College Essays, Personal Statements, Supplemental Essays

5 Reasons to Avoid the Rabbit Hole of College-Essay YouTube

YouTube is packed with students reading their admissions-winning essays. You could deep-dive for hours, if not days.

This summer, I tasked my research intern with scouring YouTube for quality college essay resources to link on the resource page I give to students in my workshops. We were looking for a “Best of” collection of solid writing tips, but what we discovered was a glut of admitted students reading their essays on camera.

Here’s my question: what benefit is watching hours of other people read their essays? Looking at a couple of essay models would be profitable, but watching a whole YouTube essay-reading playlist? Nope.

Here are five reasons why you need to make the journey through your college essays with minimal assistance from other student writers, even highly successful ones.

1. Your story is YOUR story.

You own it in every way, and no one can tell your story the way you can. What makes writing college essays challenging is that the process requires you to examine your experiences, character, values, feelings, needs, and aspirations and cultivate insights about who you are and how you hope to impact the planet.

Only you can identify the experiences that have formed your identity. Only you can determine what parts of your identity you want to share with others and how you want to share those stories. Only you know your most challenging circumstances and your most rewarding seasons. And, certainly, only you know how you felt, what values or needs propelled your response, and what you learned about yourself and life in this world.

While you can see the product of another student’s journey, watching hours upon hours of other students read their essays will not get you to your personal statement destination. You have to travel your own path.

2. Originality & authenticity are hard.

Don’t put other students’ stories in your head. One of the worst things you can do with your college essay is to write a fan fiction piece based on another student’s life.

I began teaching high school writing courses over 30 years ago. I’ve learned how to spot a student’s reading habits in their writing. Emerging writers tend to produce content consistent with whatever they’ve immersed themselves in as readers. It’s OK to write about the impact of Stephanie Meyer, John Green, Suzanne Collins, J.K. Rowling, or Angie Thomas, but, goodness, high school creative writing students, stop riffing on these writers and create worlds of your own, based on your experiences. You love their stories. You love their universes. You love their words. It’s awesome to be a fan, but be aware when someone else’s art creeps into your brain and disguises itself as your own story.

The same applies to college essay-writing.

Show readers your story, not another writer’s narrative filtered through your head. The more you consume college essays written by other students, the harder it is to have fresh thoughts about your story.

Ultimately, mimicking ideas and structures from other writers (intentionally or unintentionally) lacks integrity and authenticity, and schools count those character traits as essential in the admissions process.

3. It’s not the whole picture.

The application packet gives admissions readers a picture of each candidate. Quantitative information (all the numbers like GPA and class rank and standardized test scores) and qualitative information (the subjective things like personal statements, supplementary essays, recommendation letters, and activities) combine to identify students who are the best “fit” for the university or college.

The essay-writing journey identifies the aspects of your life that aren’t reflected clearly in the rest of your application. Choosing essay topics and structures involves strategic decisions based on the whole of the application.

When you watch the student who got into all their top-choice, top-tier schools read their essay, you don’t know what the rest of their application featured. You don’t know what their recommendation letters said. You don’t know the X-factor objectives the admissions readers were working to fulfill.

You know only what that person chose to say before and after reading the essay. That’s it. You should not decide your essay’s content based on the information you don’t know about another person’s context.

4. The medium matters.

At least for now, the bulk of college admissions essays are written, although we can look ahead and see the normalization of video essays a short distance down the road. Until that time arrives, though, if you need an essay model for clarity or confidence, read examples of successful college essays.

Reading model essays (as opposed to listening to someone else read them) allows you the visual experience of analyzing structure and style. You can read and reread as much as you need to understand how story and storytelling combine for success.

Reading allows you to be a student of good writing and not just a consumer of content.

5. Avoid fueling comparison. Instead, build skill.

Watching video after video of other people humble-bragging about their victories under the guise of giving helpful tips can take a toll. Students fall down the rabbit hole because they are trying to figure out how to write a great story, and they look to others to boost confidence. Unfortunately, the opposite happens. Instead of feeling more secure about writing their own essays, students get overwhelmed. It makes sense. You’re comparing your initial efforts to someone else’s final product.

Models can be helpful if you give them thoughtful analysis, so read a few if you want, but limit content intake.

Let’s put numbers to it so that you know when to stop. You may read up to five model essays. You may view one or two students reading successful college essays. That’s a total of seven essays, max. Pick good ones.

As you read, observe what story the writer shares, how they tell it, and how it makes you feel in response. If it shakes your confidence as a writer or inflates your sense of superiority, those are red flags. Back away from the models and search your own heart. However, if you can empathize with the writer, then you’re on the right track. Take the lessons you need and return to your writing.

Approach writing models as an intellectual exercise. Try to find essays that professional writing coaches or admissions counselors have critiqued. Pay attention to the strategies they identify as successful communication tools. If you take a long-term approach to write your personal statement and have a little time, check out Writing Tools or The Art of X-Ray Reading by “America’s Writing Coach” Roy Peter Clark. For confidence in writing shorter supplemental essays, Clark’s How to Write Short holds game-changing tips.

What you do not want to do is steep your brain in the accomplishments of others. Remember, the essay-writing journey is for you to discover your story and not compare yourself to others.

So.

I don’t have to tell you that getting on any form of social media, especially video-based social media, will eat time like nothing else.

You might hop on YouTube to look at successful essays as a time-saver for writing, but I guarantee it will become a distraction. What minimal gains you may receive in inspiration are not worth the time lost from quality thinking.

Your best essays will come as a result of self-reflection, and your most limited resource at the beginning of your senior year will be time. You will be a better storyteller and time-steward if you go through an essay-writing workshop, online or in person.

You have a GREAT story to tell. Focus on your journey. Embrace humble confidence. Do the work.

College Essays, Supplemental Essays, Teacher Resources

How to analyze supplemental essay prompts

When you write the wrong response to an essay prompt, it stinks for everyone involved—applicant, writing coach, admissions reader—everyone.

It’s not unlike the U.S. Presidential debates when the moderator asks, “What is your stance on forgiving college debt?” And the candidate rails against the impact of the pandemic and remote learning on student learning.

Yes, the question and answer both had to do with something in education.

Sure, college-debt forgiveness is controversial, and so were pandemic health and safety guidelines for public schools.

Absolutely, both finances and attention spans are limited resources that strain individuals and families alike.

But chances are, a rant solely focused on COVID restrictions in education does not reveal a plan for education debt relief.

In politics, we roll our eyes and say that the candidate is dodging the question. Sometimes we turn the channel on the debate. Sometimes we decide that if a candidate can’t address the question directly, maybe that person won’t heed our voices either. Consequences vary.

Off-topic responses happen frequently in college essay writing too. They are costly mistakes for the applicant that, at best, make you look lazy and, at worst, make you look incompetent. Neither look benefits your admissions chances.

To avoid heading down the wrong road on your essay, start by knowing where you’re going.

You need to analyze the prompts.

You’ve done a close reading of literature before, right? Here’s where those skills you learned in English class pay off big in the real world.

Let’s walk through an example together. This model comes from the Application Prompts for Fall 2021 page for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I chose an old prompt to focus on the skills instead of the actual content. These skills apply to pretty much any prompt you will encounter. You can take them with you wherever you go.

Hark the sound of Tar Heel admissions

Since most applications are fully online, I took screenshots of the essay prompts page and uploaded them to Notability. I liked the look and spacing of landscape orientation. You follow your preference for formatting. After a couple of adjustments for size and spacing, I was able to get everything I needed onto one page in Notability.

You don’t have to use Notability. You can use any note-taking app that allows you to highlight, underline, and write margin notes. Or you can copy and paste the text into a Google doc and highlight, underline, and write comments there. You can print the page and annotate on paper. It doesn’t matter what tools you use; it just matters that you get the analysis done. You do whatever works for you.

Let’s look at this essay section part-by-part. UNC begins with background information.

Background

The introductory sentence helps you know that you are in the right place:

  • Did you mean to apply to UNC? Yes? Good.
  • Are you a first-year or a transfer applicant? Yes? Welcome.
  • Did you intend to apply during the 2020-2021 application season? You did? Awesome.

Now that we’re confident we’re looking at the right information let’s get into the body of the background section.

Three strong verbs organize the objectives underlying the supplemental essays: aspire, believe, and hope.

Aspire means to work toward attaining a goal. Without getting super grammatical, whatever is on the other side of aspire is the object of aspiration. The object of UNC’s aspiration is “…to build a diverse and inclusive community at Carolina….” In your supplemental responses, you will want to show that you are eager to join the university in building that community.

Believe sneaks into the mix in the second half of the sentence that begins with “We aspire….” It clarifies the how behind attaining the goal, the object of aspiration. It points toward a core belief “…that students can only achieve their best when they learn alongside students from different backgrounds.” As you write these prompts, keep in mind that UNC sees diversity in its student body as foundational to personal success. So ponder how your presence will both contribute to and benefit from UNC’s diverse community.

Hope as a verb reveals the overall objective for all the prompts. The admissions readers want to find out “what being a member of such a community would mean to you.” Each prompt gives you a chance to share this information from your personal experience. You can point out how a diverse and inclusive community at UNC continues a trajectory you’ve established thus far in your life. Or you can show how attending a school alongside people from a myriad of backgrounds will help you learn so much more in college than you did in high school because it offers you experiences you’ve craved but never had before.

You’ve not even looked at the actual prompts yet, but already you know that your responses need to hit these three concepts:

  • building a diverse and inclusive community at Carolina,
  • achieving your best because you’re able to learn alongside students from different backgrounds, and
  • showing the admissions readers what being a member of a diverse and inclusive community would mean to you.

You might even want to write down these three points before you start brainstorming the individual prompts. Keep coming back to them as you analyze the prompts, select which ones you’ll write, survey your life experiences, organize your response, and draft your essays.

Directions

I have a lengthy, well-worn speech about the dangers of failing to read essay directions, but I’m still a little bitter from years of delivering said speech, so let’s move on.

Carolina labels their supplemental essays “UNC-specific short answer prompts.”

Note that you need to write only TWO of the prompt essays they offer as options.

You have a word count of 200-250. That is short.

It’s not as short as the 25-,30-, or 50-word responses that other schools require, but neither does it give you room to wander around before getting to the point.

Prompt Option 1

What does expand on mean?

My BFF Merriam-Webster says that it means “to speak or write about (something) in a more complete or detailed way.” Wait. “more complete or detailed way” implies that you’ll be talking about something you’ve already expressed. Hmmm. Let’s check another dictionary.

Ah, here’s how Cambridge defines expand on: “to give more details about something you have said or written.”

My buddies over at Dictionary.com bury expand on at number seven in their list of definitions. Still, it says, “to express something more fully or in greater detail (usually followed by on or upon),” followed by an example.

Let’s see, what do all three of these definitions have in common?

  • You have identified a topic.
  • You’re going to use details to talk about it more fully.

Let’s look at this task in light of the prompt’s wording.

You’re going to expand on an aspect of your identity. The article an means ONE. You do not have the word count to get into multiple facets of your identity. The prompt asks for (and you should stick to) ONE.

You’re going to expand on an aspect of your IDENTITY. Identity is a big, abstract concept, so let’s see if the prompt helps us narrow what the readers might be looking for. Ah! It says, “…for example, your religion, culture, race, sexual or gender identity, affinity group, etc.” You’ve got concrete examples of identities in the list, but you also have the freedom to go beyond those items listed. That permission comes in the outer sandwich of “for example” and “etc.”

An aspect of identity may be obvious as soon as you read the prompt, or you might want to take a few minutes to look up the keywords in the suggested options list. Sometimes reading the definition of a word sparks connections. Examining the meaning might pull you out of the ruts of conventional thinking and into the creative realm that makes for more memorable essays.

You’re going to choose one aspect of your identity and expand on it. That’s a two-part essay.

Start with presenting what this aspect of your identity looks like in your life. Give enough detail to help the reader see clearly.

Then answer the question — “How has this aspect of your identity shaped your life experiences thus far?”

Remember you’re writing to address the vision, core belief, and writing objective presented in the background paragraph. The identity aspect and impact should demonstrate how your values and experience align with the university.

Prompt Option 2

This prompt is clearly about changing one thing about where you live. It’s divided into two parts—1) what you would change, and 2) why you would change it. Straightforward, right?

Not so fast. What does the prompt mean by “where you live”? Is it your house? Is it your neighborhood? city? town? state? Is it your country? continent? hemisphere? planet?

Hmmm. Good question.

The ambiguity can be either inspiring or overwhelming.

The UNC applicants I worked with last year who responded to this prompt took “where you live” to mean different things, and I think that’s OK.

You can go as small or as big as you want as long as you clearly and concisely explain what you would change and why you would change it. Keep in mind that your essay should show the aspiration of building diversity and inclusion, the core belief that students achieve best when surrounded by people of different backgrounds, and the request to show what being a member of a diverse and inclusive community means to you.

Prompt Option 3

Describe typically means to give sensory details about the subject. You absolutely can do that in this essay, but the second sentence asks you to focus on actions, so the bulk of your discussion of this inspirational person is going to center around what they did and what impact it had on you.

Narrow the subject. This prompt asks for an inspirational person essay: “Describe someone you see as a community builder… How has their work made a difference in your life?” Although the directions request a description of someone else, the purpose is to reveal your values regarding community building. So tell the story in light of how it encouraged and inspired you.

Note the latitude the prompt gives you in choosing a community builder. It could be a family member, a friend, a religious leader, a politician, a writer, a social media influencer, etc. You decide.

Prompt 2 invites you to discuss negative elements of your community that you long to see changed. In contrast, Prompt 3 encourages you to share your positive experiences with community building.

The Common App

Following their school-specific prompts, UNC mentions the Common App essay and gives you a few reminders.

First, it’s 250-650 words in length, so longer than the UNC supplemental essays.

Second, the prompts are the same for all Common App schools, which means that you need to use that space to highlight your personal story and not try to tailor it to a particular university.

Third, COVID-19 overshadowed everything, so you have a chance to call out its impact on you if you want to.

UNC’s mention of the Common App essays is encouragement for you to keep your details fresh. Don’t write about the same people and experiences in your supplemental essays that you already address in your Common App essay.

But wait, there’s more

For first-year students, the supplemental essays factor in the admissions decision and facilitate selection for merit-based scholarships, assured enrollment programs, scholars programs, research programs, and global opportunities.

Supplemental essays are high-stakes writing opportunities. Put in the work to understand the prompts to write your best essays for the highest rewards.

Great writing starts with great thinking. Begin your thought process by understanding the prompts. You can’t write what you don’t know.

Conclusion

This screenshot shows a comprehensive prompt analysis. It identifies key components, defines essential concepts, and notes the school’s requirements for responses. Once you have analyzed the prompt, then it’s time to start brainstorming.

College Admissions, College Essays, Supplemental Essays

Strategies for writing supplemental essays

Supplemental essays are matchmaker essays.

Let me explain.

Personal statements focus on YOU, the applicant. When you write your personal statement, the trick is to narrow all the things you could possibly say to the narrative that gives the clearest view of who you are and what you hope to accomplish.

In contrast, supplemental essays help universities select the students who are the best “fit.” Yes, your story is still essential, but telling your story as it relates to a specific school is what lands you in the sweet spot.

These school-specific essays help admissions readers determine which applicants are the most compatible with their campus’s programs, character, philosophy, values, and goals. And they ask you to get the point by limiting the word count, so there’s not enough space to hedge your bets by saying a little of everything.

Most supplemental essays have somewhere in the neighborhood of a 250-word maximum. Some counts run as low as 50 words per question. You have to be precise, concise, and convincing.

The best strategy for writing attention-grabbing supplemental essays is to put in extra work on the front end to make sure you know what you need to say before you begin drafting.

Analyze the prompt

Read each essay prompt closely. Understanding what information the university is asking you to address is crucial. Don’t just skim the first few sentences and go straight to the action item at the end.

Get out your highlighters and colored pens, and annotate all the sentences. Break down each prompt into the background of the concept, the information it asks you to give, and the mode of writing it requests (narrative, descriptive, persuasive, or expository). Circle and define any words you couldn’t explain to a five-year-old without hesitation. Once you are confident you know what the prompt is asking you to do, it’s time to do some homework.

Investigate the school

To write the most effective supplemental essay, you need to do a little research about the university. Determine the values the school promotes in its portrayal of life on campus and in the surrounding community. What is its cultural vision?

For example, if a school-specific essay topic asks you to talk about your experience with diversity, begin by defining the term in light of the school’s commitment to it. By diversity, does the school mean racial diversity? Economic diversity? Diversity in core beliefs? Is diversity centered around geography, education, age, or social status? How inclusive is the campus? Do they celebrate different styles of learning? Multiple intelligences?

You need insight. To find it, you can survey a range of resources to discover a university’s stance on any culturally relevant topic. Here are three solid places to start:

  • Visit the website. Look at the articles the school has recently posted about its programs, students, and faculty. Discover what’s new and what’s evolving. What changes are happening? What accomplishments do they celebrate? What visionary statements do they make? When they feature an individual student’s story, what do they praise? What partnerships do they have locally, nationally, and globally? What are the notable areas of research? Which programs produce thought-leaders? What opportunities do students have to make professional connections beyond the classroom?
  • Check out social media. Social media marketing highlights the best of a college’s programs and people. Often it is a tool that draws readers to the information posted on the website, but it also highlights campus life and community impact. Find those locally relevant gems. What coverage does the school give to cultural events? How do they promote sports? What happens when there’s extreme weather or a global health crisis? How does the university support students during challenging times? How does the campus interact with its neighbors? What are the school’s treasured traditions?
  • Search the news. Find recent media reports about the school—its administration, faculty, student body, employees, organizations, etc. While the website and social media give you the polished version of the university, the nitty-gritty details appear in the news. What issues face the Board of Trustees? How do the employees view working conditions? What opinions do the students have about how the school advocates for their best interests? How does the university foster campus safety and accessibility?

Researching culture and values requires efforts in discovery and analysis, but it is a critical part of preparing to write supplemental essays.

Make your match in 250ish words

Supplemental essays are short.

You have to hit the nail on the head and drive it into the wood in just a couple of hammer strokes.

I know it’s a little cliche, but honestly, the nail analogy works perfectly here. If you’ve even tried to hammer a nail, you know that you have to hold the nail at the correct angle and press it firmly against the wood. How securely you grip the nail and how accurately you hit it with the hammer combine to accomplish one of four things: you join one piece of wood to another, you smash your fingers, you dent the wood, or you bend the nail. Three out of four are negative outcomes. You have a narrow opportunity to achieve your goal. To protect yourself and your building materials, you need to hit the nail precisely, forcefully, and repeatedly.

So it goes with writing short essays.

To hit the one-out-of-four good outcome, you need to plan. You’ve already analyzed the prompt, so you know precisely the topic and approach the admissions department wants. You’ve researched the school’s culture and values as presented in intentional branded marketing, incidental campus snapshots, and external critical commentary. Now it’s time to figure out the sweet spot where your values intersect with the school’s values in light of the supplemental prompt’s topic.

To discover this connection, try using a graphic organizer like a three-column chart (Headers: School’s values, My values, Experiences that show where we connect). Once you identify the connection and the story that supports it, then you can start drafting.

I’ve found the most successful supplemental essays have the following structure.

First, identify your thesis precisely and immediately. Don’t even try to inject suspense. Supplemental essays are not the venue for a delayed opening. Second, present concrete details that prove your thesis to be true. Show first, then tell. Analyze after you’ve given concrete information. Finally, convince the reader that your presence at the university benefits both you and the school. Present an undeniable collision between your experience and the school’s values. Conclude by telling how your presence will reinforce the university’s cultural values and how your time at the university will equip you to achieve your goals.

It’s a proverbial “match made in heaven.”

Probably.

Rethink your options

What happens when you’ve done all the research, and you realize there are things about the school’s culture and values that are incompatible with your values and goals? What if they aren’t supportive of your lifestyle or identity? What if they don’t embrace the free expression of your faith or political views? What if you realize they don’t have the major you need to accomplish your long-term goals?

During the writing process, you may realize a university you always thought you’d want to attend is just not a good fit. Congratulations!!! You just saved yourself (and possibly your parents) a lot of time and money.

Unless there is another reason that outweighs the mismatch, you will do best to cross this option off your list and direct your energy toward writing supplemental essays for schools that are a better fit.

Save time to revise

For many schools, supplemental essays are higher stakes than the personal statement. These school-specific essays often factor into scholarship consideration and honors college invitations. So don’t wait until the last minute to write your supplement essays just because they’re short and specific.

Save time to let your draft age just a little bit. Once you finish the initial writing, don’t look at it again for a week or two. Then, when you come back to revise it, begin by reading the prompt aloud, followed by reading your response aloud. Your ear will let you know where your transitions need work. Your eyes will find grammatical and mechanical errors too. You become your own best editor when you read your essay aloud.

As you finish your essay journey, tie up any loose ends. Check your word count. Make sure you give the admissions readers the information the prompt requests. Simplify your verbs. Vary your sentences. Persuade your audience.

Make your match.

College Admissions, College Essays, Personal Statements, Supplemental Essays

When should I write my college essays?

Write your college essays during the summer between your junior and senior years.

Give yourself a little time to recover from the academic season. Get some sleep. Unpack your backpack, and clean your room. Enjoy hanging out with your people.

In a couple of weeks, jump on the Common App or Coalition website or both and read the prompts. Begin thinking about which one resonates with you. If you have access to a local college essay draft workshop, sign up. If not, search the internet for virtual college essay workshops. You can never go wrong with the College Essay Guy.

By late July or early August, you should access the supplemental essay options for your narrowed list of schools. Start analyzing the prompts and researching each school’s stated values. Figure out how your values and vision intersect with theirs.

If you would like to work with a college essay coach and have not yet contacted one, you should make sure to reserve a spot on their schedule as soon as possible. Your coach can help guide you to the best approach for both the personal statement and the supplemental essays. The one thing you want to avoid is covering similar details in multiple essays. Each prompt gives you a chance to share a different aspect of your story and build a stronger case for admission.

Hold on, why should I wait that late to start?

You need the most perspective you can get before you start writing, so give yourself time to develop it.

Usually, it’s the parents who approach me and ask, “Should my ninth-grader start working on the college essay now?” Um. No.

I mean, journal? Absolutely!

Start a blog to record high school adventures? That’ll be so fun to look over in the future!

Both a private journal and a public blog will be helpful in a couple of years when you start the college essay-writing process. You’ll have a record of impressions and events and feelings that shaped you. As for actually brainstorming and organizing a personal statement, though, you’ll need to wait until the end of your junior year.

Junior year of high school tends to have a refining effect on many students. Whether it’s a result of the higher-level thinking that happens as you advance through the typical secondary curriculum or the social and cognitive leaps that take place in this stage of adolescence, by the end of your junior year, you are better able to figure out who you are, what path you’ve traveled to get there, and where you aim to go in the future. And those are the elements essential to writing memorable college admissions essays.

But summer is when I take a break!

Exactly. That’s why you should rest before you write. A Huffington Post article quotes “Hamilton” creator Lin Manuel Miranda on the link between rest and creativity:

“It’s no accident that the best idea I’ve ever had in my life — perhaps maybe the best one I’ll ever have in my life — came to me on vacation,” Miranda said.

“When I picked up Ron Chernow’s biography [of Hamilton], I was at a resort in Mexico on my first vacation from ‘In The Heights,’ which I had been working seven years to bring to Broadway,” he continued. “The moment my brain got a moment’s rest, ‘Hamilton’ walked into it.”

The Huffington Post

And so it goes for you. Yes, you need to get started on your college essays relatively early in the summer and definitely before you head back to school for senior year, but you also need to take a break. So take a short break, and then get to work.

Save time to procrastinate

Are you kidding? No, I am not.

One step of the writing process that many people discount is the thinking stage—letting those ideas bounce around your subconscious as you go through daily life. You know how sometimes you obsess over a problem, and you can’t figure out a solution? And then you decide to forget about it and do something else, and while you’re doing something else, you figure out the problem?

That works for essay-writing too.

I recommend that students look over the essay prompts and then take a little time to let the ideas that follow float in and out of your mind. Organizational psychologist and Wharton School professor Adam Grant did a TED Talk in which he explored the benefits of moderate procrastination. His cautionary tale of what happens when you “precrastinate” is worth the 15 minutes it takes to watch the video.

The point is that you need to introduce your brain to the prompts and then give it a little time to work out content. But not too much time.

Also, save time to revise

Before I retired from the classroom, I used to teach an honors-level writing course. One of the exercises we did from time to time involved a heinous-looking resin vase packed with quotes about the writing process. In choosing inspirational words for young authors, I selected heavily from revision-related words of wisdom.

Once writers get the words out, they usually feel a sense of relief. I can’t think of anyone I know who says, “Oh yay! I just spent a ton of time brainstorming and organizing and drafting, and now I get to revise! Woo Hoo!!!”

But revision is where the magic happens. So if you want your essay to be obviously muggle-written, then stop with a rough draft that has minimal proofreading. However, if you want to be an essay wizard, leave time to put your draft on the shelf for a bit and come back to it with a fresh, critical eye.

Try to have your essay on the shelf for at least two weeks before your final read-through and submission. Then make your final tweaks a week before you submit your application. Once you hit “submit,” you’re done. Go celebrate!

And then get back to your senior studies and scholarship essays.

College Admissions, College Essays, Personal Statements, Supplemental Essays

Essays are likely to be more important as SAT and ACT requirements disappear

Raise your hand if you thought the impact of COVID-19 on the college admissions process would be pretty much over by the time the application season rolled around for the class of 2022 seniors.

The general uncertainty about the pandemic that pushed a substantial number of colleges and universities to make standardized test scores optional for students applying for fall 2021 admission continues to bolster the number the SAT/ACT-optional and SAT/ACT-blind schools into 2022.

This spring, FairTest reported that over 1,400 accredited four-year universities have stated they will not require SAT/ACT scores from students applying to college for the fall of 2022. As FairTest pointed out in the article, “That’s more than 60% of the 2,330 undergraduate institutions in the United States.”

No one knows whether this trend is a temporary blip in admissions procedures or whether it represents a long-term trek away from relying heavily on testing data. Many colleges had begun the shift to test-optional in the interest of equity prior to the emergence of COVID-19, but that number skyrocketed with the virus.

Application elements such as GPA, class rank, and standardized test scores give university officials quantitative metrics for admissions. Activities and honors resumes, teacher recommendations, and personal statements complete the application with qualitative information.

The increase of SAT/ACT-optional schools and the cloud of uncertainty surrounding grades earned during remote learning experiences limit the amount of reliable quantitative information available. As a result, more and more experts speculate that the essays will assume a larger role in the admissions packet.

For students applying to top-tier colleges and universities, submitting spectacular admissions essays has long been essential. With a significant number of applicants having perfect GPAs, elite class ranking, and near-perfect standardized test scores, the tipping point for getting in moves from the quantitative to the qualitative. Qualitative elements breathe life into the application by giving dimension and detail to the human beings behind the data. With quantitative data being virtually the same, qualitative details allow admissions officials to select students who best fit the university’s values and vision.

California-based education media outlet EdSource examined the likely outcome of optional SAT/ACT exams in the state and concluded that the loss of standardized test scores places more weight on the college essays in the admissions process.

This shift humanizes the admissions process at all levels of competitiveness, giving applicants the chance to share their personal stories and, interestingly, proving that students are more than just scores. It also places personal statements and supplemental essays in a higher stakes category for a much larger group of students.

College admissions advisors and essay coaches are encouraging applicants to place a higher priority on the writing process. For the Common App essay, students should be intentional and start their work early to allow maximum time for reflection and revision. For the supplemental essays, students should put in time researching the school’s current focus for its campus community and academic programs. These school-specific essays should show that individuals share the school’s vision for higher learning and post-graduation impact.

The more time students give themselves to write, discover, refine, and revise, the better the chance that their essays will help win a spot in the college or university that will best shape them into the global community members they hope to become.

College Admissions, College Essays, Educators, English/ELA, Personal Statements, Students, Teachers

The New Prompts are Here!

That’s right. The Common App announced the 2021-2022 prompts this week, and this year there is a NEW option in the lineup.

Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

The Common App Blog

The new prompt replaces the problem-solving prompt for two reasons. First, the option to write about a problem you would solve was one of the least selected choices. And second, the Common App cites research demonstrating the benefits of writing about the positive influence of others on our lives. And who couldn’t use some positivity?!

The rest of the prompts remain the same as 2020-2021. The optional COVID-19 question remains in the Additional Information section, which makes sense since the pandemic is still having a significant impact on the planet.

To read more about the 2021-2022 Common App essay changes, click here.

College Essays, Personal Statements

Common App COVID-Specific Essay

Photo by Edward Jenner on Pexels.com

Offering support to students concerned about the effects of the pandemic on their college admissions journey, the Common App has added a COVID-19 question. As the Common App blog so eloquently puts it, “We want to provide colleges with the information they need, with the goal of having students answer COVID-19 questions only once while using the rest of the application as they would have before to share their interests and perspectives beyond COVID-19.”

The question will appear in the Additional Information section of the application and have a 250-word limit. The application will include a FAQ section to guide students in choosing which aspects of their COVID-19 experience they would like to share. 

The current Additional Information question with its 650-word limit will remain. In response to this question, students are invited to share any information they feel is not reflected in other sections of the application. 

Keep in mind that the COVID-19 question is optional. There are pros and cons to weigh in deciding to answer it. And just because you can doesn’t always mean you should

To help students discern how or even if they should write about their pandemic experience, College Essay Guy Ethan Sawyer has crafted an extensive guide titled “How to Write About Coronavirus/COVID-19 In Your College Essay & Application.” And when I say extensive, I mean that he gives the same level of insight into approaching this special question in his online guide as he does into approaching the personal statement in general in his book College Essay Essentials. It’s all kinds of helpful in planning a COVID-19 writing strategy across all your college admissions essays.

Before you get too far into writing any of your personal statements, I highly recommend you check out Ethan’s Coronavirus/COVID-19 guide. 

College Essays, Personal Statements

Best Admissions Essay Book Ever

If you could have only one resource for writing pretty much any college admissions essay, you should grab Ethan Sawyer’s College Essay Essentials.

The beauty of Sawyer’s approach is its simplicity. Students answer two questions with yes/no responses. Based on the combination of yeses and noes, you write in one of four structures. He gives students the tools to brainstorm, plan, draft, and revise deep and meaningful personal statements. And for those who are a little less interested in deep and meaningful and just want to get the thing done, Sawyer also has a section titled “How to Write Your Essay in Just One Night (Break Only in Case of Emergency).” 

Although I don’t personally know Sawyer, I have annotated his entire book, read most of the articles on his College Essay Guy website, watched his YouTube videos, and guided students in person through his free Personal Statement Workshop.

This method works. 

In College Essay Essentials, Sawyer includes a toolbox of exceptionally helpful prewriting exercises to guide students as they explore both the small details (Essence Objects Exercise) and the big picture (Values Exercise) of their lives. For students looking for intellectual or emotional depth in their essays, the section titled “How Do I Make My Essay, Like, Deep?” walks students through the Feelings and Needs Exercise. In my experience working with high school students as they develop their personal statements, I’ve seen the Feelings and Needs Exercise produce some spectacular essays. 

Beyond brainstorming, Sawyer’s approach also provides specific structures for personal statements that divide into two broad categories—narrative and montage. Narrative essays focus on one story and let the events unfold to reveal something about the writer. Montage essays center on one theme, allowing the writer to pull several examples to illustrate it. 

The narrative and montage structures are like gutter guards in bowling. They keep you in your lane. The structural charts in College Essay Essentials are just the right amount of support to send those beginning the process in the right direction. For those who are outstanding writers and already have clarity about what they want to say as well as how they want to say it, Sawyer gives room to run with it. 

“That’s nice,” you say, “but does he cover how to write each of the Common App prompts?” Actually, no. He doesn’t. He doesn’t need to. This method of writing the personal statement can generate essays that fit every prompt the Common App folks offer. It really does. Once you write your essay, the one that most authentically gives a picture of who you are, then you can choose one of the Common App prompts. You might have to tweak your essay a little, but you won’t have to start the whole process again. 

“Will College Essay Essentials help me write college-specific essays?” you ask. Why, yes. Yes, it will. The essay-writing techniques Sawyer teaches are applicable to virtually every personal statement essay I’ve encountered, whether it’s for college admissions, scholarships, graduate programs, or professional schools. The fundamentals are the same. 

If you want to check out school-specific or system-specific advice… actually, if you want to take a deeper dive into college essays and personal statements in general… jump over to the College Essay Guy blog, and get ready for a deep dive into information that will guide you to your best essay for wherever you hope to land. 

You’re going to find a plethora (COLLEGE ESSAY WORD) of outstanding guidance on writing personal statements on the College Essay Guy website and YouTube channel but still buy the book. It’s a handbook that will take you well beyond undergrad admissions. 

On the website, you will find an online course on writing personal statements that is literally the best available. It costs a bit of money. However, Sawyer has a strict pay-what-you-can policy, and he is sincere about that. 

Before your application deadlines get a whole lot closer, buy the book, scour the website and YouTube, dig into the workshops that are free, enroll in the ones behind the paywall, and if you need feedback on your draft, email me. Pricing and contact information is here

College Admissions, College Essays, Personal Statements

The Common App Essay Prompts Are the Same in 2020-2021

Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

Dear Common App Prompt Committee Folks,

OMG y’all are just the BEST!!! For the fourth year in a row, you are keeping the Common App essay writing prompts the same. THANK YOU! 

Do you have any idea how wonderful that is for English teachers, college admissions counselors, and college essay coaches throughout the land? After all, we’ve got a lot to deal with in light of the pandemic and being caught in the middle of a game of science versus politics. 

But really though, your prompts are pretty great. We’re thrilled the colleges say the prompts give them the information they look for. That’s especially helpful since so many of them are dropping their standardized testing requirements for this year’s applicants. IMHO standardized test scores are overrated anyway.

We’re out here betting that essays are going to get a bump in importance in the admissions process this fall. If your friends in the member schools are a little nervous about plagiarism, y’all can get together and add a little statement about how select students will receive video interviews based on their essay responses. Then you can figure out a random (or not random) way of selecting which students to interview about their essays. 

Do you have a plagiarism filter yet? (You don’t have to answer that right now in front of everybody, but just in case you don’t, you might want to get on that. What an AWESOME feature it would be for current and prospective member schools if you would help them filter out applicants who aren’t all that into honor codes.)

Back to us—the English teachers, college admissions counselors, and college essay coaches. For years, we’ve been working with students in school and out of school to help them write essays well. We have presentations and videos and assignments and coaching methods designed to make students, especially those without strong support systems away from school, comfortable in approaching college essays. And we hardly have words to tell you how grateful we are that all those resources and approaches can remain stable this year so that we can focus on making sure our students are doing OK in the middle of all this uncertainty. 

So, yeah. Thank you, Common App Prompt Committee. Y’all freakin’ rock. 

#blessed,

P.S. To anyone who is reading my thank-you note to the Common App Prompt Committee Folks but actually isn’t one of the Common App Prompt Committee Folks, for your convenience, I’m going to leave the 2020-2021 prompts right here. See the Common App blog for more information. 

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.

2. 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?

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything 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.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging 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?

7. 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.

https://www.commonapp.org/blog/common-app-2020-2021-essay-prompts