Read this! Writing the College Application Essay


Let’s face it. Childhood isn’t long enough. One minute you’re changing diapers and the next you’re helping your high schooler fill out college applications. What happened in between lies the goodie bag of material for writing the college application essay. But how to make the essay stand out amongst thousands of others? If you consider what follows, your teen will have a chance of making a half-asleep, glassy-eyed admissions officer perk up and say, “Eureka! Now here’s someone interesting.” Perhaps post those words on neon paper and tape them to your teen’s computer, because this reaction is their ultimate goal.

Since application deadlines are nearing, your teen should already have started the essay, if not completed several drafts. Notice I say several. Yes, this takes time, persistence, and many attempts. There should be no question that your teen knows the basics of essay writing. Forget all of that (mostly). The real question is, do they know what makes writing worth reading?

Ask them now. Go ahead, I’ll wait…

Here’s what I’d say to them next. Think of your favorite books. Write down the five qualities each book had that kept you up at night reading. Perhaps they inspired you, made you laugh, cry, contemplate and wonder, and feel a kinship with the characters. You’re not alone. Good writers, and writing worth reading, make the reader feel like he is right there, rooting

for the main character. In this case, YOU are the main character!

What you’re after is having the admissions officer read your good writing and say, “This young man (or woman) would add to our school community.” He’ll say this because you inspired him, made him laugh, cry, contemplate and wonder, feel connected or, if you’re really good, all of the above. Think compelling.

Imagine you are the person reading it and deciding if the person who wrote it is someone you would want to meet. Step outside yourself. Write about an experience that shows (not tells) a strong sense of who you are, what is special about you, your passions, and the impact you have had on another person or group of people. What is your background? Is your family from another country? Do you speak multiple languages? What are your family economics? Have you had to work to help the family? Is religion a big part of your life? Is there something unique about your neighborhood? Two people faced with the same circumstances will respond and react very differently. Show how you did and how that made you grow or change. Imagine looking through a microscope. Zoom in and out again.

Bring yourself to life. Talk to the reader. Let your voice shine through. Rehearse it orally first. Use metaphors, comparing your life to something


This essay is not the place to list, or elaborate on, a long string of accomplishments, activities, and accolades. Those are listed elsewhere in the application. And remember: this is not a standard five-paragraph essay. This is a personal essay; a story about you. Your story should include an enticing hook, a build-up of the character (you), a struggle or problem faced, and what life lessons you learned that helped you grow and change.

Oh yes, and don’t forget those pesky little things like proofreading. There’s nothing worse than a beautiful piece of writing peppered with typos and errors in grammar or spelling. Be fastidious.

Dear parents and high school seniors, I wish you the best of luck in this next chapter of your lives (though if done well, there’s no luck in the selection of a stellar application). When those acceptance letters start rolling in next spring, let’s hear from you. Your writing will obviously be worth reading.

The common application essay questions can be found at For an in-depth treatment of this topic, I highly recommend How to Prepare a Standout College Application: Expert Advice that Takes You from LMO* (*Like Many

Others) to Admit by Alison Cooper Chisolm and Anna Ivey.

Deb Dunn is a mom and the literacy coordinator at the Martha’s

Vineyard Public Charter School. She has been teaching for over

20 years, the last 10 as a reading specialist. Deb welcomes your

questions and comments at