Welcome to Essay Hell’s
College Application Essay Guide
When you apply to a college or university, you first need to figure out what application system they use. The fastest way to figure this out is to visit their web site and search their admissions page. Or you can check out the different application systems’ web sites and see what colleges use them (find links to main college application systems on right.)
The good news is that there are several application systems now that consolidate the process. So instead of having to write long essays for each college your apply to, you typically only write one core essay (personal statement), which goes out to your target schools.
The main system is call The Common Application. There are a handful of others, including the Universal, Coalition and Cappex applications. Also, the University of California, and state Texas universities and colleges use their own application systems to consolidate the process for their schools.
Here Are The Main Application Systems
Used by Colleges and Universities
The Common Application (use this one if possible)
The Coalition for Access (skip if possible; must use if applying to U. of Washington, U. of Florida and U. of Maryland)
Cappex Application (starting September 2017)
The Universal College Application (not many schools use this one)
The University of California (for all UCs, such as Berkeley, UCLA, Santa Cruz, David, etc.)
ApplyTexas (all public universities and some colleges in Texas; including U. of Texas at Austin)
Once you figure out what application(s) you need to use, find the required essays and prompts—as well as specific writing strategies, tips and ideas on how to answer them—below. Or RETURN to Home page.
Everything You Need to Know About the Four Most Common Applications (Click Icons for Essay Prompts and Writing Strategies!)
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Feeling Pressure to Write
Don’t Do It!
Colleges and universities can no longer use your race as a factor in determining whether to accept you to their schools, since the landmark Supreme Court ruling on June 29th abolished most of Affirmative Action in our country.
Although schools are supposed to be colorblind now, many admissions officers are still on the prowl for minority students who can maintain the diversity on their campuses.
Being Black, Hispanic or Native Indian can still be a huge advantage in getting admitted to your dream school, especially the most competitive ones.
Since you no longer will be asked to check a box about your race, you may want to find other ways to let them know your heritage if you are a minority.
The most obvious place is in your college application essays.
Revealing your Race and Writing about Race are Very Different
That said, I would think twice before writing about the topic of race in general.
There’s a big difference between revealing your individual race in the context of what you have to say in your college app essay and writing about the nature of race or race-related issues as the central topic in your essay.
If you want to let your schools know your race, you can weave in details that will tip them off.
Mention that you were the first Black to join your local birdwatching club.
Or that you often cross the Mexican border in Texas on weekends to visit your grandmother.
Another example would be to talk about how you trained to dance in your first Powwow.
My main message here is that you can allude to your heritage in your essay–if you believe that will give you an advantage–but I don’t think tackling the larger subject of race will help you.
In fact, I think it could hurt.
As I say all over this blog, the main goal of your college application essay to find personal stories to share that will help you stand out from the competition.
The last thing you want is to write about topic that everyone else is using.
And this year, that could very well be the topic of race.
When the Supreme Court ruled to ban schools from using race as an admissions factor, the main Supreme Court Justice who pushed for this had a lot to say about the admissions process and specifically what students could write about in their essays.
And most of what he said was very confusing. (Not to mention, why does he have the authority to tell students what to write about, in these applications or anywhere? The ruling that effectively banned affirmative action is targeting those at colleges and universities who make the acceptance decisions, not the students who are applying.)
Bad Advice from the Top
In a nutshell, Chief Justice John G. Roberts told the court that it would be okay for schools to ask student applicants to discuss how race (ie discrimination) has affected them in their essays. At the same time, he warned schools not to use the essays to glean students’ individual race to use as a factor in their acceptance.
Yes, a very mixed message.
And one that was blasted out all over the national media.
But just because Roberts had a lot to say about race in college essays–saying that you can write about it in a very specific way–doesn’t mean you should write about it.
He was mainly defending his decision; not worrying about your chances of getting into your dream school.
Here’s one of his quotes on this subject: Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion [eg via their college app essay] of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise. … A benefit to a student who overcame racial discrimination, for example, must be tied to that student’s courage and determination. Or a benefit to a student whose heritage or culture motivated him or her to assume a leadership role or attain a particular goal must be tied to that student’s unique ability to contribute to the university. In other words, the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual — not on the basis of race.
I believe what Roberts didn’t understand is how admissions officers use these essays.
Or the fundamental fact that schools can only control what they ask students to write about (via essay prompts); they have no control over what students actually write.
At a time when many schools have dropped using standardized tests in the admissions process, the college application essay has become one of the last remaining tools admissions officers can use to select one student over the other.
At the most competitive schools, it’s even more important since so many students share almost identical applications filled with stellar grades, extracurricular activities and impressive accomplishments.
An effective college application essay (personal statement for The Common Application and other applications) must help a student stand out from the competition.
If an essay uses an overdone topic or theme (such as race), the college admissions officers can have a hard time using it to differentiate the writer from other students.
There are many topics that have traditionally been over-used, everything from writing about a torn ACL to a dying beloved grandfather.
Savvy college admissions consultants steer students away from these hackneyed topics for good reason.
Now we have the top judicial leader in the land telling students to write about race.
Pick a Topic that Works Best for You!
Chances are there will be multitudinous college application essays on this topic.
For that reason alone, these essays will not do their job for their authors–no matter how brilliantly they share their personal stories of discrimination or insights on the history of race in our country.
Of course, there could be a few that have an original twist or a personal story that jumps out at the reader.
I feel bad for college admissions officers who could be bombarded with essays on race this year, and lose that critical tool in understanding the unique personalities and character of their applicants–so they can pick the ones they feel will be the best pick at their school.
There are a million other topics out there that will help you showcase your individuality and greatness.
Keep your goal in mind while applying for schools at the top of your mind: you want to get accepted.
So unless the way race has impacted you in your life has been your most life-defining issue and you can find a compelling story to share to illuminate it, pick something else!
If you believe your admission chances could be boosted if a target school learns your race, feel free to weave in information about yourself that will clue them in. If you think it could hurt your chances, leave it out.
I assume colleges and universities are scrambling to adjust their applications and even essay prompts. So keep an eye out for any advice they are sending out in upcoming weeks and months, and hopefully you will get more clarification on this issue. (It’s possible schools will now include a new prompt asking students to write about how race affected them–but I doubt those essays will help admissions officers make their admittance decisions.)
In the meantime, don’t panic and keep your eye on the ball, and start brainstorming the perfect topic for YOU!
How to Write about Race
in your College App Essay
Post Affirmative Action
The Supreme Court knocked down Affirmative Action today.
This landmark ruling means colleges and universities will no longer be allowed to use race as a factor in who they admit.
Technically, there will no longer be race-based boxes to check on applications.
Whether you like this or not, the fallout in academia and the college admissions industry will be immediate and confusing.
Without the help of Affirmative Action policies, education officials still pursuing student diversity are expected to start using the college admissions essays as a way to discern students’ racial backgrounds–even though schools are now supposed to be colorblind in their selection process.
My understanding after reading the first round of news articles about the ruling is that it still allows schools to invite applicants to share “how race affected” them in their college application essays.
It’s a massive gray area, however, as to how far they will push these efforts when it comes to interpreting and enforcing the new ruling.
Should You Write About Your Race?
On the other end of the admissions process, students will need to decide if they want to use their college application essays to reveal their racial background, and/or as a platform to discuss “how race affected” them.
To me, this decision mainly depends on whether a student believes their race could help or hurt their admission chances.
And if and how they want to play this high-stakes game.
Up until now, it was generally considered an advantage if a student was Black or Hispanic, since predominantly white colleges and universities pursued more diversified student bodies in recent decades.
Students who were Asian, however, often found their ethnicity worked against them as they often comprised the highest percentage of applicants, and were turned down despite being among the most academically competitive. Especially at the most prestigious schools.
Sadly, many of my Asian students felt pressure to try to downplay their racial and even cultural backgrounds in their essays, even though those were often fascinating and life-defining influences in their lives.
Overall, I believe Asian applicants will benefit from this new “colorblind” mandate, and get the fair shake they deserve from colleges and universities. Especially the Ivies and other highly competitive schools.
It’s a pretty sick system when the message for college-bound students amounts to this: If you are a desired minority, such as Black, Hispanic or Native American, find a way to let your schools know this, using your college app essay if necessary to tip them off. If you are Asian (especially Chinese or Korean), a demographic many schools feel inundated with, keep your heritage on the low down. Of course, if you are white and privileged, especially having Legacy at a school, you are still sitting pretty. (Personally, I hope these glaring inequities are the final cue for colleges and universities to scrap their discriminatory legacy programs. Harvard and Yale, why not start with you?)
That said, if you do want your target schools to know your racial background, how do you write about it in your college application essay?
I assume you can’t get in trouble since it’s the schools that have been banned from using race in their admissions decisions. If you choose to share your race with them, that is not illegal. It’s up to them how they choose to solicit and use that information.
Personally, I don’t think a student should use their race as the main topic of her or his main college app essay. It’s too broad and generic, and would not be effective in setting you apart from other applicants.
However, if you want the school to know your racial background, you can feature that information in the background of your essay, especially if you share a personal story or experience about a quality or activity related to your racial background. (This is based on the advice from a Supreme Court Justice; see below)
There are other ways to more subtly reveal your racial background in your essays, if that’s your goal. Often telling details are naturally woven into your storytelling anyway. For instance, you could mention that your family attended the only all-Black church in your small town. Or that your parents were born and raised in Mexico City. Or share the time your grandmother brought you to your first Pow-wow.
If college admissions officers are actively looking for information about your racial background in these essays, little details like these will deliver the message loud and clear.
How Far Can You Go?
Here’s the best guidance we have so far in how to think about writing about your race in your essay, straight from the Supreme Court Justice most adamantly against affirmative action:
(This is from a story in The New York Times by Stephanie Saul. The link works if you are a subscriber, but it’s behind a paywall.)
In the decision striking down affirmative action policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote, “Nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life, so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university.”
However, the chief justice also took a shot across the bow at anyone who might be thinking that the essay could be used as a surreptitious means of racial selection.
“Despite the dissent’s assertion to the contrary, universities may not simply establish through the application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today,” he wrote, underscoring, “What cannot be done directly cannot be done indirectly.”
Not sure this clarifies things that much. This will be up to the colleges and universities, and their lawyers, to figure out.
Meanwhile, my best advice is to find a college application essay topic that helps you reveal what makes you tick, and share experiences that have defined how you learn and what you most care about. If those are related to your racial background, and/or you want to work in details that reveal your racial background, go for it!
Or just leave it all out, and keep them guessing.
Don’t let all this distract you from your main goal: to write a college application essay about what makes you unique and special.
Whether that involves your skin color or not is up to you.
ChatGPT Can’t Write Your Essay for You;
But Here are 5 Ways It Can Help You Write Your Own
I wrote a previous post about how the new AI bot called ChatGPT would not be able to write your college application essay for you.
At least not yet, and possibly never.
But I believe this writing, editing and research tool can be a powerful help to brainstorming, outlining, drafting and editing your college admission essays.
And it will be especially helpful to any college-bound students who are not confident in their writing skills, as well as international students who are writing in a second language.
I love how this tool can act as a fairness leveler for these essays and the application process!
And it will only get better with time. read more…
Sorry, Artificial Intelligence Won’t Save You
From the Dreaded College App Essay.
When I first heard about ChatGPT, and how this new artificial intelligence bot could write college essays for students, I thought, “Ugh oh, looks like my no one is going to need my services anymore” for help with their college application essays.
Apparently, the bot generates essays that can fool teachers and even Turnitin.com. Yikes!
Of course, the education world is freaking out. There’s talk of returning to pen and paper for essay assignments.
At the moment, the ChatGPT model by Open AI is free. So I tried it out.
(See below what it wrote when I entered: “Write a college application essay”)
My goal was to see if ChatGPT could write a viable college application essay.
Based on my results, it failed.
Why? read more…
Are you stuck in Essay Hell yet?
The season is upon us. Woot woot!
Finding a great topic can be challenging.
And then turning that into a written piece that sets you apart from other college applicants, and reveals your unique personality and character, even harder.
But let me show you a way to make the process simple, and effective.
Start here: Think of a time you faced some type of problem. read more…
I’m excited to work with students this summer who get to attend the My Pathway to College pre-college experience in sunny San Diego. During the weeklong conference, which will be held on the gorgeous campus at the University of San Diego (the private liberal arts college; not to be confused with the University of California at San Diego campus), I will take students through the process of writing their college application essays.
We will start with my popular, interactive brainstorming exercises that help students find that magic topic to help their applications stand out among the pack. Then I guide them to craft narrative-style, slice-of-life essays that showcase their unique personalities and character.
They will practice the most effective writing techniques, such as anecdotes, to power their essays and bring depth and meaning. At the end, they will learn tips and advice on self-editing and polishing their work. The goal is that students come home with a completed personal statement essay (often known as the “CommonApp Essay,” which they can use with their Common Application and other college or university applications.
To me, one of the best ways to help students decide where to apply to college is to spend time on campuses. This conference goes one step further, and invites students to actually live at one of the top liberal arts college campuses with other college-bound friends, where they will live in student dorms and dine together.
I have had the pleasure of working with the sponsor of the conference, Jennifer MacLure, an independent college admissions counselor from My Pathway to College, in the past, and am confident she and her team will create an exciting, supportive and productive environment for her lucky students.
Check out the video (above) that she put together on this conference so you can learn more about it, and if it’s something you or someone you know would be interested. Good luck!
A Great Essay Topic? Anything But the Coronavirus!
When counseling students on finding great topics for their college application essays, I often direct them to explore problems they have faced in their lives.
Problems provide the perfect springboard for writing a compelling personal statement. (Problems = challenge, obstacle, mistake, flaw, phobia, conflict, change, etc.) If you faced a problem, big or small, it means that:
1. Something interesting and personal happened
2. You had to deal with it
3. You learned something
This simple framework can help you share your personal stories in your essay, and then also examine, explore and share how they shaped you and what you care about (your values).
And voila! A college application essay that is engaging, meaningful and memorable.
So if this simple approach works, and all you need is a juicy problem to spin into an effective essay, wouldn’t you want to write about the biggest problem the world is facing right now?
A global pandemic that has literally shut down life as we know it, killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, snuffed out jobs, forced families to hide in their homes and has no clear end in sight?
Isn’t that the perfect topic?
Well, no. read more…
FREE Summer Essay Writing Webinars!
First one: Wednesday, July 8!
I know this is a hard time for many students and families. To do my small part to try to ease the financial strain due to the current pandemic, I will be offering FREE webinars this summer to help students get a head start on their college application essays. The first one will be Wednesday, July 8, at 3 p.m. via Zoom meetings.
During our sessions, I will walk you through the basics of what makes a great essay, and then help you brainstorm topic ideas. Time allowing, I will also share other advice and tips on structuring and editing essays to make them focused and meaningful. Students will learn the step-by-step process that I have taught thousands of students over the last decade. We will end with a Q&A session, so bring your questions (eg. topic ideas you have that you would like feedback on…).
The vibe will be very informal, friendly and encouraging and ideally leave you eager to get cranking on your college application essays! I will focus on advice and ideas on how write the most common essay–the personal statement. This is the first-person essay that you write about yourself, and is required for The Common Application, The Coalition Application and other applications, such as for scholarships, etc. The tips and instruction you get in this session should also help you with other college application essays, such as for the University of California, common supplemental essays, etc. It’s all about learning how to pick topics and write about yourself, and what you care about and why.
Participants Can Get My Companion Online Essay Writing Bootcamp Course for Only $20! (Normally almost $100!)
BONUS! Also, any students who would like access to my popular online essay writing course (that I sell for $99)–which includes my best-selling writing guides (eg Escape Essay Hell and Heavenly Essays), short instructional videos and other helpful resources–can get it by simply donating a minimum of $20 to any non-profit organization working to support the underprivileged in our country (just email copy of receipt). Any students who can’t afford this donation for whatever reason can get it for free by asking.
HOW TO SIGN UP: For a link to my first webinar on Wednesday, July 8, please send me, Janine Robinson, an email at: EssayHell@gmail.com. Depending on demand, I will be giving weekly webinars through the month of July and into August. Send me an email for future dates and/or watch this page. Tell your friends!
Here are a couple awesome organizations that could use your support (click name of organization to learn more about these groups and how to donate). Or pick one you like:
It’s Not Too Late to Capture Your Unique
COVID-19 Experience in a Journal
I know most of your are busy with online schooling. If you find extra time on your hands, and want a great way to practice narrative writing to prepare for your college application essays, start a diary about your Coronavirus experience as soon as you can.
For most of you, this could be the most dramatic, real-life experience of your life–and it’s happening right now.
For some of you, the hardest part so far has been the boredom of staying at home, cancelled events and not seeing friends. I hope that is your biggest problem. Many students will experience more intense repercussions from this pandemic, including losing loved ones, watching parents get laid off from jobs and enduring financial and emotional hardship.
All of you will have stories to tell. It’s not necessarily one long tale. But many small moments, incidents, conversations, emotions, insights, questions, conflicts, frustrations, jokes, and so on. If you’re smart, start collecting them now.
Trust me–someday you will be so glad you took the time to write down the details of your experience. You think you will never forget what it’s like now, but you will.
Also, keeping a Coronavirus diary (or journal, same thing) is an awesome exercise to learn the style of writing (narrative/story-telling) you will need to ace your college application essays.
This pandemic started a while ago, but you can start a diary capturing your unique and highly personal experience NOW! It’s not too late.
Even though COVID-19 most likely will not be a great essay topic on its own, there’s a strong chance it still will play a big or small part of your essays.
How to Start Your Diary or Journal
It’s best if you can find some type of self-contained notebook. Lined or unlined. Personal preference. If you don’t have one single notebook, just find a way to collect your pages, either in an envelope or folder. You can always bind them together later. You can also write on the computer. Create a file and get started (I would print out your work, if possible, as back-up.)
Find a time of day that works for you to spend at least 10-15 minutes to write. It can be in the morning or afternoon or before you go to bed–again, your call. Just make a commitment to write something–anything–every day. If you miss a day, or even several, don’t let that stop you. Dive back in whenever you can. Put a reminder on your phone.
At the top of each entry, put the day and date. Doodling is totally allowed!
Resist the urge to erase. Even if you re-read what you wrote, and it sounds dumb or cheesy or not how you want, just LEAVE IT ALONE. That is your voice at the moment, and it is fine. If what you write really bugs you, just don’t read it. Keep writing.
WHAT TO WRITE ABOUT?
Diaries are usually a mixture of recounting what happened to you during the last day or so, and your feelings about those events. You can give an overview of your day, or pick one or two interesting things that happened. It’s up to you. If you give an overview, stick with chronological order–start with how it began, what you did, and go from there. If you just want to share one thing that happened, just start with that. There are no rules.
The other part of a diary, besides telling what you did and what happened, is to write about what it meant to you. This can include a lot of reflecting, examining and analyzing what happened. You can also share how you felt and what you learned. (In your college application essays, especially personal statements like the Common App essay, you also recount something that happened to you–like telling a real-life story–and then you explain what it meant to you. See how they are similar?)
One writing tip to keep your Coronavirus diary balanced between what happened and what it meant to you is to shift back and forth. If you write a few sentences or paragraph about something that happened and those details, follow up with how you felt about it–especially your feelings and what you learned about yourself, others and the world. Then describe something else that happened, and reflect. Back and forth. Something happened => what it meant to you => something happened => what it meant to you….This writing technique (sometimes called the Ladder of Abstraction) is how you add depth–another skill you can use to power your college application essays.
LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS WRITING TECHNIQUE: How to Structure a College Application Essay
When you tell about your day, and the specifics of something that happened, make sure to includes tons of details. Name the movies you watched, the brand of cereal you ate, the friends you talked with, the words your dad used, the way your room looked, etc. These type of details will brighten your story and years down the road, you will laugh or even cry at many of them since you and your life will change.
A few more tips: Write like you talk. Don’t try to make your coronavirus diary sound like an English paper. You can use slang, or even foul language, if that’s how you talk. The important thing is that you will be capturing your authentic narrative “voice,” which is exactly what you want to use when writing your college application essay.
Also, stick to the past tense, even though you are writing about things that just happened. They are still in the past, and it reads better. Try to use the grammar, spelling, punctuation, and all that you know, so that it’s as readable as possible, but don’t sweat the them. Most important, you want to be able to read your diary later.
Use mainly first person. “I” “Me” “We” “Us”….
These are just some ideas on how to capture your experiences and feelings and observations about what’s going on right now with you. But there are NO RULES. This Coronavirus diary is yours, and your alone.
Some Prompts to Get You Going
The dreaded blank page. Yikes!! How do you start when this CV has been going on for a while and you have already been homebound for a week or more? Try something like this:
Start with your first impressions of the pandemic. How did you first hear about it? Where were you? What did you think? What went through your mind? How did you feel? This will help you start at the beginning of this CV phase of your life, and you can go from there until you bring it up to today.
“I’m not sure the exact moment I first heard about the Coronavirus, but I remember seeing a video on Facebook about someone in China……”
Share some details about other things you remember early on learning about it, from your friends, from social media, from your parents, etc. You can keep this short, or write about it over the next couple entries and days. Your call. At some point, you will start simply writing about what happened THAT DAY (or yestserday).
Talk about the first day you learned school was closed. Include how you felt. Scared? Disappointed? Angry? Depressed? Anxious? Share what your first day home was like. It will be interesting to see how that changes over the coming weeks, and possibly months. Did you start a routine? What did your parents tell you about what was happening and what to expect?
Still not sure what to write about? Just think back over your day. Did anything happen that made you laugh? Write about that moment. Did anything happen that upset you? Write about that moment. Did someone else do something weird or unexpected? Write about that. Just pick a small incident or conversation or moment, and simply tell what happened. If it comes to mind, it’s memorable to you and worth jotting down the details. Then, Boom. You have a Coronavirus diary entry.
REMEMBER: What you choose to write about does not need to be super exciting, life-changing, shocking or momentous to have value. It’s actually the everyday and ordinary moments and interactions that are the most meaningful since they are the most real to YOU. Trust what you cared about, and record it. If you have some more dramatic incidents, of course, record those as well!
Also, you don’t have to tie everything you write about directly to this Coronavirus. Everything that happens to you now IS related on some level because it is happening now during this pandemic. Simply focus on writing about how your life is now.
If things in your life are bad, all the more reason to write down what’s going on in your Coronavirus diary. Getting out what’s happening and especially how you feel about it can help you get through this. This won’t necessarily fix things, but it will help you handle them and can be helpful since you can get out your fears, worries, anger, whatever.
Hopefully, this will get you launched on your Coronavirus diary. You will never regret it, and again, you couldn’t have a better exercise to prepare for writing a killer personal statement for your college application essays. Big bonus!
We are in the middle of very weird and terrifying times. From reports I’ve read, we could return to some type of new normal within a matter of months. And then, looking back, this will be one of those bizarre nightmare experiences that you endured and will never forget. Your grandparents and parents had watershed times like the Great Depression, the Vietnam War, 911 and the 2008 Crash. This is yours, happening now. If you have a written record of how YOU handled it in your Coronavirus diary, you will value that for the rest of your life.
So get a notebook, jot down the day and date, and write something. Anything. Then put it down. Repeat.
I plan to write some follow-up posts with more tips and prompts for keeping your diary/journal going. So stay tuned!
Know the Main Point You Want to Make
About Yourself In Your Essay!
I don’t know why I haven’t written about this before. It’s soooooo important to writing a college application essay that will give you that edge in landing your dream school acceptance.
To start off, if you don’t know the Main Point of your college application essay, you are pretty much sunk right off the bat.
In my popular writing guide, Escape Essay Hell, I’m pretty sure I mentioned this somewhere in my step-by-step process. But I probably should have hammered this topic more.
If you are writing a personal statement style essay for say, The Common Application, or other college applications, the piece needs to be all about you.
So, as in all good writing, you can’t really begin until you have a clear idea of what you want to say. In this case, what you want to say about yourself.
Finding THE MAIN POINT YOU ARE GOING TO SAY ABOUT YOURSELF in your college application essay is similar, actually almost identical, to making a thesis statement.
Ugh. I know. I never liked having to deal with those. They make you think, and also make some hard decisions.
Why? Because you have to boil down your message to its essence. And that ain’t easy.
When you write a personal statement essay, you need to DECIDE what the main thing is you want to say. About yourself.
Trouble is, you can’t say everything. That would take a book.
So you must pick. Narrow it down. Frame it up. Decide on ONE main thing you want to tell these schools about yourself. ONE!
No, you can’t just say how great you are. Or, pick me, pick me, I’m super smart, and a hard worker and also play a mean sax. And did I mention I have 40,000 hours of community service?
Instead, you want to find ONE thing about yourself that you can write about that will help your target colleges and universities:
- Differentiate you from the other applicants
- Find you likable
- See that you are interesting
- Get a sense of your “intellectual vitality,” which mainly means you enjoy learning and thinking
- Remember you when they are making their cuts
This is where you want to start the brainstorming process to try to identify topics that you can use to show this ONE MAIN POINT about yourself to these schools.
Here are some topics students wrote about in the sample essays in my collection, Heavenly Essays: An obsession with junk collecting. Messing up while waiting tables. Coming from an in vitro egg. Road trip in Winnebago with parents. Getting stuck in a tree. Swallowing a goldfish. Having three older bossy sisters. Smiling too much.
Great topics! However, before these students could write about these ideas, they had to first know…you got it…THE MAIN POINT THEY WANTED TO MAKE ABOUT THEMSELVES in their essays.
Because these essays were not about these topics. They were about these students. And your essay needs to be about you.
When working one-on-one with students, I usually start by having them identify a short list of their defining qualities or characteristics. Then we pick one, and we use that to decide the ONE MAIN POINT they will write about themselves in their essay.
RELATED: How to Find Your Defining Qualities
I don’t know where you are at in the brainstorming or writing process. But see if this helps you identify your MAIN POINT:
Can you write: “I am the type of girl or guy who is _______________________ and it matters because ______________________.” ?
Try to fill in that first blank with one specific description of yourself, such as a defining quality or characteristic. The second blank will help you identify what you value and/or what you learned.
This is how you pick or decide what part of you you are going to showcase in your essay. This will give it focus and allow you to write about yourself without needing an entire book.
Remember, you are going to write about only one part of yourself.
Once you have a clear idea of your MAIN POINT, everything you have to say in your essay will relate, somehow, to this point. Everything you say will support this point, offer examples (little stories of you in action) of this point, explore and explain this point.
Check out this post, How to Write a College Application Essay in 3 Steps, to learn how to put together a narrative style personal statement essay that will cover all these goals. And of course, include your main point. You might not need to overtly state your main point, as with a thesis statement, but it will be in there somewhere.
If you want more help, my book, Escape Essay Hell, lays this all out step by step in more detail.
Remember, the MAIN POINT of these college application essays is to help you stand out among the competition. And you can’t stand out unless you first know the MAIN POINT about yourself that will help you do this best.
***Looking for help starting your essays? Check out my affordable Jumpstart Webinars! Adding more for July. Only $30. FREE if you can’t afford them.
Have a College Admissions Essay You Love? Send It In!
It been a little over five years since I published my best-selling collection of sample college application essays, called Heavenly Essays.
Most of the essays were written by former students, although I also included a handful by other students who submitted their pieces to me.
Now, I would love to add about a dozen new essays to this collection to keep it fresh and timely. (Mainly personal statement essays used for the Common App, Coalition App, Questbridge App and others core essays.)
Anyone is welcome to send in essays. Of course, I especially love hearing from former clients, but I know many other students have written excellent essays as well.
In Heavenly Essays, I included the essay, along with the student’s name, city/state/country, and school attended. At the end of each essay, I have written a short analysis where I shared my thoughts on what worked well and why, and what writing devices, ideas or techniques the writer used effectively. My goal is for students who read these essays, and my analyses, to learn how to craft their own narrative essays.
I believe one of the best ways students can learn how to write engaging and meaningful personal statement essays for their college applications is to read what others have written.
Not only can they get a sense of how these story-telling style essays are structured, and notice the more casual style and authentic voices, but students can also find inspiration for their own topic ideas.
Who knew you could write a killer essay about collecting trash, or messing up a food order while waiting tables, or coming from a family with big hips?
Those of you who have worked with students on their essays–college admissions counselors, English teachers and even parents–are all welcome to submit essays for my collection. Of course, you need to get the student’s permission.
You can either copy and paste them in an email, or attach them as Word or Google docs, and send them to my email: EssayHell@gmail.com
Please feel free to ask me any questions, too.
In my opinion, I think this is a great opportunity not only to share students’ work and inspire others, but publishing a personal piece of writing is a nice accomplishment.
I’m also happy to send a free copy of my collection of Heavenly Essays to anyone who wants to submit essays for these additions. Again, just send me an email.
(I also have a long-standing offer to anyone who buys any of my writing guides on Amazon, either digital or paperback version—Escape Essay Hell, Heavenly Essays or The Writing Survival Kit–and leaves a short star-rating and comments on its Amazon sales page, is welcome to a free digital copy of any of my guides. Just let me know if you left a review and what book you would like.)
Thanks for your support!
***Need in-person help getting starting? Check out my Jumpstart Webinars. Only $30! FREE if you can’t afford them. Two left this month!
Tips on Turning Problems into Hot Topics
So you have thought of a topic you want to write about in your college application essay.
I’m guessing it will fall into one of these three categories: the Good, the Bad or the Ugly.
If so, here’s tips on how to approach them so they make effective essays.
#1: How to Write About the GOOD in Your College Application Essay
Of course colleges want to hear about all the GOOD stuff you have done in your life so far, especially during your high school years. And it’s natural to want to stuff your college application essays with all those glowing details–about your achievements, your accomplishments, your shining personality and your stellar character.
Stop right there! The last thing you want to do with your essay is cram it full of lists of every good or impressive thing you have done. Not only would your essay be dull as dirt, but your application will already be loaded with details about your impressive grades, extra-curricular activities, awards, internships, etc.
Also, an essay that only talks about your good side can easily tip into a tone that comes across as boastful or arrogant, which is off-putting to readers (aka admissions officers).
Then how do you write about something good about yourself in your essay?
Easy! Start with something not so good about yourself.
If you are showcasing an accomplishment, start with a time when you were just starting to work towards it. Look for obstacles or challenges that were in your way. Share your frustrations, defeats, mistakes, conflicts, missteps, etc. After that, you can shift into how you overcame them and ultimately conquered your goal.
The point of sharing an accomplishment, achievement or something good about yourself in a personal statement essay is not only to let schools know what you did or how wonderful you are–but how you did it or got that way, why you did it, and what you learned in the process. That is what should make up the bulk of your essay if you want to write about the Good in your essay.
You will strike the right tone if you were first humbled by the challenge or obstacle. When you share how you worked toward your achievement, accomplishment or personal growth goal, you will indirectly reveal your impressive qualities.
Best of all, your college application essay will be interesting to read! What good is an essay if no one wants to read past the first sentence or two?
Start with the Bad–and then move into the Good! Works every time!
#2: How to Write About the BAD in your College Application Essay
I think topics about your Bad stuff usually make the strongest essays. They are the most interesting, and also give you the best platform to shift into all your Good stuff.
RELATED: Find Your Problems
I write a lot about how problems make awesome topics. If you think about problems you have faced in your past–especially the everyday, mundane ones–you will discover your little mini-stories, incidents, moments and experiences to power your essays. When you face a problem (challenge, obstacle, change, mistake, phobia, flaw, conflict…), it means that something happened. If something happened, then it’s interest to read about. You can also show how you turned that problem into a Good thing–because you dealt with it and learned something in the process.
When brainstorming topics for your essay, trust the times you had to handle problems. Almost any kind can work. You are terrified of the dark. You spent too much money at Target. You got caught gossiping about your best friend. You spilled coffee on a customer during your Starbucks job. You forgot your mom’s birthday. You got off the bus in the wrong neighborhood. You broke your dad’s favorite power tool. You dyed your hair orange by accident. You couldn’t afford the cost of your school trip to France.
Maybe you can’t believe you could spin an effective essay from a bad thing that happened to you. Won’t it be a giant downer and turn off your target schools?
Don’t believe me? Try reading some sample essays and see if you can spot some Bad stuff–and see how the writer turned it into an interesting and meaningful essay that ended up showcasing a lot of Good stuff. (Just put Sample Essay into the search box on this blog to find some. I also have a collection of sample essays available on Amazon, called Heavenly Essays.)
#3. How to Write about the UGLY in Your College Application Essay
When I say Ugly, I’m talking about the extreme Bad stuff. If you are lucky, you don’t have any Ugly in your life. That’s great!
However, many students have faced some really challenging realities and experiences. These can range from financial hardships to prejudices to illness, injury, death and other personal tragedies.
Should they write about these if they were so horrific?
I say YES. How could these circumstances or experiences not have shaped who they are, most likely in really Good ways?
That said, these highly dramatic or sensational topics can be tricky to write about.
What you want to avoid is an essay that describes all the Ugly stuff and only the Ugly stuff. Even though these details can be very moving and interesting, the essays need to be mainly about how the students handled these issues, and turned them into something positive as best as possible.
In fact, the most intense, tragic or Ugly the experience or situation, the less the student needs to write about it. Typically, a paragraph or two will convey enough for the reader to understand how hard it was. After that, time to shift into how the student dealt with the Ugly or handled it, and then what they learned from that process.
Another trick to handling a highly sensitive, emotional or tragic topic in a personal essay is to look for a smaller piece of that topic. Look for an example of the larger issue to share at the start of the essay, and then describe later the larger challenge. For instance, if a student writes about losing a parent, look for a moment, incident or experience that shows a related problem due to that loss. Maybe the student needs to find a resourceful way to get to school because no one is there to drive them. Or the student has learned how to buy groceries to feed the family now that mom is gone. (Notice that these are smaller “problems” that relate to the larger Ugly “problem.”)
Writing about these types of highly personal and often deeply painful topics can be extremely challenging. I think they can make powerful topics for college application essays if the student feels ready to explore and share them. Give it a try. If it’s too hard, bag it. There are many other topics out there!
Again, read sample essays to see how other students handled all these types of topics–the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Here’s a link to a few essays from Heavenly Essays to get you started (the second one, by Alex Segall is an excellent example of how to write about the Ugly): Sample Essays
Good luck! Remember, it’s not what you write about, but what you have to say about it that matters the most in these essays!
Need Help Starting Your Essays?
I have a Jumpstart Webinar THIS Saturday morning, June 22!
Only $30, includes my online essay writing course, too!
Keep Your Summer Chill!
Many of you are already out for summer, or at the finishing line. Yippee!!
If you’re now officially an incoming high school senior, or soon to be, it’s time to get cranking on your college application essay.
I’m sure you have heard that summer is the ideal time to start the brainstorming and writing process. If you can get them all done before the start of your senior year, all the better.
You most likely have heard these essays can be critical to your college acceptance chances.
Yes, it’s true they can matter, and sometimes tip the scales in your favor. No doubt it’s worth putting in significant time and effort on them.
But I believe it’s important not to fall for all the hype and madness around this application process.
I know when I’m stressed or anxious, my creative juices quickly shrivel up.
Once you start reading about college application essays on the Web, you most likely will find advice that uses intimidating words, such as “transformational” and “differentiating.” So-called experts like to say things like how it’s critical to “Be yourself” in your essay, and how these are your “Chance to shine.”
They aren’t wrong, necessarily. But all the ballyhoo isn’t very helpful if all you want to know is how and where to start, and what topic to write about, and how to craft it into an effective essay.
When you hear that a killer essay is one that shows you “transforming yourself,” that’s quite a directive. It means you had some type of dramatic change in your life, whether it was physical, emotional or even spiritual.
If you had that type of experience, good for you. And it could make a solid topic.
Most of us, however, by age 16 or 17 or even later, have not experienced that type of radical metamorphosis. So can you still write a great essay?
What I have found working with students on these essays and the search for the holy grail topic, is that the simple, everyday “mundane” ones usually work best. Same goes for life changes. They don’t need to be profound to be interesting and meaningful.
For instance, if you are rooting around for an interesting topic, and reflecting on ways you have changed in recent years, look for the smaller changes. Look for shifts, adjustments, alterations, smaller movements in your life. I believe the most interesting shifts come in your thinking, especially if you learned something new or unexpected, or saw something in a different light or context.
The idea is that your essay topic doesn’t need to be about a momentous change in your life. Instead, recall moments, incidents or experiences that happened in your recent past (high school years are best), and see if anything changed or shifted in your thinking (about yourself, about others or about the world) in the process of dealing with whatever went down.
That takes off the pressure to have had a radical life experience where you were one person, and then something happened, and suddenly you were an entirely different person. That rarely happens. Instead, brainstorm those everyday moments or “times,” and explore how your thinking changed. Even better, think about how what you cared about changed. Hint: those are called your values.
Colleges love to not only get a sense of your unique personalities in these essays, but they value seeing how you think, feel and behave, and what you value and learn, in these essays. You can write a “transformational” essay without having changed from a bad person to a good person, or a shy person to an outgoing person, etc.
You are changing all the time, and it can be hard to notice at the moment. Take a little time to think of things that have happened to you, and more time to examine how you responded to them. Another hint: best place to find interesting moments are those that involved problems.
Even if you are following me so far, you most likely are wondering what you do once you think of some of these personal changes or shifts, and how to spin them into a piece of writing.
I have written posts all over my Essay Hell blog on exactly what to do, and I also spell it out in my popular writing guide, Escape Essay Hell, and in my online writing bootcamp. I’m also walking students through this process in my Jumpstart webinars, which started this month. The next one is this Saturday, at 10 a.m., West Coast time, and I will have several more this month.
So many ways to get started on these essays. Pick one and get going!
I hope you are hearing my main point in this post: Don’t get freaked out by all the hype about what these essays are all about.
Like all the millions of students who have gone into Essay Hell before you, you will also find a topic and write a killer essay! Just buckle down at some point this summer, read up on what they are all about, pick what resources you think will help you the best, and you will find they aren’t that freaky after all.
Here are some of my best posts to get you launched:
GOOD LUCK!! You got this!
I’m back! Haven’t posted for many months.
I don’t know about you, but the recent college admission scandal gave me a total gut punch. All these rich people buying and cheating their way into colleges. Disgusting.
(In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, read this: They Had It Coming from The Atlantic.)
I did some soul-searching about my own role as an essay writing coach in this crazy college admissions industry. The unfair stress on kids, the insane antics of desperate parents and the toxic collusion of privilege and education.
Living in affluent Laguna Beach, California, the last 23 years, where several of the 33 parents charged in this scandal are from, I’ve worked with my share of oblivious, entitled parents. Most of the mothers and fathers, however, have been good people trying to do what they thought best for their kids–and I tried to focus on them.
When I learned about this scandal, and the sleazy college admissions counselor from nearby Newport Beach who masterminded the whole scam, I seriously considered quitting my Essay Hell business. It was too hard to ignore the sullied admissions world. When anyone asked me what I did for a living, I was embarrassed to tell them. And still am. Maybe I could start a dog-walking service or drive a school bus.
In the decade I have worked with students and others on these essays, I tried to stay outside the admissions frenzy and resisted the networking scene among the related industry “players.” I stuck to working with individual students, and coaching groups of teachers, counselors and others so they could help students learn how to write essays that were effective and meaningful. And also become better writers in the process! How could that be a bad thing?
My goal was to empower students with specific writing techniques and tips so they could find their unique stories and tell them in an engaging and meaningful narrative style. I did not try to game the system, or encourage gimmicks or shortcuts. And of course never wrote essays for students. (I know, I sound defensive. Guess I am a bit.)
Based on the feedback from students, parents and others over the years, most of those who did the hard work wrote outstanding essays and got into terrific schools. No cheating. No influencers. No bribes. (As far as I know. Sheesh!)
In the past, I charged a bundle for private hour-long tutoring sessions. I justified it because I’m good at what I do, have a lot of professional experience and thought my fees should reflect my value.
But charging $200 an hour for one-on-one coaching did put me in the hot seat of giving the most privileged students and families an edge in the admissions game. No denying that.
So I’m done with that for the time being. Now I’m in the process of revamping my services so that I can make my tutoring more accessible and feasible to all students. And I believe they can be equally effective and helpful.
The New Plan: Affordable (and FREE!) Webinars!
Here’s my plan. I’m still offering in-person and online essay-writing training workshops to groups of teachers, counselors and students. But no more private sessions, at least for now. And I intend to only offer editing services to students who start with my Jumpstart webinars and are on the right track from the get-go. (I believe that prevents too much intervention on my part, to keep it fair.)
Instead, I’m planning to offer my college application essay writing instruction and advice through group workshops online (webinars via YouTube Live) and keep them relatively cheap and simple. And I’m offering both my Jumpstart webinars FREE to those who can’t afford them.
Starting soon (June 15 first one!), I will offer hourlong online Webinar Jumpstart sessions. They will cost $30 each.
All webinars will also include access to my popular online College Application Essay Writing Course, which has 11 videos, handouts and ALL my essay writing guides on it (Escape Essay Hell and Heavenly Essays). This will be FREE (currently charge $99 just for the course!)
At first, these online workshops (webinars) will feature my trademark Jumpstart process, where I quickly help students understand what makes a great essay, and then step them through a step-by-step brainstorming process to identify killer topics, as well as how to structure their drafts. The idea is to help you get launched!
As summer gets rolling into fall, I will offer other follow-up workshops topics, such as How to Write the University of California Essays, How to Write the Most Common Supplemental Essays, How to Self Edit and Bump Up Essays, etc.
If this works out, I like to think that any or all students can get plenty of great inspiration and direction on how to write their essays–ALL of them–for around $100 or less. Some might only need one workshop, and they are off.
I also am offering my webinars, and the included online writing bootcamp (that includes my writing guides), FREE to all students who are underprivileged or underserved, as well as teachers, counselors, parents and others who work with them. Just email me and let me know your name, school, city/state, and background: EssayHell@gmail.com. I will send you the 100-percent-off discount code to purchase a webinar.
I would love to hear from you if my new approach sounds fair and a good way to get help on these essays. You can also put together your own group for a custom webinar if these dates don’t work for you. Please leave comments, ideas and questions in the comment section below. Or email me directly at: EssayHell@gmail.com.
Thanks for reading this. I hope I don’t sound like a martyr or that I’m looking for praise for these changes. They are mainly so that I feel good about what I’m doing, and thought I would try to explain the reason behind them.
So stay tuned!
Don’t worry about your essays and your future! You got this! And I hope I get the opportunity to help you.
How to Background an Anecdote
(Includes 5 writing examples at the bottom!)
If you’ve done your homework on how to write an effective college application essay, you probably know the place to start is with your real-life stories.
The idea is to find moments, incidents and experiences from your past that illustrate a larger point you want to make about yourself in your essay.
Often, the best place to share an engaging mini-story (also called an anecdote) is at the very start of your piece.
The anecdote (mini-story) serves to “hook” or grab your reader’s interest at the start—something you always want in a standout application essay.
However, once you share that little moment, incident or mini-story (anecdote) that you have plucked out of time with little to no introduction, where do you go after that first paragraph or two? read more…
Who Are You?
Tips and Resources to Think About Yourself
If you are working on your personal statement for The Common Application or other college applications, the first step is to start to think about yourself.
Sounds easy enough.
Who am I?
What am I like?
How did I get this way?
What do I care about?
How do I learn?
Why do I matter?
For some students, reflecting on and analyzing their backgrounds can be a snap.
They enjoy that type of introspective, heady thinking.
For others, it can feel intimidating and baffling.
No matter how you feel about this process, you need to know who you are—or at least have some opinions about this—in order to write a meaningful college application essay about yourself. read more…
Okay, so this is a bit of hyperbole on my part.
All students have plenty to write about for their college application essays.
However, from what I’ve seen working with college-bound students for the last decade, many of our most talented, driven and intelligent teenagers are living such parallel, over-achieving lives that they struggle to find an effective essay topic.
These are the same kids, many targeting Ivy League educations, who will need bull’s-eye essays to have even a shot of getting in.
It’s sad, unfair and ironic: The hardest working students have no time for a life. read more…
Find Your Problems
and You Will Find
Your Best Stories
Every year, I write a post for all you students who are ready to start your college application essay.
All you need is to find that one magic topic idea.
There are many ways to brainstorm ideas for college application essay topics.
This time, I’m going for the essay jugular and offering a brainstorm guide to start your college application essay by honing in on your best problems.
If you are new to this process of writing a narrative-style college application essay, let me clue you in to why problems are your golden ticket. read more…
What You Can Learn From
Michael Brown’s College Application Essay
I must have watched the viral video of Michael Brown learning he got into Stanford at least three times in a row.
Such a feat and well-deserved accomplishment for what seems like an all-around great kid!
Not only was Michael accepted to 20 of our top learning institutions—including Harvard, Stanford and Yale—but he got a full ride to each of them. As well as more than a quarter million dollars in scholarships. read more…
Let Lynda Barry Help You Find and Tell Your Best Stories!
Try One of Her Awesome Brainstorming Exercises
If you’re starting to brainstorm that perfect topic to craft your dreaded college application essay, I have a new writing technique you might find helpful.
I’m big on tapping mundane topics to inspire essays.
That means writing about everyday or ordinary experiences as opposed to those that try to impress or wow readers (aka college admissions folks).
Mundane topic example: My obsession with karaoke.
Trying-to-impress topic example: The time I played the star role in the school musical.
See the difference?
Which would you rather read about?
So when I discovered the brilliant writer and cartoonist Lynda Barry recently, and saw she also taps the mundane in life to help her students discover their personal stories, I couldn’t wait to share her ideas with those of you on the prowl for college application essay topics. read more…