Making the Most of Your College Essays

Now is that anxious time of year when college-bound high school seniors are making final decisions about where to apply, struggling with those dreaded application essays, and balancing all of that with making the most of senior year. It’s an exciting time often involving a fair amount of stress, but there are at least a few legitimate short cuts that can help you successfully manage it all.

For students applying to schools that utilize the Common Application, the same essay can typically be used at all the schools. For those applying at non-CA, moderately selective schools, or some combination of those schools with Common App institutions, you can very likely either use the same essay or essays, or find a way to integrate portions of your other essay into one with a slightly different focus.

Here is a quick run-down of the current set of six Common App questions that students have to choose from, in abbreviated form. Many colleges, whether CA members or not, use similar questions:

  • Relate a significant experience, achievement, risk or dilemma you have faced and describe its impact on you;
  • Share an issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and indicate why it affects you;
  • Describe a person who has had a significant influence in your life and the nature of their influence;
  • Identify a fictional character, historical figure, or creative work that has influenced you, and describe that influence;
  • Write on a topic of your choice.

In my view this is a nice set of topics, permitting a wide range of approaches. Some CA schools pose an additional supplemental question or essay topic.

Exceptions are Ivy League and highly selective schools, which often feature unique and complex essay topics as a way of challenging their applicants. Not long ago I assisted a client applying to all top tier schools by editing and making suggestions on his essays, and it was fascinating experience, which he was very much up for. At the other end of the spectrum is the occasional school with a clunker of an essay topic. To my surprise one such school  is the University of Colorado, which has as one of the longer of two required essays a request that the applicant make a response to the university strategic plan statement.  I have supported more than one student through the agony of this stultifying assignment, and I can only imagine that they get a lot of boring tripe in response; I can’t imagine why they continue to require this topic!

Whatever the number and topic of the essays you are required to write, take the assignment seriously, and plan on multiple drafts.  Also be certain to run a copy by someone in your life who will give you competent editorial suggestions, whether an English teacher, advisor, or member of your family. Here are two good sources of suggestions and examples for your essay writing:—learn-‘em-avoid-‘em