Essay Tips to Consider

One mistake I see repeatedly is students who feel that they MUST answer the prompt as closely as possible. They have been dutifully trained to do so their whole lives. It is what gets you an A in school. But this is the one time when that isn’t necessarily the best policy.

Remember this:

  • The admissions officer reading your essay did not write the prompts. Their goal really isn’t to know the answer to the prompt. It is to know you.
  • The question they are trying to answer is what else is there to you that doesn’t show up in the rest of the app that should make them want you on campus? The essay is what makes you 3D to them. It is a chance to show them what makes you tick and what could make you a positive addition to their campus.
  • Sure, you need to loosely answer one of the prompts. But figure out what you want to tell, then fit it to a prompt.
  • A great essay can turn on a small thing. One of my kids had an essay published as an example of “how to” for college essays. It included a description of trying out her foreign language skills on the host family’s dog in a foreign country – it was only a part of the essay, but it had some self deprecating humor that I think really made the essay. My other kid wrote about how she has secretly been imitating a famous literary figure since middle school with some serous and some funny results. She got in everyplace she applied, including some top schools, even with a slightly soft GPA.
  • Those poor admissions officers read hundreds of essays on the same prompts every year. Unless you have a whale of a sob story (immigrant boat people or homelessness type big), my advice is to look for something positive to write about. Things that seem huge to a teen (secrets about sexuality, overly religious parents, abusive parents, etc) are not uncommon themes, but also don’t really make you stand out in a positive way.
  • Anything about mental health is a bad topic. Even if you think you’ve licked it, they know it could come back. And they would rather not deal with that on campus.
  • The admissions officer has to meet with the team and make a case for you. They’ll shorthand you as they debate it – it is probably better to be the "kid who loves reciting Chaucer " than the “depressed kid from Connecticut”.
  • Teens are notoriously terrible at judging the quality of their essays and how they will come across. They are also awful judges of whether any humor they’ve included is funny to an adult. Get an adult editor who has some understanding of the admissions process.

Here’s another tip: be likable in your essay. Colleges want to admit people they like.

I have seen many essays, both good and bad. The most effective ones often hinge on some small story that reveals the student’s personality.


If you had to recommend a number of proofreader/quality checks for an essay, what would it be?

I think too many people reviewing it can make it into an essay that sounds like it was written by a committee. My kids had one reader (me). I’d say 2 max. And none of them other teenagers. English teachers, college counselors, parents with some savvy about the admissions process (some parents do NOT have that – they want to make the essay into a “brag sheet”, which is not what you are trying to do).

I did offer my kids the option of hiring a paid counselor for essay support (the only part of the admission process I would have paid for). They turned it down. For D2, we did almost all of it by email. With subject lines from her like, “Essay Torture Continues” or “Essay Version 9,833,222 - Can Dobby Be Free?” They both managed to get them done and get into college. :slight_smile:

My kid had two readers who suggested edits, but she also let her friends read it. IMO, that’s pointless. Teen friends rarely give honest or helpful critiques.

I would say two or three people max. Too many cooks in the kitchen otherwise.

Wonderful advice from @intparent We too focused on what the kid wanted to share about himself, and then figured out which prompt it might credibly fall under. My kid was applying only to LACs and, as an upper middle class white kid with few significant challenges in his life (unless you count being reluctant to sit down and read), we worked backwards from what mattered about who he is. So, he didn’t start out with “I want to write about x” – he started out thinking about what why would the school want HIM instead of some other upper middle class white boy – not in terms of ECs but in terms of character and values. Then he figured out how to illustrate those qualities in an amusing way.

As always, key advice in essay writing is “show, don’t tell.” For ex., illustrate how you are open-minded through anecdotes, rather than say “Being open-minded is an important part of me.”

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Thanks @intparent for these suggestions. You mentioned “Anything about mental health is a bad topic. Even if you think you’ve licked it, they know it could come back. And they would rather not deal with that on campus.” ---- but what about mental health not of our D but that D became the “go-to-to-seek-advice or go-to-to-seek-refuge” from D’s friends? Can D use this experience to show how she failed to help her friends but at the same time time when she learned more about herself and how this experience sparked her interest in pursuing a career to address such issues?

@ceomommy21 : I think that has the potential to be an excellent essay.

Yes, as long as the essay is more about herself and doesn’t reveal too much personal info about others, that could be good. What they are wary of is a kid’s own mental health issues cropping up again.

Thanks @AboutTheSame and @intparent

So we got our D’s essay looked into by her English AP teacher and he did gave a few points to consider which I thought was helpful. My D thankfully heed his advice. Then one of my husband’s friend reviewed it (friend works at a college admission office – D not applying there) and was highly critical about D’s essay to the point that friend wanted D to start from scratch.

Now, the last pair of eyes that had reviewed D’s essay is from a consulting firm that we paid for to help us with the whole college process — and the reviewer’s comments and (suggested edits) on D’s essay was that it was a great essay with minor “mistakes”.

Who do we believe in? I guess it all depends now on whose desk Ds essay lands or depends I guess on the mood of the admission officer reading Ds essay at that time.

Nice job intparent. Just to add, whatever you write, make sure grammar and spelling are checked. Also, the essay is supposed to be about you. If some one were to pick your essay out of a pile, it’s supposed to be unmistakenly yours. It can’t be generic to the point, anyone could have written it. Take time to edit and polish. It is well worth the time.

I guess it depends on what the criticisms of the second reader were. And what kind of role they have in admissions, and whether it is the same type of school your kid is applying to.

In the end, letting a kid feel she did her best sometimes outweighs the search for perfection.

Just remember, it’s not some random tale, the point is to show the attributes those colleges want to see. And recent.

It helps to try to understand what those attributes are. @ceomommy21 she could use that, it could show kind, willing, open, non-judgmental, etc. The self awareness and reflection can be good. But imo, be careful it doesn’t somehow portray her as stuck in this role, unable to weigh other priorities, or that it somehow self glorifies. Plus, beyond her own friends, did it lead her to other involvements, impact beyond the close friend circle?

@lookingforward Yes, that is so true. Thanks for the advise. As of now, D is still without an essay that she could call “the one”.

I think the lesson here is that D should just write not to impress or think what the College Admission officers are looking for and just write who she is focusing on her values/attributes.

Really amazing advice intparent. Thanks for for sharing it here.

Adults in admissions know that while students think they have licked a mental health issue, they often come back. And colleges want to avoid that on their campuses. It does not help your application. You may still get in at schools hurting for paying applicants. But it weakens your app.

It has nothing to do with forgiveness. It has everything to do with wanting to admit students who will finish their degrees, won’t use tons of health center resources, and won’t have breakdowns or worse on campus. Colleges are businesses – don’t forget it for a second when applying.

“how someone overcame their depression through finding something they identify with and focusing it on that identity.”

But in an admissions essay, this so often is just not the relevant focus.

The college app essay isn’t a tell-all for a high school teacher who wants to see how a kid probes and reveals. A teacher who already knows the kid. And very few, even adults, can write about depression or mental illness with the right balance or perspective.

If the healed life is the triumph, one could focus on that, the good she does. They have to find the right tale. Right for adcoms.

A Columbia admissions officer once said that your essay should be so about you, that if it fell on the floor without a name, a classmate could pick it up and identify the author. If you are all about your mental illness, then write about that. But if you prefer to be identified by some other attribute of your personality, that is probably a better topic.

I just worked with a student the other day who chose to write about his mental illness. This essay didn’t focus on anything positive about the illness. It was downright grim and negative. I asked the student how the essay, as it was, helped his application. He had no answer, and he then understood why it wasn’t going to work. However, he felt strongly that he wanted to talk about this issue in some way. We worked on finding a different focus, and he is totally rewriting the essay, making the main topic about how he started meeting people once he was able to get over preconceived notions of people in the same boat as him.

This student isn’t aiming high, and will now have a decent essay. I still don’t think he should have chosen to write about the issue, but that isn’t my choice to make, and he is aware of why the topic is risky. As @intparent said, and as I explained to the student, they don’t want to enrol students who might drop out, because they lose money. They want people who they feel will stick around and generate revenue.

If you feel compelled to write about your mental health, it really does need to focus on anything positive that can be gleaned from the experience.

@lookingforward I disagree. The common application includes a prompt about your identity. Someone could strongly feel that they found their identity through them coping with their mental illness. Coping with the mental illness could be used as an anecdote to introduce the identity they defined.

It’s a college app.

Know what your targets do want to see. Disclosing seems like a big brave step. But it’s not the purpose of the CA essay or any writing there or in your supps. Adcoms aren’t there to empathize, praise, and encourage, the way friends, families, teachers are.

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