How to Approach College Admissions Essays


                The college admissions process is getting more and more competitive each year. In order to apply to US colleges, students usually submit an application through the Common Application or a stand-alone system that some schools have like the UCs. For the Common Application, students submit a central essay and a supplemental application with additional essays. In this article, we will review the basics for submitting applications and the three most common pitfalls students make when writing essays.

                Basics for submitting applications

                At Empowerly, we have helped thousands of students through the admissions process and found similarities in the questions students have when writing applications. Choosing the college list, developing a plan for writing essays, and finding inspiration in essay writing are the three key areas that students struggle with.

We recommend most students to apply to between 10 – 15 colleges. 77% of high school students applied to 3 or more colleges and this number is exponentially increasing each year. With no downside to applying to more colleges expect the application fee (which can be waived in financial need) and more work, students are choosing to put in more effort for the possibility of gaining acceptance to more target and reach colleges. We wrote this Huffington Post article on how to exactly select the number of schools and the type of schools to apply to.

                Each college usually has 3-6 short answer questions specific to that school. We recommend that students start writing essays in senior year for two major reasons: prompts can change each year (although they rarely do) and students themselves mature over time. Some parents approach us in 10th and 11th grade and think that writing essays then is a good idea. In order to prepare in those grades, guide your child to find their specific interest and do activities in that field. That approach will result in the most genuine essays in senior year as their writing and thought processes mature. One useful tool in developing a plan is what we call the Prompt Tracker. Basically, students will create a visual plan of all of their essays and write due dates for each. By doing this, students have a roadmap for exactly when they will write each essay and usually include some notes on their approach.

                Tips for different essay prompts

                Schools vary widely in the types of essay prompts they ask. The biggest area most students miss is answering the prompt in each sentence of every response. Most students actually tend to ignore the prompt as they write the essays. Given the tendency of AP and IB tests to award longer, convoluted essays higher grades, students get conditioned to writing in that style. For college admissions, officers usually do not spend more than 1 hour reading through an application, and often typically less if the student’s numbers are far off from the average. The best way to improve essays is to re-read the essays and make sure each paragraph supports a central thesis that in turn answers the prompt.

The second biggest area students should focus on is writing genuine, thoughtful essays. Many students try to impress admissions officers by either listing their activities or using vocabulary that distances the reader from the writer. Generally, most short responses (~300 characters) are actually asking for a short response – not an essay response. Long essay response should usually have shorter paragraphs making them faster and easier to read. An admissions officer reads thousands of essays per day in a short time frame and wants to truly understand who you are. As a writer, you can help them by being honest and genuine and supporting your claims with what you have done in high school or experiences you have had.

                The third largest area students should focus on is supporting claims. Any student can claim they are interested in science, but the student who proves that interest with evidence of their life (experiences, internships, summer programs, school clubs, volunteer work) will be more convincing. Imaging most essays as persuasive essays where you are reading your essay to a panel of 10 judges. Use ethos, pathos, and logos methods to convince readers that your passion is true. More so, this will come naturally if you actually think deeply about who you are, why you have pursued certain activities, and how you hope to become. The beauty of the college admissions process is that most students (~80%) change their major in college, so admissions officers are not filtering for an exact major but an ability to find and articulate a passion.

                At Empowerly, we have helped students apply to all types of colleges and have seen the same three pitfalls for many years. Students should focus on actually answering the prompt in each paragraph, being concise and thoughtful instead of trying to show off, and supporting claims with evidence from their life. In most cases, if students think of these three areas when writing essays they will write much more thoughtful essays. 

                Please reach out to us if you have any more questions on the college admissions process!

Questions? Let us know!