November 20, 2019

Tips on Writing a College Application Essay

Illustration for college

As a high school student considering college, I never really had to think about writing a college essay. By chance, none of the schools I applied to required its submission. All I had to do, then, was send in my transcripts and ACT scores and hope for the best (in the end, things were simplified even further by getting recruited to play college soccer, which I did for one school year before transferring).

It wasn’t until I’d decided I wanted to pursue creative writing at the graduate level that I had to take on this very specific kind of essay. With a B.A. in English and a couple published stories in hand, as well as the full support and belief of my college writing instructors, writing it should have been a snap. 

Except it wasn’t.

It was nerve-wracking. Stress-inducing.

Something I felt unqualified to write even though the topic was, well, me.

That’s because, even in this age of sharing intimate details of our day-to-day lives on social media, the necessity of proving one’s worth academically and on paper (or screen) elevates the stakes dramatically. The filters aren’t generated by an app, but by a turn of phrase, a well-placed anecdote. 

For me, it was literally like going from discussing a favorite short story with a friend to trying to convince an unseen panel of award-winning authors that I had the potential to be like them—all they had to do was to admit me to their schools. 

With that experience in the rearview mirror, I can’t help but think about how high school students might feel when they come up against a college application that contains an essay requirement. 

And that’s why I decided to write this article—to share some writing tips that have served me well as a professional writer and as a tutor who has mentored young people on how to write a college essay, no matter the student’s interests.

WHY AN ESSAY?

With so many students applying to college each year, why do so many colleges require an essay in addition to the usual suspects? While grade point averages, the strength of curriculum, admission test scores take the lead, a well-crafted essay gives students the opportunity to showcase that little extra that differentiates them from a GPA.

ARE ALL COLLEGE ESSAY PROMPTS THE SAME?

In an ideal world, the answer to this question would be an emphatic yes! As it stands today, that’s not quite the case. 

At present, more than 800 schools in the United States (and approximately 50 schools internationally) accept what’s called the Common Application, a college admission application available to college applicants can use when considering member colleges and universities. 

According to the Common App’s website, its essay promptsprovide great flexibility for applicants to tell their unique stories in their own voice.”

Further, according to the team at College Board, a non-profit organization working to “connect students to college success,” there are typically 3 types of college essay: “the “you” question, the “why us” question and the “creative” question.”

Students doing research

DO THE RESEARCH

Whether writing about a favorite subject, a career interest, or the school itself, it’s incredibly important that the references to any are accurate. To avoid making factual errors, do the research, double-check your work, and keep on trucking.

WHAT DOES “GOOD” HIGH SCHOOL WRITING LOOK LIKE?

Not sure what “good” high school writing looks like? Fear not, there are plenty of publications that give a platform for high school-aged writers to have a voice. Checking them out can not only give students an idea of what exceptional writing looks like, doing so has the potential to inspire their own writing. 

Not sure where to start, consider visiting the website for Student Voice, Polyphony Lit, and these student essays on being an immigrant, the gun control debate, and how a school program changed a student’s life, featured on the XQ Blog.

WHAT TO DO AND WHAT NOT TO DO

When writing a college application essay:

  • Show don’t tell
  • Focus
  • Explain the why
  • Write with pride
  • Write with humility
  • Write to what you know
  • Work ahead

When writing a college application essay, don’t:

  • Be negative
  • Complain
  • Blame
  • Inflate the truth
  • Exhort
  • Condescend
  • Wait until the last minute!

IF IN DOUBT, ASK FOR HELP

Now that I know better, I am more than happy to ask my colleagues to review my work. But as a 17-year-old student, the last thing I wanted to do was share my writing with anyone (and I liked writing, even then). 

Yet, a second pair of eyes is an invaluable resource that should be taken advantage of, if at all possible! When writing, it’s not uncommon to get so close to the material that simple mistakes are altogether missed. A helpful reader can also help point out areas that need more work, and those that are distracting from the point the writer is trying to make.

Not sure where to look for a reader? Try asking a classmate, or a teacher, or a family member or family friend. Make sure to investigate any school-provided resources: many schools have writing centers and tutors who can help with exactly this kind of assignment.

REVISE… AND READ IT ALOUD

The English novelist Henry Green once said, The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in.” 

This boils down to a simple (and usually unavoidable) fact about the writing process: initial drafts often contain both good and bad ideas. The revision process allows the writer to trim the bad and zero in on the good.

Further, actually reading the essay aloud will help the writer hear their sentences. What might sound spectacular internally may turn out to be confusing when spoken… a hint that the sentence needs smoothing out.

PRO TIP: At XQ, we’re love printing out our work-in-process—looking at a screen strains the eyes and the mind. Paper gives your peepers a break and provides a fresh perspective.

FAMILIES: TRY NOT TO PRY

One of the awesome things about going to college is that a lot of students get their first taste of autonomy. It’s a big step that’s based on trust: that they’ll figure things out, from those confusing/exciting/exhilarating first hours on campus to the moment they move their graduation cap tassels from the right side to the left. 

A big way to show that trust is to simply let students do their thing. High school students, like adults, have active private lives… private lives that they may not wish to share with their families, but are, nonetheless, fine with submitting personal anecdotes with an admission committee. 

So my advice to families is this: make yourselves available, be supportive, and if and when the students in your lives are ready to share their work with you, they’ll let you know.

BE HONEST, BE CONFIDENT, BE POSITIVE

Writing a college application essay can be a daunting task. But that’s no reason not to try to have fun with it. This essay is where students can show just how unique and interesting they really are. Truly, they’re at the starting line for the rest of their lives and the college essay is more than just a checkbox to mark as complete, it’s an opportunity for them to tell their stories, on their own terms. 

Writing, when I was a high school student, and now, as an author, came easiest when I didn’t overthink things and just let the words flow. When students are allowed the license to be honest and confident with their work, their positive attributes will shine through. Even though the college application process is difficult, this is a time when they fully own a piece of the process.

Edmund Sandoval

Contributing Writer

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Highlights

"This boils down to a simple (and usually unavoidable) fact about the writing process: initial drafts often contain both good and bad ideas."

"The revision process allows the writer to trim the bad and zero in on the good."

"Writing a college application essay can be a daunting task. But that’s no reason not to try to have fun with it."

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