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7 College Essay Writing Tips Students Can Use Right Now

Guest Contributor


As current and prospective college students and their parents have experienced lately, the COVID-19 global pandemic is changing higher education.

Recognizing the difficulties of socially distant learning, quite a few universities (including some with highly competitive admissions) are loosening application requirements. College admissions officers understand that a significant number of rising high school seniors ended the school year with pass/fail grades and were unable to sit for multiple tries at the ACT or SAT. In fact, some students have yet to take these tests at all. 

Though many colleges and universities suggest that they already use a holistic approach to admissions (meaning they consider the whole student, not just grades and standardized test scores), without these quantitative measures admissions officers will need to look even more closely at other aspects of a student’s application. These other factors include activities lists, resumes, recommendation letters and, of course, the college essay.

Of all the sections on a college application, the personal statement — or college essay — is by far the best way for a student to demonstrate personality, drive and passion. A solid personal statement gives students the opportunity to reflect on their academic journey thus far and show colleges and universities that they're ready for the challenges of higher education. 

Since the college essay may be even more important than ever this year, students planning to apply to college or for specific scholarships will do well to brush up on their essay-writing skills. Here are seven tips to share with your student to help them craft a powerful and one-of-a-kind personal statement.

1. Read the Prompt Carefully

The first step when writing an essay, either for colleges or for scholarships, is to read the essay prompt very carefully, taking note of what the prompt is asking of you.

Try to think like the admissions committee: what do you think they want to learn about you, based on the prompt? 

If you are writing your personal statement for the Common Application, for instance, you will encounter a list of seven first-year Common App essay prompts. These prompts ask students to reflect on moments that challenged them or changed their perspective, obstacles they’ve encountered, ideas that intrigue them most, and/or the importance of their background. 

Though each prompt is different, colleges are looking for students to really reflect on their values, lessons they’ve learned, and ideas they care about, as well as reveal what kind of student they will be in a higher education setting — and what kind of citizen they will be within the college community.

When you read the prompt, divide it into parts, if necessary. Write out each part of the prompt and make sure your essay answers each part thoroughly. 

For example, Prompt 3 of the Common App first-year prompts reads: “Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?” 

This prompt has three parts or directives: 1) reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea; 2) what prompted your thinking; and 3) what was the outcome. By breaking the prompt up into parts, you will ensure that you answer each one within your essay.

2. Brainstorm in Detail

Once you’ve identified the parts of the prompt, you can start to brainstorm your responses. For each part of the prompt, try journaling or writing out a list of ideas. 

Though you might have multiple ideas for your essay, usually the one that challenges or excites you the most will also be the most interesting to read. Furthermore, the story or example that evokes the most detail will give you the most to work with as you start writing the first draft of your essay.

As you brainstorm, write out all the ideas that come to mind. Then, when you actually start to craft the essay, you’ll be able to identify the most important details. You’ll find that having too much to work with is better at first than not having enough.

3. Tell a Story

Though some shorter supplemental essay prompts might ask for a more straightforward answer — such as prompts asking why you’ve chosen to apply to a certain college or university — longer college essay prompts usually leave room for some storytelling.

To hook readers right at the start, begin your essay with a first-person story, taking readers with you to that particular moment in time. Narrative storytelling, even if only for a few sentences, also lets you showcase your personality and creativity. 

However, you should make sure the story you tell is the most important moment of your essay that you will then reflect upon later in the essay.

For example, if you want to share the moment you first recognized your power as a public speaker and how that gave you confidence to start a non-profit, you could start your essay in the middle of an important moment within your speech. 

This might sound something like, “As I stood on the stage, looking out at the crowd, I realized my words had power.” This is just an example, of course, but this kind of short story can then help launch you into the rest of your essay.

4. Focus on Reflection

Even if you tell a story to start, your main focus should usually be on reflection — how you felt about your experience and what you've learned as a result. All prompts ask different questions, but they all give plenty of room to reflect on your growth and development as a human being and student. 

Admissions officers want to see that you have taken lessons from your life to heart and that these lessons helped you become the kind of student who will contribute to a specific campus environment and community.

So, if one-third of your essay reveals details about a specific story or moment in your life, expect to spend the other two-thirds of reflecting on that moment and what it meant to you and your development.

5. Be Yourself

No matter what you decide to explore in your essay, you should always be yourself.

Many students think that they are supposed to talk about epic experiences like an international volunteer stint or the moment they won an impressive award. While those experiences are meaningful if you’ve had them, sometimes the strongest essays are about a moment that might seem mundane from the outside but had a major impact on a particular student. 

Your ability to share your personality with readers, reflect on your life experiences, and communicate effectively are most important in your college essay. In fact, readers likely will not care how impressive your accomplishments are that you describe within your essay but will certainly remember a well-told story or unique reflection. 

Just be honest — and be yourself.

6. Write Multiple Drafts

A key aspect of writing a great essay is to revise, revise and revise again. Though you might feel tempted to write one draft that you love and use it as your admissions essay, almost every draft has the potential to become even better with some focused revision. 

After you’ve written a first draft, take a few days away from it. Then you can come back to it and read with a fresh perspective. Read it aloud. You might find areas that could be clearer or more detailed. 

As you read, think to yourself, how can I go deeper? Sometimes, you’ve only touched the surface of your reflection and by continuing to ask yourself questions about your essay topic, you’ll unearth more insights you want to share with your readers.

7. Seek Guidance

Revising is much harder to do on your own, so always seek guidance from teachers, mentors and professionals who you trust and who understand the convention of the college essay.

Your college counselor, English teacher or an adult friend or family member who is an editor may be able to help you as you write and revise. Or, you can seek professional sources of advice.

The company Prompt, for example, has hired a community of writing coaches who are ready to help students with college essays from the brainstorming process to the final revision. If you are part of a high school scholars community like the National Society of High School Scholars (NSHSS), you can find scholarship application tips and advice that are also applicable to the college essay.

You don’t have to go through the essay writing process alone. These resources and your mentors are there to help you bring out the best in your personal statement so that colleges and universities get to know who you are and how you can contribute to their communities.

Finally, many rising high school seniors are wondering: "Should I write my Common App essay about the pandemic?"

College and university admissions staff are aware that students' lives have been greatly disrupted by COVID-19. Reflecting this, the Common App has devoted a page on its website to student coronavirus support and added an optional question to the 2020–2021 application where students can describe impacts the pandemic has had on their health and safety, ability to access the space and technology they need to study, etc.

If your student is worried that a challenge they’ve encountered might hinder their admittance to a certain school, be aware that there is also a place in the application where their high school counselor can share detailed information about how COVID-19 closures affected the school and community as a whole.

As for writing about a personal pandemic-related challenge or incident in the main Common App essay, this is up to your student. No matter what they choose to write about, they should feel comfortable enough to delve into it deeply so it should be something that feels emotionally safe to tackle.

Chris Everett is a content writer and marketing specialist for the NSHSS, an academic honor society committed to supporting young academics on their journey to college and beyond as they prepare to become the leaders of tomorrow. Follow NSHSS on Twitter or Facebook for more updates and tips.
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