What is Good about a Good College Application Essay?


In this four-part series, we consider how to select a topic, some common topic pitfalls, the elements of a great essay, and the writing process in order to help students navigate this under-emphasized portion of the college application process. This is part three: What is Good About A Good Essay?


What makes a good essay? Some things weve been told our whole lives by every English teacher. Interesting syntax. Good grammar. A diversity of sentence styles. Just there, I made a stylistic decision to list noun phrases without a verb, thereby producing a string of incomplete sentences. I decided it would have greater impact on the reader to hear these oft-quoted elements of good writing independent of the supporting sentence structure. It was wrong, grammatically speaking, but to my ear, it was better. The ability to manage your content with intentionally designed sentences and choice words can help you keep your readers attention.

In the college essay writing process, keeping your readers attention is key.

The admissions folks are reading thousands of essays. They do this for days, for weeks, all day long, trying to answer emails, take phone calls, attend meetings, and manage their own lives too. Your essay either grabs them and holds them, or it slips away, forgotten into a pile as high as their desk.

So tell them a great story. Make them want to read about what you did, saw, thought next. Make them want to know you.

That means your story needs to be personal. It should be personally revealing, not exposing. Tell that truly individual story, but manage the details so that you are in control of what you present. The essay on one students stutter did not invoke pity or awkwardness, but revealed an incredibly talented young woman who is excited to discover much about the world, with interests in theater and photography. The stutter was just a catalyst for the rest of who she is.

Focusing on something small but specific can demonstrate what you value, your character, your thoughtfulness regarding your own life. A student wrote an essay that started off listing all the things he doesnt like, because that was the best way to challenge the notion that he should know who he is and what he wants at the young age of 17. In doing so, he made insightful remarks about American youth culture. Another student had always known he wanted to be a doctor, but he wrote about fundraising for a childrens cancer fund, frustrated that he couldnt do more. HIs life goal was implicit in everything he did and his essay made that apparent.

Find the essay that reveals something special about yourself. A favorite word/color/book/artwork can explain more about who you are then describing your family, a trip you took, or how you always succeed. One young woman was writing a pretty standard essay about her nice upbringing, when she realized that even though she wasnt a musician, music was important to her. She had music to study, and to wake up in the morning. She listened to music to calm herself, as well as to have fun. She shared it with friends and her family. In discussing the role certain songs played in her life, she presented a well-rounded, emotionally stable, pleasant young woman that would be a delightful contribution to the college community. The college admissions officer had only to look at her school transcript to confirm she was an excellent student and good athlete, too.

Students have often received good advice on strengths they can address in their essay, but every once in a while a student is advised by those who are well-meaning, but overly protective. Going to college means leaving home. Writing an essay that is true to who you are is the first step in establishing your own ground. You must do it well, if you want your new independence to succeed. I worked with a young woman from Beirut whose essay was able to convince her family that she should be allowed to go to fashion school in Paris rather than become a dental hygienist and stay home. The urgency with which she wrote about her passion was palpable. She had been through political uprisings but, as she acknowledged, so had many others around the world. Her consummate love of fashion on the other hand was its own revolution. She took a risk in writing that essay, but her clarity of purpose made every word ring. 

The challenge in explaining what makes a good college essay is that the rules will change for every person. The best college essays are personal and insightful. They express core qualities of the applicant. How they do so will depend on the person. Take your time. Keep a journal. Write, write more, write things that make you question and squirm. Struggle to be honest. Once you find the element or story that is deeply important to who you are, to how others should understand you, then you can shape it into the perfect college essay.

AUTHOR BIO: Charlotte Kent, PhD. lives and works in New York City, where she helps people of all ages improve their writing. 

Have you or your kids struggled with this? If so, we'd love to hear about it and strategies you took to overcome it in the comments below!

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