It’s August and college application season has officially begun- whether you’re ready for it or not! There is a lot that goes into a complete application, but one extremely important component is the college essay.

As we continue to live in the new normal of college admissions, the college essay has never been more important to a student’s success than it is right now. With the recent Supreme Court rulings on Affirmative Action, the college essay will play a vital role in a student’s admission package. In this article we will outline the importance of the essay along with some general tips to follow as you get started.

The Overall Importance of the College Essay

Personal side of application

Your college essay is your chance to really express who you are.  The essay is the personal side of your application; maybe this is why the Common App refers to the main essay as your “personal essay.”  You write in your voice, about a topic that is personal to you. The rest of your college application package consists mainly of information about you and your family, your school record, and your extracurricular involvement. It’s all the facts and figures that colleges want to see about you. Your essay should sound like you on paper.

One area where you have complete control

The Common App gives you seven different prompts to choose from. Some students feel confined by writing about a specific topic given to them. If you are one of those students, no need to worry! The last prompt option is, “Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.”

Sample of your writing skill

Colleges want to see if you can write a clear and concise essay on a specific topic.  They want to see your writing abilities. Notice the emphasis on you there.  Do not let a parent, counselor, teacher, or AI edit your writing with a heavy hand. Application readers can tell if a senior in high school wrote the essay or someone else.

Common Application essay length 

You are limited to a maximum of 650 words, about 4 – 5 paragraphs for your essay. That may sound like a lot, but most students find they need to do some trimming once they’ve written a few drafts. The application won’t accept an essay shorter than 250 words. And once you hit the 650 word point, your essay will get cut off. 

At least one essay required for the vast majority of institutions

Most universities require you to submit at least one essay as part of your application. If you are using the Common App, once you add colleges to your “My Colleges” tab, you can look under the Writing section and see which of your school choices require an essay and which schools do not.  Even if a school doesn’t require an essay, you’ll be given the option to include it during submission.

Increased importance with test optional

As more schools offer a test optional path to college admission, there is now a heightened focus on qualitative aspects of the college application. No test scores to compare to other students in the applicant pool means college admissions offices give your college essay more weight and analysis.

The SAT used to include an essay portion as part of the test. That was eliminated as of June 2021. Now the only writing that is submitted is part of the college application.

SAT Subject tests were also eliminated as of June 2021. This is one more piece of data that no longer exists for admission offices to consider as part of an applicant’s admission package.

Finally, many colleges, especially since the Supreme Court ruling on Affirmative Action was released, are requiring students to submit additional writing samples.  These are on a school by school basis and known usually as supplemental essays in the Common App.

General Tips for the College Essay

The Do’s for your College Essay

  1. Show, Don’t Tell!
    • Use your 5 senses and really do some brainstorming to come up with ways to describe specific things
    • Don’t simply state a fact to get an idea across, such as “I like to surround myself with people with a variety of backgrounds and interests.”
    • You want the readers to be able to put themselves into the story you are telling in your essay. The best way to do that is through specific descriptions.
  2. Answer the Full Question
    • Remember, part of the question is whether you are a good fit for the school
    • The “why” is just as important!
    • You are showing the readers that you can write, but also that you can follow directions.
  3. Be Specific!
    • Include specific details, examples, reasons and so on to develop your ideas.
    • In the example above, describe a situation when you were surrounded by various types of people. What were you doing? Whom did you talk with? What did you take away from the experience
    • Look to make the story more about you and not just another story (i.e it’s your soccer game, not a soccer game)
    • Don’t rely just on spell check!
    • Get Feedback, but not too much feedback
  5. Let the first draft flow
    • Use your creativity and just write- there is no right or wrong at this point
    • The goal is to get some ideas and thoughts out on paper
    • Don’t focus so much on a specific prompt, but more on what you want to say about yourself

The Don’ts For your College Essay:

  1. Write a Soap Opera
    • Or a sports hero story…
    • It’s not about how “big” a problem or experience is; it’s about the college getting to know the real you
  2. Try to be funny if you aren’t
    • Humor is completely acceptable; if you use it regularly.
    • Don’t try to be someone else in your essay to impress the readers.
  3. Look to find your idea online
    •  Repeats get noticed!
    • And plagiarism is a big deal and a guaranteed denial into a university.
  4. Write about political and/or polarizing issues
    • You do want to stand out and make an impression on the college admissions readers, but in a positive way.
    • You may be able to express your thoughts on this in a supplemental essay though.
  5. Repeat your resume
    • The admissions office has already seen your activities, grades, and possibly test scores
    • Use your 650 words to tell another story about yourself
  6. Copy and paste
    • Don’t think of this essay as just another essay like you write in English class.
    • Make your essay standout.
  7. Pull out a thesaurus
    • You don’t want to use the same word over and over again, but you also don’t want to sound like someone you aren’t.
    • Remember to write in your own voice!

Writing your college essay can be a source of anguish, stress, and sometimes dread to rising seniors. This essay could be part of the package that helps gets you into the college you really want to attend next year. We understand the importance, and so do the colleges.

So do the hard work, write the drafts and revisions, tell a great story about you, but be yourself; that’s who colleges want to learn about! And yes, your essay may carry more weight in your overall application now, but that’s not a reason to panic or change course. The ultimate goal of the college essay is to show the school who you really are, and why you’d be a great fit in your own words. So be you and get writing!