How To: Write the College Application Essay

Posted by Neal Schwartz on August 29, 2016



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How To: Write the College Application Essay: Chappaqua resident and President of College Planning of Westchester in Armonk, Neal Schwartz says the college application essay is the single most important portion of the whole application. “Assuming all things are equal,” Neal told us, “ including grades, test scores, extra-curricular activities and recommendations, the essay is the best and perhaps only way for a student to distinguish themself from other applicants and ‘break the tie’. Here’ are some tips from Neal on how to approach and develop a winning essay:




Take us through the process of developing an essay …

Most students start by working from the prompts given in the common application forms, which let them narrow their thinking about the possible direction of their essay. We suggest they start by brainstorming a number of their experiences that speak to what makes them unique. What images continue to come back to them? This is their opportunity to be like the writers 'Seinfeld'. While that show was about the normal, everyday things in life, it actually conveyed many memorable and powerful stories that most people could relate to themselves. Here are the steps we suggest: 

  1. Brainstorm
  2. Pick 3 to 5 topics
  3. Align topics with essay prompts
  4. Write first paragraph for up to 3 topic choices
  5. Choose the best topic and write the rest of the essay
  6. Aim for about 800 words
  7. Redraft and evaluate
  8. Edit to 650 words or less
  9. Finalize

What are some best practices you recommend?

First, isolate out third parties (meaning parents) from making it their essay. Parents love their children but can’t completely see the world through their son's or daughter’s eyes. When I hear that a "family" is determining their child’s essay topic, I suggest they qualify it with someone outside of the family. Then, ask yourself, “How unique is my story?” Make the distinction between experiences that may have had a tremendous impact on you and those that are so unique that they couldn't be written by anyone else. This is probably the hardest thing for parents and students to understand. Many colleges will post the topics that they consider unsuitable, like how much a student learned from being on a team, or about the death of a grandparent.

And the most common mistakes students make?


They spend too much time on the main essay[s] and don’t pay attention to supplemental essays and the rest of the application. The three main elements: main essay, supplemental essays and the activity or student resume need to be balanced and logical. They should complement and supplement each other, not duplicate. Applicants often misjudge how long it takes to complete the applications. They wait too long to write the main elements of the application and wind up writing their responses late at night.

Finally, beware the “too many cooks spoil the broth” rule. The more people that are involved in reviewing an essay, the worse it usually gets. Show your essay to five different people and you are likely to get five different opinions. The only opinion that matters in the end is that of the college admissions officer.

Should the student customize essays for particular schools?

With the common app this is difficult as there is one main essay. This year they can make modifications to the common app main essay so, theoretically, if they structure the order of submissions, they can adjust an essay to a particular school. They should absolutely customize supplemental essays to particular schools and avoid a canned essay.

What can you say to a student to allay their anxiety?


There is anxiety over the entire college selection and application process. I try to get students to realize that they are in search of the best-fit school for them. If they do their best work, it will be recognized. We remind each student that they all have unique qualities, and it is their job to transmit that message.

A Test for Neal: In the spirit of the true academic process, we gave Neal a test to see how well he handles “True or False” questions. How well did he do? You decide.

True or false:

It’s often best if the student just allows mom or dad to write their essay for them. False

Make sure you start your essay with a good joke and don’t forget to leave them laughing. False. “While it may be ideal if you can make the reader laugh or cry, if it is not done well, it can backfire.”

Don’t sweat the small stuff like grammar or punctuation. False. “Grammar, vocabulary and punctuation need to be reviewed closely. If the student views the essay like a job application, they would not ignore the basics.”

Every sentence should begin with the word “I”. False.

Cover as many topics as you can in your essay – you only get one crack at this. False.

Remember to tell them how smart you are. College admissions officers like that. False. “Show them how smart you are with a well written, thoughtful essay.”

If your achievements are not impressive enough, embellish them or just make something up. False. “The risk is too high.”

Remember an essay is often like a story. In many cases an anecdote of an important moment in your life with some details about the setting and the people who are important to you can be very effective. True.

About Neal: Neal is a member of the Higher Education Consultants Association and an annual contributor to What To Do’s Back To School features. He shared his tips on Finding the Best Fit Schools and The New SATs with us last year. College Planning of Westchester provides counseling programs to help gain acceptance to their top choice schools through academic readiness assistance and tutoring, SAT/ACT prep, college selection guidance, resume and essay assistance and application process support. Since 2004 their track record shows average increases of 260-320 points on the SAT and 3-4 points on the ACT. (College Planning of Westchester, 200 Business Park Dr., Armonk; 914.273.2353;

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Topics: College Essays,


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