introduce yourself when everyone has arrived.

  • Name (and what they should call you)
  • Any relevant professional/personal experience
  • What you like about college application essays
  • Why you think writing is important

Allow 5-10 minutes for students to complete handout.

Facilitate discussion

  • Ask a few students to share answers to one of the questions (every student should not answer every question.)
  • Comment briefly on the responses.
  • Make sure everyone can easily follow the fill-in-the-blank format (Experience X was important because…) You will refer back to this when you discuss Step 3 (Focus on Theme) later in the workshop.

Introduce concept of “theme”

  • In very general terms, introduce the idea that a personal statement needs a theme.
  • Most likely, their responses to the “Who Am I?” questions focused primarily on “what happened” and did not go into “why it matters.” For now that is fine. Later they will learn to ensure that their essays include both aspects.
  • Note to instructor: This concept will be modified for other types of essays; today you are focusing on personal statements. (e.g., a “Why College X” essay does not have the same type of theme as a personal statement, although the concept of theme is still relevant.)