The College Application Essay – Tips and Frequently Asked Questions

Once high school seniors kick their college application efforts into high gear, they quickly run headlong into the requirement to write a personal essay . . .at that point, things often screech to a halt. 

It is easy to fill out your name and address and upload your transcript, but writing about yourself is a whole different project. High school English class didn’t teach you how to write this type of essay. Questions abound: 

What are they looking for, really? How do I stand out without sounding braggy? What if I don’t know what I want to major in, much less what I want to do with my life? What if I don’t have a dramatic story to share? Can an essay tutor help? 

Here are a few answers to the most common questions and some advice on hiring a coach if you want one.

college application essay faq


Do I have to write a college application essay?

Yes, most colleges do require at least one essay as part of their admissions process.

Good news though! Many colleges accept the Common Application – which is great because then you can do one application and send it to many colleges. 

The Common App requires one essay, known as the personal statement, of 250-650 words. You can write just about anything in the Common App personal statement. There are several prompts to choose from and one of them is always a variation on: tell us something about yourself you’d like us to know. 

Other colleges have their own essay prompts and guidelines. And some require both the Common Application with its 250-650 word essay and one or more supplemental essays that are specific to that college.  

How important is the personal statement?

In a word, very. 

When you apply to college most of what you provide to the admissions officers has been decided long ago – your grades are what they are. Same with your activities and extracurriculars. But the essay is something you create now. 

What you say about yourself and how you say it is up to you. You have more control over the essay than any other part of your application. This is your chance to show your voice, your personality, your passions. All their writing prompts are designed to provide you an opportunity to share who you are. 

Think of it as your chance to morph from a flat two dimensional set of letters and numbers into a technicolor three dimensional human being. Now that colleges are putting less emphasis on SAT and ACT test scores, or not looking at them at all, the personal statement and other supplemental essays carry more weight than ever.

What are admissions officers looking for?

College admissions staff want to make sure you’re ready for the challenges of college. As they read your essay they are looking to see if you are thoughtful, intellectually curious, and able to write well enough to survive (and even thrive)  in a college class. 

Beyond that, they’re trying to get a sense of what you’re like in person. They’ve already read your transcript so they know about your academic focus and accomplishments. But they don’t have a real sense of you: 

Who are you? What are you passionate about? What are your values? What are you curious about? What is it like to spend time with you? What are your hopes and dreams? 

They want to know what you will be like in class, as a roommate, or as a member of a club or sports team. 

It’s a personal statement, so make it personal.

It’s easy to feel you have no dramatic story to tell, but the truth is we all have things that matter to us and things that have shaped us into the unique people we are.

The key is finding stories to tell from your life that illustrate your passions and values and aspirations. Maybe you have something in your past that shaped who you are today and helped clarify your educational goals. 

Or perhaps you don’t have one single overarching narrative or a clear plan for your future. That’s fine. Many high school seniors don’t. 

Instead you can share a montage of stories that illustrate the variety of passions and values you will bring to a college campus. 

Can a college admissions coach help?

Yes! College admissions mentors specialize in helping students move through the whole college application process.

They provide tools that will help you figure out which colleges might be a good fit for you. They help you finalize a list of colleges you will pursue. They work with you to create a timeline for applying to each of your target schools. 

And perhaps most importantly, many college admissions mentors specialize in coaching you through the process of writing the college application essay(s). 

It’s the most challenging- and the most rewarding – part of the process. The first step is checking each target college’s admissions requirement and identifying which essays you need to write and when you need to submit them. 

Once that is clear, college essay tutors have many brainstorming exercises to help you find the stories you want to share. They are skilled at helping you get your authentic voice on the page, and this is key!

Your parents and friends may have some great ideas for you, but resist the urge to ask them to actually write or revise your essays. Admissions officers can spot a parental voice easily. They don’t want to know your parents, they want to get to know you!  

college application essay tips

What does the coaching process look like?

Choosing the essay topic

A coach will start by helping you explore possible essay topics and land on one that works well for you. 

They do this through brainstorming exercises that can help you identify your values, passions, and what you most love about learning. They can also help you identify key moments that have shaped you into the person you are now . . and the moments that laid the groundwork for who you want to become. These will be the building blocks of your essay. 

Coaches will also share sample essays that other students have written to give you an idea of the range of options – It’s reassuring to see the many different topics and styles other students have chosen. Maybe you’ll find one that you can use as a model for your essay. 

Writing and revising

The goal here is to get your voice on the page – so your essay will most likely be more informal that the essays you’ve written for class. 

You’re not trying to impress someone with your big vocabulary or heady analytic abilities, you’re trying to reveal who you are – we’re aiming for honesty and insight. It’s important to sound like yourself. When you read your essay aloud it should feel comfortable – you at your best, not anyone else.

Keep in mind, a coach is not going to write your essay for you. But they can help you outline a first draft, and review with you some key writing tips and tricks so you can revise and improve your drafts. 

College essay mentors give guidance, support, and encouragement. And help you get it done on time!


Ideally, you should start writing 6-8 weeks before the essay is due, and plan to spend at least an hour or two each week working on it. It can often take a few false starts before you find the right approach, then once you do, count on a few more drafts to revise and polish it to perfection. 

The more competitive the college, the more you’re aiming for a “stretch” school (ie a college where your grades and SAT scores are below the average for the 1st year students who enrolled in that college in the previous year) the more you want to take the extra time to up-level your writing.

college application essay

5 Practical college application essay tips to help you get started right now

#1: Be authentic

Spend some time thinking about what really makes you tick. Don’t try to fake it or say something you hope will sound impressive. Admissions officers want to feel that you’ve opened up, shared something about who you are at your core. Don’t be afraid to be honest and vulnerable. You want your reader to feel like they’ve gotten to know you, and feel closer to you.

#2: Offer both anecdotes and insights

Consider telling a story, creating an actual scene, with all five senses. It’s a great way to engage your reader. And tell us why you told us that story. What insights should we be drawing from the story? Was there a lesson that you learned from that event? 

#3: Share your core values

By the end of the essay your reader should know the two or three values that are most important to you. Creativity? Family? Thoughtfulness? Risk-taking? Kindness? Honesty? Independence? Community? Success? There are no wrong answers, except no answer at all.

#4: Craft with care

The essay should feel carefully constructed. It should be well organized, with images and ideas that connect in a pleasing way. The essay should be engaging, not boring. Pay attention to using strong verbs, appropriate metaphors, and for bonus points, close the essay with a “swish of the tail.”  

#5: Have fun with it

With a little patience, some luck, and dedicated effort, this process can be a lot of fun – you may actually learn something new about yourself and come to a deeper appreciation of what a unique and wonderful person you really are!

If you’d like to hire a college admissions mentor, contact us at Emergent Education – we have several excellent college admissions mentors. We will find a good match for you.


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