Writing the College Essay

By Suzanne Crossman

Writing the college essay is a demanding and often overwhelming task for students. Summer is a great time for students to begin the essay-writing process, when they aren’t juggling academics, extracurriculars, and college applications. Parents can help guide students through this process by providing some direct instruction.

What is the purpose of the essay?

  • Give students a chance to share their story
  • Allow colleges to get to know a student beyond the numbers of SATs and GPA

If the student has a learning disability should they write about it?
Summer is a great time for students to begin the essay-writing process, when they aren't juggling academics, extracurriculars, and college applications.

Students are not required to disclose their learning disability in their college application. However, for many students their learning disability is a significant part of their story. If students want to write about their educational journey, support them in this process. Encourage students to focus on what they have learned about themselves and the tools they have gained to help them succeed in the future. Facing and persevering with a learning disability demonstrates a level of resilience that colleges want to see.

What are the parameters of the essay?

The Common Application essay is the most widely used by students. This essay must be at least 350 words but no more than 650. Be sure to look at the Common Application essay prompts. For 2017, an “essay of your choice” has been added so there is flexibility on what a student can write.

How can I help my student get started?

A great activity will to be read some sample essays and critique them.

  • Discuss what works and what does not work.
  • How did the writer introduce the essay?
  • What anecdotes were used?
  • How did the anecdote connect to the theme of the essay?
  • How did the writer show versus tell?
  • What did you learn about the writer?

The following websites offer a variety of sample essays. Each site includes critiques from admissions professionals. Select a few of these to review prior to writing.

Some general suggestions for writing the essay

  • Think about the story you want to share with colleges. You can’t share your entire life story, so narrow your focus.
  • Find an opening that works well.  
  • Include one detailed personal anecdote and connect that to your larger theme.  
  • Be authentic, be honest, be yourself…you don’t have to be perfect!
  • Unlike a formal academic essay, this is one of those times that you can have more flexibility with the structure.
  • Unlike a research paper, you can use “I.”  This is a personal essay.
  • Plan to write at least four drafts of the essay.
  • While length will be important, don’t focus too much on that during the draft phase. Get your ideas down. It is easier to shorten a long essay than to expand a short one!
  • Proofread, proofread, proofread!
  • Once you have proofread your essay, put it aside for a few weeks and then come back to it with fresh eyes. You will see changes you want to make that don’t appear when you look at it every day.
  • This should NOT be a narrative of your résumé. You will have other places to share that information. 

The Process

Step 1: Review the prompts

  • Think about them. Make sure you understand what they are asking. Talk about them.  

Step 2:  Do some freewriting

  • Try writing on several of the prompts and journal your ideas. See what comes to mind. Think about what topics you’d like to write about.

Step 3:  Select the prompt and outline your ideas.   

  • Decide what your theme will be.
  • Think about one specific anecdote/story you can use to highlight your theme.

Step 4: Write a first draft

Step 5: First proof

    • Focus on structure
      • Does your essay respond to the prompt?
      • Is there a clear theme that you communicate?
      • Do you have a strong introduction and conclusion?
      • Do you have appropriate transitions?
      • Do your paragraphs support your theme?
      • Do you have examples?
      • Did you show and not tell?
      • Is the tone appropriate to the setting?

Step 6: Second draft/proof

    • Focus on paragraphs
      • Do you include detail?
      • Are your sentences strong and specific?
      • Is there any repetition or extraneous details that need to be eliminated?

Step 7 Third draft/proof

    • Focus on sentences
      • Are the sentences complete?
      • Do you use a variety of sentences?
      • Is the language strong?
      • Is the word choice appropriate?

Step 8: Final Draft and Proof

    • Focus on grammar, spelling and punctuation
      • Read the essay backwards to check sentence structure
      • Double check spelling. DO NOT rely solely on spell check
      • Double check word count (no more than 650!)

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Suzanne Crossman is head of the Guidance Department at Landmark School.

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