Arianna Campbell December 28, 2017

College application essay: What You Write About Says Something About You

Underlying all essay questions is choice. The essay question may be direct and ask you to choose something about yourself to discuss, or it may be indirect and require you to write about something such as an event, book, or quotation.

Why Your Choice of Essay Matters

The college regards your choices as a way to evaluate your preferences, values, mental processes, creativity, sense of humor, and depth of knowledge. Your writing reflects your power of persuasion, organizational abilities, style, and mastery of standard written English. Your essay topic reveals your preferences.

Here is what colleges look for:

Your Preferences: Your essay topic reveals your preferences. Are you an arts person or a hard-facts science type? Certainly, there is a difference between the person who’d like to talk about the Cold War with Machiavelli and someone who’d like to get painting tips from Jackson Pollock.

Your Values: Choice also reflects values. The person who drives a beat-up, rusty, 1971 Volkswagen is making a statement about how she wants to spend her money and what she cares about. We say, “That dress isn’t me” or “I’m not a cat person.” In choosing, you indicate what matters to you and how you perceive yourself.

Your Thought Process: Choosing shows how you think. Are you whimsical, a person who chooses on impulse? Or are you methodical and careful, a person who gathers background information before choosing? Questions about you and about career and college reflect these choosing patterns. Even a question about a national issue can show your particular thinking style, level of intelligence, and insight.

Think About Topics

The topic you select for your essay can also reveal much about who you are. Yale’s application instructs: “In the past, candidates have used this space in great variety of ways…. There is no ‘correct’ way to respond to this essay request….” No answer is wrong, but sloppy, general, insincere, or tasteless responses can hurt your cause.

Some of the best essays—the memorable and unusual ones—are about very similar, just more focused, topics. Essays about your family, football team, trip to France, parents’ divorce, or twin can be effective as long as they’re focused and specific: a single Christmas Eve church service, a meal of boiled tongue in Grenoble, or dipping ice cream on a summer job.


What’s in a College Essay?

Understanding What Colleges Are Looking for in Your Child

The college essay gives your child a chance to communicate with the school on a more personal level. Other parts of your child’s application—grades, scores, and recommendations—show what your child has done. Your child’s college essay reveals who she is. It can be a strong voice in your child’s favor and a way to stand out from the rest.

An Essay of Self-Analysis

Self-analysis isn’t easy and it can be especially hard to do at this point in your child’s life, when many of her goals and plans are unsettled.

Your child may already have confronted this problem at college interviews. Admissions people ask, “Tell us about yourself” or “What are your hopes and aspirations?” These are questions that require some thought, and they’re pretty hard. The essay is a chance to demonstrate which questions your child has asked herself and what answers she has found.

Writing Evaluation

Your child’s college essay is going to be examined as a clue to her writing ability by an audience that is both critical and crucial. For example, Columbia University lets your child know what they’re looking for right on the application: “Please remember that we are concerned not only with the substance of your prose but with your writing as well.” After all, a very large part of your child’s performance and evaluation in college will be based on essays and written tests.

Writing Samples

Some schools require or encourage submission of an academic essay or writing sample. There’s no reason not to send a school essay. Your child should choose a strong performance (a B+ or better) and a paper on a not-too-esoteric topic. Your child should not send a 15-page term paper or a collation of library research. A short, illuminating essay on one poem, one lab experiment, one incident in history, is a good choice.


Three Steps to a Great College Essay

You, in 500 Words or Less

The college application essay is a chance to explain yourself, to open your personality, charm, talents, vision, and spirit to the admissions committee. It’s a chance to show you can think about things and that you can write clearly about your thoughts. Don’t let the chance disappear. Stand up straight and believe in yourself!

The Essay Writing Process

Okay, boot up your computer and let’s get to it. To write a college essay, use the exact same three-step process you’d use to write an essay for class: first prewrite, then draft, and finally, edit. This process will help you identify a focus for your essay, and gather the details you’ll need to support it.


To begin, you must first collect and organize potential ideas for your essay’s focus. Since all essay questions are attempts to learn about you, begin with yourself.

  • Brainstorm: Set a timer for 15 minutes and make a list of your strengths and outstanding characteristics. Focus on strengths of personality, not things you’ve done. For example, you are responsible (not an “Eagle Scout”) or committed (not “played basketball”). If you keep drifting toward events rather than characteristics, make a second list of the things you’ve done, places you’ve been, accomplishments you’re proud of; use them for the activities section of your application.
  • Discover Your Strengths: Do a little research about yourself: ask parents, friends, and teachers what your strengths are.
  • Create a Self-Outline: Now, next to each trait, list five or six pieces of evidence from your life—things you’ve been or done—that prove your point.
  • Find Patterns and Connections: Look for patterns in the material you’ve brainstormed. Group similar ideas and events together. For example, does your passion for numbers show up in your performance in the state math competition and your summer job at the computer store? Was basketball about sports or about friendships? When else have you stuck with the hard work to be with people who matter to you?


Now it’s time to get down to the actual writing. Write your essay in three basic parts: introduction, body, and conclusion.

  • The introduction gives your reader an idea of your essay’s content. It can shrink when you need to be concise. One vivid sentence might do: “The favorite science project was a complete failure.”
  • The body presents the evidence that supports your main idea. Use narration and incident to show rather than tell.
  • The conclusion can be brief as well, a few sentences to nail down the meaning of the events and incidents you’ve described.

An application essay doesn’t need to read like an essay about The Bluest Eye or the Congress of Vienna, but thinking in terms of these three traditional parts is a good way to organize your main points.

There are three basic essay styles you should consider:

  • Standard Essay: Take two or three points from your self-outline, give a paragraph to each, and make sure you provide plenty of evidence. Choose things not apparent from the rest of your application or light up some of the activities and experiences listed there.
  • Less-Is-More Essay: In this format, you focus on a single interesting point about yourself. It works well for brief essays of a paragraph or half a page.
  • Narrative Essay: A narrative essay tells a short and vivid story. Omit the introduction, write one or two narrative paragraphs that grab and engage the reader’s attention, then explain what this little tale reveals about you.


When you have a good draft, it’s time to make final improvements to your draft, find and correct any errors, and get someone else to give you feedback. Remember, you are your best editor. No one can speak for you; your own words and ideas are your best bet.

  • Let It Cool: Take a break from your work and come back to it in a few days. Does your main idea come across clearly? Do you prove your points with specific details? Is your essay easy to read aloud?
  • Feedback Time: Have someone you like and trust (but someone likely to tell you the truth) read your essay. Ask them to tell you what they think you’re trying to convey. Did they get it right?
  • Edit Down: Your language should be simple, direct, and clear. This is a personal essay, not a term paper. Make every word count (e.g., if you wrote “in society today,” consider changing that to “now”).
  • Proofread Two More Times: Careless spelling or grammatical errors, awkward language, or fuzzy logic will make your essay memorable—in a bad way.


“How would you describe yourself as a human being? What quality do you like best in yourself and what do you like least? What quality would you most like to see flourish and which would you like to see wither?”

“Please tell us about your career goals and any plans you may have for graduate study.”

“Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.”

Recipe for a Draft

How to Kick-Start Your College Essay

Sometimes the hardest part of writing a college admissions essay is just getting started. Here’s a quick exercise to get pen to paper (or keyboard to computer).

Step 1: Think about yourself
What are your strengths and weaknesses? What are your best qualities? Are you a plugger? An intellectual? A creative type? Curious? Passionate? Determined?

Step 2: Choose a positive quality you’d like to convey to the admissions committee
Don’t pick an event or something you’ve done. President of the Nuclear Awareness Club is not a personal quality. Focus on a quality of your mind or of your character. Complete this sentence: “I am a very _________ person.”

Step 3: Tell a story
Set a timer for 20 minutes. Pretend you’re taking an exam at high school and responding to, “Tell a story about an experience or time when you showed you were a very _________ person.” Use the characteristic you identified in Step 2. Write or type non-stop for 20 minutes; force yourself to keep telling the story and what it reveals until the timer goes off.

You’re Done

Okay. That’s it. You’ve got a rough draft for your college application essay. Look at the college application forms and see what questions they ask. No matter what the questions are, you’ve already identified the important characteristic you want to convey to each college.