How to Start Writing the College Essay You Don’t Want to Write

Most students save writing the college essay for last, and putting it off, as we all know, just adds to the stress of the college application process. So here are some ideas that work well, particularly if you agree that the hardest part of writing is knowing what you want to say. Answers to any one of these questions might spark just what you want to share with admissions.  

1) If your best friends were asked to share one wonderful thing about you that nobody knows, what would they say?

2) What have you done for a very long time and why? We know of a student who was accepted to Dartmouth who wrote about the lawnmower business he started in eighth grade and ran all the way through high school. 

3) Given the hand you were dealt and the circumstances of your youth, what have you done that you feel really good about?  This allows colleges to see what you’ve made of your life. 

4) Surprise your reader. We had a football player write a compelling essay about how he also knitted hats for people who could not afford warm winter outerwear. 

5) Remain authentic. Readers are looking for you to write about what you feel strongly or care deeply about. Make sure to tell your story through that portion of your history and how it has influenced you.  

6) Think about what separates you from your classmates in a positive way, and see if those specific qualities or activities can make the basis of an essay. We’ve had students who collected river rocks, were amateur stargazers, loved Scrabble, and it doesn’t have to start sunny and bright. We had a student write about his father who was killed at The World Trade Center on 9/11, and why he chose to fight for peace rather than war. He wanted to find ways to end hatred.  

7) The best essays are memorable, so find one thing to focus on and make sure that one thing is YOU. That’s who admissions wants to learn about. We worked with a girl who wrote a winning essay about why she looked forward to drying the dishes after dinner each night.  

8) Admissions officers are more interested in reading about what you’ve done than reading about what you want to do. Whatever you write about, make sure it broadens your profile. 

9) If you’re at the top of your class and have strong SAT or ACT scores, then you have more freedom to write something less formal, more off the dotted line. There’s a classic college essay about a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread, and why that sandwich is so much like the writer and why both are so darn good.  

10) Whether your essay falls under the heading of traditional, experimental or somewhere in the middle, be sure to write several drafts. The first one will likely be awful, but that’s the nature of first drafts and you’ll have something to work with, so no need to despair. The second will be a little better.

Then ask your parents or an adult for their take as they are going to be closer in age to your audience. We once had a student write an essay about how he broke into people’s homes and stole stuff. We had another student write an essay about how she wouldn’t settle for anything less than excellent of herself. In her essay she appeared to be a borderline masochist. While it was an authentic essay, this – or anything that suggests unresolved, serious emotional issues – is not what you want to share. Colleges are looking for healthy, well-rounded students to fill their campuses.  Also make sure to have someone read for content and grammar. A poorly edited essay will hurt your chances of admission. 

11) Above all don’t start writing until you’ve thought the whole essay through: introduction, body paragraphs and conclusion, and never lose sight that the hardest part of writing is knowing what you want to say, so figure that out and the process will go a lot better and a lot faster.

You can read through some examples of strong college essays here.