Help Your Students Get Started on the College Essay

As admission to the nation’s most selective schools becomes increasingly competitive, the college essay has risen in significance as well. There’s a lot of information on the web and in books, and many well-meaning adults are out there trying to help our kids. That can be confusing to the students, and can make your jobs a lot harder!

Why? Much of the information surrounding the essay is confusing, gimmicky or simply inaccurate. And most of it focuses on what the finished product should look like, not how a student should write it. We know that’s not helpful to you or your students. Whether your students are writing personal statements, personal insight questions, supplemental essays or short answer questions, the process should be the same.

What do admissions officers really want to read?

Whenever we ask, admission professionals at top universities across the country tell us exactly what they are looking for in a personal statement. One thing is certain: The personal statement provides an opportunity for students to show people who may never meet them just what kind of person they are.

When he reads a good essay, Calvin Wise, the Director of Recruitment for Johns Hopkins University, gets excited and will share it with colleagues. He doesn’t see any reason to share grades and test scores. Just like admission officers at other highly selective schools, Wise expects 4.0 GPAs and top scores on the ACT, SAT and AP exams.

“We need to dig deeper,” Wise reminds students. “That’s where the essay comes into play. That’s where we find out more about the student. We are looking for your story. Academically, we are glad you’ve done well. We want to know who you are. What did your experience mean to you? How did it shape you?”

Heath Einstein, the dean of admission, Texas Christian University, reminds students that colleges want to know who they are, not who other people expect them to be. “Most 17-year-olds haven’t scaled Kilimanjaro, so don’t worry about finding an angle that hasn’t been tried before,” Enstein advises. “Write about what you know. If the most meaningful experience to you has been serving as a camp counselor, it doesn’t matter that other students have addressed it. People will try to talk you out of certain ideas, but trust your gut. Ultimately, be yourself, and that will be good enough.”
There is No Rubric for a Good Essay

As you know, colleges use the essays in different ways. You can help students understand that there is no rubric for a good essay, but the ones that stand out all share a few common features. Regardless of the prompt, they:

  • Answer the question.
  • Showcase a positive trait or characteristic.
  • Sound like a high school student.
  • Illustrate something meaningful about the student.
  • Demonstrate reflection.

Before they start writing, make sure your students understand that essays do matter, but that they are not the only important part of an application. They can make a difference in helping colleges decide whom to admit, however.

At a moderately selective school (60% admit rate and higher), where more applicants hear yes than no, students who meet certain academic requirements generally get admitted. For students who don’t quite meet the standards but are not so far off, the essay can push a student into the admit pool.

At a selective school (40% admit rate and lower), where more applicants hear no than yes, the essay is even more important. It is used to distinguish one student from the others. A personal narrative helps round out the application.

In any case, there are many moving parts in this process, and nothing is guaranteed. You might never know how many applicants have the same GPA and test scores in any given year, or how close to the cusp a particular student may be.

The Best Advice You Can Offer Your Students

The best advice you can offer your students is to put their greatest effort into every essay. Tell them the essay is an opportunity to make themselves more three-dimensional in the eyes of someone they may never meet.

According to a survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, grades and academic rigor are the most influential factors in an admission decision. Next are test scores, followed by essays. The essay is just one of multiple selection factors in today’s holistic approach to college admission. Essays won’t get a student who is not qualified into any college, but they can help a qualified applicant get a better shot at admission to that dream school.

Colleges want some insight into the applicant’s character. What did they do? What did they learn about themselves? Why does it matter? A girl who went on a volunteer trip to Central America to teach students to read learned more about herself on that trip when she jumped off a 30-foot cliff into the ocean. She wrote a riveting piece about feeling brave in an attempt to overcome her fear of heights. That experience would have been relevant if it had taken place down the street or around the world. It wasn’t impressive because it happened in Belize. It was impressive because it demonstrated reflection and growth.

Our Gift to You: A Free Book for You and Every Parent in Your School

We’d like to give you a free electronic copy of our book: How to Write an Effective College Application Essay: The Inside Scoop for Parents.  After you click on the link, you’ll find out how to get free books for every parent in your school, too.

How do you approach the college essay? We’d love to hear how you talk to your students when they panic, and what your biggest college essay challenges are. Feel free to email me

About the Author

Kim Lifton, a 2018 Top Voice in Education, LinkedIn, is President of Wow. We are a team of professional writers and teachers who understand the writing process inside and out. The Wow Method has been used by students to write application essays and resumes; by business owners to create blogs, websites and other communication materials; and by English teachers to improve student writing skills. We can even help you write a great poem or short story. If it involves words, we can help!