The personal essay is a significant feature of the U.S. college application process for most four-year institutions. The essay is not a cover letter or a summary of student achievements. Rather, the admissions staff is asking you to tell them ‘who you are’ in 650 words or less. A daunting task for anyone, let alone a teenager.
The goal of this article is to give you, the guidance counsellor, the background needed to support your students in writing a strong and representative essay, based on the EducationUSA model. We are happy to share our secrets of successfully supporting your student through this challenging task.
Identify the timeline
When a student approaches you about applying to college in the United States, you should first work with them on a timeline. Ideally, a student will approach you by Grade 11 or even earlier. In this case, your student should have a sense of their top universities, so that the student can begin to work on their essays over the summer. Have your student make a spreadsheet of fall deadlines and a list of essays that they need to write, so that in the fall, you are able to help your student stay on target.
Unfortunately, you will have Grade 12 students coming into your office at the last minute to let you know that they plan on applying to U.S. schools. Organization is key! You need to know deadlines and essay topics immediately, so you can focus on the earliest deadlines and then work your way through each requirement.
Understand the prompt
One of the main pet peeves of U.S. college admissions officers is that applicants often do not respond directly to the prompt. The Common Application has seven varied prompts (see table for a list of 2017-18 Common application prompts). However, your student will also likely apply to a couple of schools that do not use the Common Application. It is imperative that the student writes a new essay each time they are faced with a different prompt. Some Common App essays can be used for non-Common App schools easily or with little adjustment, while some cannot.
For example, the University of California application has just moved to a new essay structure called “Personal Insight Questions.” Students must pick four questions out of eight responses to answer in 350 words. A Common App essay is 650 words and may not adapt well to these shorter responses.
First Task: Brainstorm
The first assignment that you are going to give your student is to brainstorm anything that they would like to write about. Invite the student to write down every idea and use a whiteboard or poster paper to help them get away from the officialness of digitizing their responses. To shape the brainstorm, your student should focus on these questions:
- What are you most proud of?
- What are some positive adjectives that your friends would use to describe you?
- What is an interesting thing about you that you don’t tell many people?
- What do you care about?
- What do you believe are the most important things about you?
Once the student has gotten started with these questions, they should review the Common App prompts (see table) to begin triggering additional ideas.
Choosing the topic
Encourage your student to talk to you about the ideas that they have come up with. Through verbalizing their ideas, the student will begin to make additional connections, and may potentially find what they want to write about. Ask questions. Help the student land on the ideas that make the most sense.
Admissions officers want to see a new side of the applicant that is not expressed anywhere else in the application. For example, Colin enters and wins many Math competitions which is evident throughout his application. When Colin works with you on his essay, he may want to recount a Math competition that he won. Encourage Colin to think about other aspects of himself that the university may be interested in like his passion for tracking down rare Superman comics or the lessons learned while volunteering at the retirement home. He can write about Math, but make sure the essay has a take that is not just a progressive account of winning a competition. Perhaps Prompt #2 about setbacks and failures could be a great way to challenge him.
The Structure: Outline time
The best structure for the essay is the standard five paragraph essay. Students should start by making an outline that looks like this:
- Essay question (exact wording)
- Idea 1
- Idea 2
- Idea 3
The first thing the student needs to do is to write a thesis (which is really just a statement of what they want to say) that directly answers that prompt. This will set the student up for success in ensuring that they answer the question properly and write an essay that stays on point. Each supporting paragraph should have their own purpose in supporting the story. The conclusion paragraph should be about their next steps as a college student. For example, if Madison just wrote an essay on how driven she is based on her history as a competitive skier, in the conclusion she should discuss how that drive will help her succeed in college and how it ultimately contributed to her choosing Business as a major.
The introduction is the last thing the student should write. The best introductions drill down to a specific moment that is illuminated later in the essay. It is usually best to write the main paragraphs first to find out where the essay is going, then determine which moment will make the best hook. Do not begin an essay with big sweeping statements like “All students in the world…” Statements like these do not reveal anything interesting about the student. Whereas the description of a sound, a smell, or a moment in time is much more captivating.
I have a favorite saying that I tell the students that I advise: the first draft is terrible, that is why it is the first draft. The goal here is to encourage students to just get all their ideas on paper. It is okay for those ideas to be somewhat sloppy and for the structure to be incomplete. It is more important for the student to break open the floodgates and just start writing because once you see the first draft, then you can provide direction on what is working and what is not.
Do not spend time editing grammar. Focus only on the big ideas. You should be able to spend only a few minutes reading to get a sense of what ideas jumped out and which ones fell flat. Between reading and notes, you should not spend more than 10 minutes on a first draft.
Subsequent and final drafts
Enlist other adults to help your students. We at EducationUSA can read essay drafts. So can a parent. So can an English teacher. If multiple adults are assisting your students, this will help them shape their narratives and will make sure you have time to do other things – like write their recommendation letters.
Before your student hits upload and send, make sure that the grammar is polished, the prompt has been answered, they are within the word limit, and that they made their main point. If the student is successful, they will bring an interesting additional piece of themselves to the admissions process.
But wait, there’s more
Most universities will want an essay that is structured like the Common Application essay. However, in addition to this, many schools ask for a supplementary essay where the student is asked to write specifically about the university that they are applying to. “Why do you want to attend University X?” The most important advice for the supplements is for the student not to make it too much about the university. For example, I want to attend University X because the Business department recently won an award from the Smart Institute in Economics and have published in some of the world’s most respected journals… As you can see, the student is about to regurgitate a bunch of information that she took off of the website, which the university already knows. This does not teach them anything new about the student.
A great improvement to the above essay would be something like this: As a competitive skier, I am attracted to competitive environments, so I knew Business would be a perfect fit. I am interested in University X because I eventually want to… See how the student is now speaking about how this department will help shape her future goals. This is much more relevant, interesting, and helpful!
By Jenika Heim, EducationUSA Advisor in Canada
As always, if you have any questions along the way, please feel free to reach out to us at EducationUSA at firstname.lastname@example.org. We love reading essays!
EducationUSA is a free advising service funded by the U.S. State Department. Educationusacanada.ca
Common Application Questions for 2017-2018 (provided by commonapp.org)
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. [No change]
- The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? [Revised]
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? [Revised]
- Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, and an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution. [No change]
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised]
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? [New]
- Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. [New]