Writing the college essay

The Essay that Starts with a Dialogue with the Police Or How a Parent can Make an Interesting Essay Ponderous

Psychologist and counselor Jeanette Spires joins us again this month to talk about the essay, why it's a good idea to avoid too much "help" from parents, and what it means to show a college what matters to you.

What feels most out of control in the college admission world?   The winner may be the essay process. There is plenty of research indicating that the rigor of high school classes and the grades earned by students are the best predictors of success. But essays do not lend themselves to statistical study. Years ago when I began as a college counselor, there was something of an honor code about essays for competitive colleges. Today, checking search engines leads you to sites offering to take care of that onerous task for you.  "Harvard writers!"  Now why would a high school student want an essay written by a college graduate?  Ding-dong! The admissions reader isn't stupid.

Seniors: Helpful Hints for the Essay and Putting You on Paper

Seniors, last week we offered you a writing exercise to help get you started on your essays -- though we hope that you already have made some headway! Here's what you need to remember as you continue: the real topic is you. Whatever the essay is about on the surface, colleges care what the essay says about you. If you're still looking for the words that put you onto paper, here are some helpful hints:

Put a microscope to your life. Take a look at the little things around you. Go to your room and look at what’s on the walls, what’s under the bed, the things you’ve kept since second grade, or what about the thing you threw away that you really miss now. Where in the house do you spend the most time? Look for inspiration right under your nose. Ask yourself some of these questions:

• How do I spend my time?

• What do I like to do?

• What do I think about most of the time?

• What are the things that truly matter to me?

• What is my family like? Do we have any interesting rituals about dinners or board games or TV shows?

• What would I say about myself if I had to omit any mention of my extracurricular activities?

• When I think about who I am or what I care about, is there a particular day, moment, or event that was important in shaping that?

• If I, like Tom Sawyer, had a chance to eavesdrop at my own funeral, what would people say about me?

Seniors: An Exercise to Help with Your Essays

Seniors, how go your essays? If you’re struggling a little, we have an exercise we’ve found to be particularly effective for students whether they’re just starting or working on that fourth or fifth supplement! It’s one of our favorite writing prompts and one we often use when working with students in essay workshops: making a list.


Just sit down at the computer, set a timer for 5 minutes and start writing a list beginning with the prompt:

    I'm really good at…


And to give you a better idea of how this works, we’re sharing our own lists with you.

Here is Robin Mamlet's:

    I'm really good at:

    Envisioning possibility

    Words with Friends

    Being a mom

    Making Panini

    Growing tomatoes


    Drawing out others

    Snuggling with my kids on the couch

            Learning new things


Seniors: What are colleges looking for in the essay?

As you work on finishing up your essays, don't psych yourself out by thinking the essay has to do all the heavy lifting in a college application. It is only one of many pieces. Keep in mind the two things that colleges are looking for when they read your essay:

First, can you write? Colleges want to know if your ability to write meets the academic standards of the college. They want to see that you can take a thought and develop it in a clear and organized fashion, using proper grammar. No typos, please. Your ease with language and ability to write in an engaging and thoughtful way shows them that you can express yourself effectively and that you possess the intellectual ability and readiness for college work.

Second, who are you? Admission officers want to hear your voice and know more about you when they have finished your essay than they did before they started reading it. Above all, they are trying to learn what impact you will have on their community. Will you make their school a better place simply by being a part of it -- whether that’s in the classroom, chemistry lab, a residence hall, or theater program. Colleges look for who you are in the application as a whole and the essays are one place in particular where this can be seen most clearly. So tell a story only you can tell.

Writing the Essay: Pushing the Right Brick for Diagon Alley

Today, we welcome guest blogger Irena Smith, a writer, teacher, and independent college consultant, on how to find the story you will tell in your college essay. Spoiler alert: it might be as simple as knowing the right brick to push to enter Diagon Alley or having a reputation for eating like a defensive lineman. 

There is an old saw, beloved of debate teachers and public speaking coaches, that goes something like this: at any given funeral, given the choice between lying in the coffin or delivering the eulogy, most people would rather be in the coffin. The point is not a subtle one: not many people love public speaking.