How to Approach College Admissions Essays

Empowerly Team
Empowerly Team

Our collaborative team of content writers and researchers stay up-to-date on the latest news to help you ace your applications. We hope you enjoy the blog.

The college admissions process overwhelms many students each year. In order to apply to US colleges, students usually submit an application through the Common Application. If not, you’ll usually see similar stand-alone system, like the UC’s. 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 common pitfalls students make when writing college admissions essays.

Basics for submitting applications

At Empowerly, we have helped thousands of students through the admissions process. Through this, we found similarities in the questions students have when writing applications. The three key areas most students struggle with is as follows:

  • Choosing the college list,
  • Developing a plan for writing essays, and
  • Finding inspiration in essay writing.

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. Officially, there is no downside to applying to more colleges; but you can always expect the application fee (which may be waived in financial need) and plenty more work. Today, students are choosing to put in more effort for the possibility of gaining acceptance to more colleges. However, planning out your strategy and avoiding redundant or unnecessary work is key to reducing stress and improving quality.

The road to successful college admissions essays

Each college usually has 3-6 short answer questions specific to that school. We recommend that students start writing essays in senior year. This is 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, instead simply 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. Let’s review some important pieces of advice for the most common prompts you may face.

Don’t ignore the question(s)

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.

Being genuine

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.

Show, don’t tell

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.

Here’s a tip: Imagine 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.

How do we help with college admissions essays?

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 college admissions essays. 

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

Questions? Let us know!