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How to Write a Winning College Essay: 4 Easy Steps to Get Started

When it comes to the college application process, students know there’s so much riding on the essay. This is their chance to stand out from the crowd, but how? Our experts break it down into simple, manageable steps.

And parents? Step one is to take a big step back.

Why is the Essay Important?

The college essay is the best opportunity for students to tell the college admissions officer something about themselves that might not be evident from reading the rest of the application.

A college wants to create a freshman class of students with different backgrounds, areas of interest, and experiences,” says Cyndy McDonald, an independent college counselor with more than 25 years of experience guiding students through the college search process. “The only way they can know that is through the personal statement or essay portion,” she says.

That’s why it’s so important that the essay contain this essential component: the student’s authentic voice. Parents who are tempted to help their students with this part of the application process are not doing their students any favors, says McDonald. “Colleges can tell the difference between a 17-year-old voice and a 44-year-old voice,” she says—and they want to hear from the student.

Getting Started

The summer before junior year is a good time for students to start jotting down ideas they may want to channel into their essay, including what activities, interests, or people matter most to them. These will likely serve as the foundation for their essay topic.

And while parents should be prepared to stay out of the way during the writing portion of the essay, brainstorming is one area where their input can be helpful.

“Often, parents will remember or think of things from a much broader perspective than the student will,” says McDonald.

Students will continue to work on their essays throughout junior year. They should plan to have them completed before senior year begins. “Whatever you do, don’t wait until the last minute,” says McDonald. Several drafts will be needed before the final version is complete.

Overcoming Blank-Page Syndrome

“In talking with hundreds of students, teachers, and counselors about the college essay, they all agree that the hardest part is just getting started,” says Howard Reichman, president of EssayDog, a software platform that helps guide students through the process of crafting a successful essay.

But the process doesn’t need to be anxiety-ridden, says Reichman. “If you can find a way to game-ify it, the process can even be enjoyable.”

A Hollywood screenwriter and movie consultant, Reichman knows from experience that the first step to overcome what he terms “Blank-Page Syndrome” is to just get something on the page. Anything—it doesn’t have to be perfect right off the bat.

To start, he recommends replacing the word “essay” with the word “story.”

“Every story has certain key elements that make it effective, intriguing, and engaging. And anyone can learn to use those elements to tell a good story,” says Reichman.

Rather than trying to conceptualize the whole story at once, he suggests students begin by writing just four simple sentences:

  • Sentence one: Identify the initial plan, which sets in place the foundation of your story.
  • Sentence two: Identify the anticipated outcome. This will help to create depth and meaning later on.
  • Sentence three: Describe your setback. “Every good story has a complication, failure, or change of expected direction,” says Reichman.
  • Sentence four: Identify the discovery. What did you learn about yourself from this experience? What insight did you gain?

“One of the things that makes for a great story is the unexpected nature of it,” says Reichman. The story need not be dramatic to be compelling, though. “It might be something that seems insignificant to someone else, but is meaningful to you,” he says.

Banish the Laundry List

The college already knows what courses you’ve taken, what kind of student you are, and what activities you’re involved in from reading your transcript and teacher recommendations. “Avoid giving a laundry list or chronology of your accomplishments,” says McDonald.

Instead, Reichman recommends that students focus on the “Four P’s” to help bring their differentiating qualities to the forefront, namely:

  • Passion: What drives you?
  • Personality: How would people who know you well describe you, and does that come through in your writing?
  • Perseverance: How have you handled setbacks, failures, or roadblocks?
  • Potential: What will you bring to the college, and what can the college help you to become?

“When you communicate the four P’s, you increase your chances of making a connection with those who read your essay,” adds Reichman, “When admissions staff make this connection, they tend to see that student in a better light.”

Maureen Mathis, assistant provost at Saint Joseph’s University near Philadelphia, also offers this wisdom: “For 95 percent of the students applying to college, the essay portion is not the deciding factor in their admission; it is one piece of the puzzle,” she says. “We are interested in hearing what the student learned from this event or from this wonderful person they are writing about, not just a description of the person or the event.”

Mathis adds, “If there is any kind of ‘hiccup’ in the student’s academic record, the essay provides an opportunity for the student to explain what happened in their own words.”

Refining Your Authentic Voice

Says Mathis, “This is academic writing, not texting or talking to a friend.” So students should pay attention to sentence structure, grammar, and spelling. And everyone needs an editor. Be sure to show your essay to one or more trusted resource—a teacher, counselor, or parent—ideally more than once.

However, she cautions, “Parents can help edit and refine, but it is so important that the essay contain the student’s words and ideas. What really stands out to me is when a student is writing from their heart.”

Jennifer Proe was a writer and editor with Your Teen Media. 

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