The College Essay: ‘Impossible’ Until Students Are Confident About What to Write

By Sam Rosensohn

Students should write a college essay that only they can write. To do this they must write in their own voice about what they treasure most. This will separate their essay from the others.

A strong college essay provides evidence of a student’s most important achievement, what he cares about most in the world, and why college is important to him.

“When students lament, ‘I’ve never done anything like this before,’ they’re right,” says Sarah M. McGinty, author of The College Application Essay.

An essay that asks students to define themselves is a far cry from “the short analytical papers about historical events, books, documents and lab reports,” McGinty wrote.

“We are trying as hard as we can to get a feeling for who this person is,” states the admissions office at Yale. “The pieces of paper really do represent them pretty well.” So Yale suggests: “Just try and be as honest and open as they can be.”

One way for students to breathe easier about all of this is to look at a wide variety of well-written essays.  Students can ask at school if there are some exceptional essays they can review. They can also look at The Princeton Review’s College Essays That Make a Difference (there are 89 real college essays in the book).

An excellent essay simply “shows you at your alive and thinking best, a person worth listening to – not just for the ten minutes it takes to read your application, but for the next four years,” notes Harry Bauld, author of On Writing the College Application Essay.

Bauld, a former admissions officer at Brown University and assistant director of admissions at Columbia University, encourages a student to say “what he knows in a fresh way that allows us to see for ourselves who he is.”

He discourages students from attempting to say something “startling and new, or strain to be different.”

I agree. At the moment there is a growing trend that has seniors writing highly stylized essays that are short on genuine autobiography.

I’ve watched students labor for hours over what they perceive to be catchy first sentences that convey little information about themselves.

This is not to say that a good essay shouldn’t dazzle from the opening; it’s to say that honest autobiography trumps style every time.

So before you get started, why not take a few pointers from the folks at the University of California at Berkley who put together some terrific suggestions that they’ve called Characteristics of a Good Personal Statement.

They say a good college essay …

-Is thoughtful and honest

A strong personal statement is reflective; that is, it demonstrates that you have thought about and gained a clear perspective on your experiences and what you want in your future. It gives the reader a vivid and compelling picture of you – in essence, telling the reader what he or she should know about you. Remember that the focus of the essay is you – your achievements, your obstacles, your goals, your values.

-Strives for depth, not breadth

A good essay is not a list of your accomplishments. Remember when your mom told you that it’s quality, not quantity that counts? Well, the same adage applies for your college essay. A reader will be much more interested in how your experience demonstrates the theme of your essay, not the number of accomplishments you can list.

-Follows the conventions of good writing

A good essay uses appropriate grammar and syntax, uses precise and vivid language, and does not contain any spelling errors.

-Conforms to guidelines

If the essay instructions tell you that the essay should be two pages long, on white 8.5×11 inch paper, then the essay should be two pages long, on white 8.5×11 inch paper.

-Answers the question!

A good essay is the result of a writer who has examined the essay question and written an essay that explicitly addresses that question.

-Benefits from several drafts and feedback from others

Revision allows an essay to grow. Revising is not editing; revising is the act of “re-seeing” and of looking for those parts of the essay that would benefit from more explication, more (or less) vivid language, or even deleting parts that simply don’t work to move your primary theme forward.

-Contains a catchy introduction that will keep the reader interested

It is important to recognize that essay readers will read hundreds, maybe even thousands, of essays during the application review period. That means that an essay with a catchy introduction, one that gets right to the point and uses precise language and vivid imagery, is going to stand our more than an essay that is predictable and conventional in its opener.

-Transforms blemishes into positives

It’s okay to have flaws! The essay is your chance to show how you have transformed blemishes. For example, if your essay theme is “overcoming obstacles” and you earned a poor grade in a class, but went to a community college at night to repeat the course, it is important for your reader to know this because it is an example of your perseverance.

-Demonstrates your knowledge of the major/college

No one expects you to know everything about the college or university to which you are applying. However, readers will want to know that you have done your homework. For example, if you write an essay that states your interest in becoming an engineer, but the college does not have an engineering program, then you haven’t done your homework.

-Exudes confidence–you will be successful no matter what

A good essay doesn’t beg or brag. Colleges and universities want to admit the best students, and the best students are those who can demonstrate their ability to pursue their goals regardless of where they are admitted. Think of this as quiet confidence – the kind that reveals itself through your description of lifelong interests, sustained commitment, and/or perseverance in the face of adversity.

Sam Rosensohn is the founder of College Planning Partnerships, which offers prep classes for the SAT and helps students to prepare for college and write college essays. He can be reached in Clinton at 860-664-9857 or at