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All private colleges and universities and some large state universities require carefully written essays or personal statements. The highly selective universities now require responses to several essay topics and short answer questions. The increased emphasis on college essays is reflected in the planning that English teachers and the college counselor do to assist juniors, both in classrooms and in the structured college counseling program provided during the spring semester. The process of selecting topics, outlining ideas, writing, editing, and re-editing several times is the most time and energy consuming portion of an application. Parents, teachers, and the college counselor may assist students but not re-write essays. It is essential that the primary effort be that of each student: an honest, thorough, and well-written expression which sets that individual apart from competitors.

Essay Edge is online course that can be accessed at Additional information is available to all juniors during the college planning workshops.

Writing an Essay

The essay is your chance to use your voice and personalize your application. Here’s your opportunity to show something about you that doesn’t really come across elsewhere in your application. So, step back and be reflective, think about who you are as an individual. How do you view the world? What do you care about deeply? What experiences and people have been important in shaping you as a person? What are your aspirations in life?

Why Do Colleges Require Essays?

A college application includes a lot of information about you, however the essay gives you a chance to explain how you see yourself. Your essay gives colleges an insider view of you. The essay performs other functions as well, such as:

  • Show that you have researched and thought carefully about the college to which you are applying. It shows, in your own words, why you and the college would be a good “match.”
  • Demonstrate your writing ability, which is a key component to success in college. In your essay, you can show that you are willing to put yourself into what you do. That kind of commitment is an important part of effective learning in college. And it shows the admissions committee that you are someone who is willing and able to be a contributing member of a community of learners.
  • For selective colleges especially, the essay helps admission committees draw distinctions and make choices among applicants. An essay will rarely take an applicant out of consideration at a college, but it certainly can elevate an applicant in an admission committee’s eyes.

What Admissions Officers Look For

  • Make sure to answer the essay question and to follow all the instructions that are given.
  • Start off with a strong opening paragraph that captures the reader’s interest.
  • Use a style that you find comfortable and that is appropriate for the subject matter.
  • Use correct grammar, punctuation and spelling.
  • Make a point and stick to it; develop your argument or narrative.
  • Check all of your facts. Do you mention a date, or a place or an event in your essay? Make sure it’s correct.
  • Give your reader complete information, so he or she won’t be confused.
  • In general, it’s best to be succinct. If there is a recommended length for the essay, pay attention to it.
  • The essay should be neatly typed.
  • Remember that mistakes, especially sloppy mistakes, make it look like you don’t take the essay (and by extension, the application) very seriously.

Essay Topics

Does the application ask you to choose a topic to write about? There are as many (actually, many more) good topics as there are applicants. Here are some places you might look for an essay topic:

  • Do you have hobbies and non-school pursuits that really excite you and that engage your heart and mind? Writing about your out-of-classroom interests could help bring out a part of you that’s not covered or not covered completely and to your fullest advantage elsewhere in your application.
  • Is there a social cause that you hold near and dear? Remember, an essay is not an academic paper; but a cause that you feel passionately about and that has been in your thoughts and activities, might be the basis for a strong essay.
  • Perhaps there is an event (local, national or international) that has touched you in a personal way.
  • Is there an academic subject that really sparks your interest? Why does that subject engage you? Has it led to experiences or study outside of school? There may be essay material that goes beyond the courses you took or scores on AP tests.

How to Handle a Topic

Often, you will be asked to write about an experience you’ve had, an achievement in your life, or someone who has been significant to you. Go beyond the what and dig into the how and why. For example:

This is a personal essay, not a travelogue. So, if you’re writing about a trip to another country, tell about how your experiences affected you, and why they were interesting or meaningful to you. In other words, the people reading the essay are interested in what makes you tick and how you got the way you are, not in how the trains run in Paris. Are you writing a tribute to your grandparents and their influence on your childhood? Be personal and specific, not just sentimental. Explain how the particular things your grandparents did or said were important to you. Did you overcome an athletic injury and recover to perform well? A description of the type of cast you wore and your rehab routine won’t make a compelling essay. But a reflection on what it felt like to watch your teammates, instead of play alongside them, just might be the ticket.

Possible Pitfalls

  • Writing a poem or making a videotape in place of an essay is probably not a good idea, unless you’re applying to a specialized school that encourages such a submission.
  • Humor can be risky, so be careful how you use it.
  • “Honor code” rules are in effect when you write an essay, so do your own work and don’t make things up. As a practical matter, other items in the application, such as letters of recommendation, make it quite possible that you’d be found out if you tried to make things up.

Some Final Tips

Leave yourself time to rewrite and revise. For the great majority of people, this is not an easy assignment. Start early and leave plenty of time! Most likely that means to give yourself weeks, not days and certainly not hours, to rework your essay.

If your essay is longer than three pages (unless the instructions call for something longer), then it had better be interesting! Think hard about what you really want to focus on, and take out whatever gets away from your central point. The admission committee will take your essay seriously. You should, too. You have a lot to gain by putting in the time and effort to write a good essay.

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