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Writing the Competitive College Application Essay

The college application essay is among the most important components of a college application and many students are at a loss for what to write about. While parents cannot write their teen’s essay for them (trust me, the admissions committee will know), you can help your student by passing on the following information about how to understand the essay prompt, pick a compelling topic, and organize the discussion.

The first thing you and your teen need to know is that there are 3 types of college essay questions: the philosophical (or creative) question, the experiential question, and the “why our school?” question.

Understanding And Answering College Essay Questions

Philosophical / Creative

Philosophical questions like, “If you fail to succeed, have you failed?” can be truly intimidating for students.

Here’s the trick for a philosophical essay prompt – do not get bogged down in hypotheticals. Answer the question of course. But what you ultimately need to focus on is writing about you, your qualifications, and how you are prepared to succeed in college.

Here’s the trick: Do not get bogged down in hypotheticals. Answer the question, but what you ultimately need to focus on is writing about you, your qualifications, and how you are prepared to succeed in college.


These questions are aimed at the applicant’s unique life experiences. They’re usually something along the lines of “Describe a time in your life when you overcame a challenge.”

Pick an experience that was meaningful or transformational for you. Examples of meaningful experiences range from living abroad, winning or losing, creating something, a hobby or interest, dealing with an illness or death, or how your family’s culture shaped your worldview.

Why Our School?

If you are writing the college essay for your top choice school, it should not be too difficult. However, if you are not writing for your top choice (and don’t mention they aren’t your first choice!), you need to do some research on what the college offers and why it would be a good fit for you.

In this essay, a school wants to see that the applicant understands what the institution offers and that it’s the right fit for the applicant. You must take the time to research the school before writing this essay. The reasons must go beyond statements like, “The library is excellent” or “I love the gym.” Instead, highlight specific aspects about the university relevant to your academic and professional goals, and make a case for why you need to be at that school specifically to accomplish them.

What All 3 College Essay Questions Are Really Asking

Whether tackling the philosophical, experiential, or “why our school?” question, you absolutely need to include the following information:

  • Where have you been (your past accomplishments and defining experiences)
  • Where are you going (your goals for during and after college)
  • How are you prepared to succeed in college and contribute to the school’s community?

Picking a College Application Essay Topic

Start by reading and re-reading the prompt, ensuring you understand precisely what is being asked of you. Are you being asked to make an argument about something? Is the question open-ended or does it structure your discussion for you?

One of the best ways to pick a topic is to list out what you want to let the admissions committee know about you. What unique talents, skills, experiences, and personal qualities do you want to highlight?

Let me tell you right now — you do not need to have a dramatic, heart-rending story to win the attention of an admissions counselor. Most students write about what they know. That’s usually their family, their hobbies, their academic and professional interests, and their beliefs. 

Remember — Format Counts!

Make absolutely sure the college essay has an introduction with a thesis statement, defined points, and a conclusion. The thesis statement should explain WHAT you are arguing/discussing and HOW you are going to argue it.

If a word limit is given, do not go over it. Part of the application is to see if the student can follow directions.

Check the application’s instructions (and re-check) for any special rules regarding page numbers, headers with the student’s name, or how to submit the document. 

Support Your Student

If your teen is comfortable sharing his drafts with you, read the essay he wrote, not the one you want to see. Offer gentle suggestions about organization, grammar, and punctuation but refrain from telling your teen what she should discuss.

Ultimately, admissions officers want to hear from the student, so as long as the paper is coherent with well-articulated points, reassure your teen that she has written a strong college application essay.

Jessica Roberts is a Higher Education Consultant and founder of Aim High Writing College Consulting, where she works with students and parents on preparing competitive applications.

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