The Key to a Standout College Essay

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Madeleine Karydes
Madeleine Karydes

Madeleine attended UC Berkeley and double-majored in English and Media Studies. She is now an integral part of the Empowerly team.

College essays range from structured to creative. Sometimes, they leave you scratching your head, wondering what on earth oranges have to do with you eligibility for college (I’m looking at you, University of Chicago). And they still expect you to write a truly standout college essay that answers everything? With all the pressure and confusion, it can be hard to appreciate the humor of riddles and off-the-wall essay prompts. Who do they think we are, Indiana Jones? Just tell me what you need to know!

Does that sound familiar? Are you finding yourself stumped, sitting in front of a blank document… or mess of words that leaves you uninspired?

Empowerly Knows Your Struggle

Guess what… here are some of the common questions we get from students and families just like you:

  • What’s the secret ingredient for a good college essay?
  • What characteristics are colleges looking for? 
  • How do I write a college essay?
  • How do I make myself a competitive applicant, or present myself best in my college essays?
  • What should I write about to get accepted to my dream school? 
  • What is the key to a great college essay? 

Basically, you aren’t alone in this struggle. Empowerly has a unique approach to essays that will help your student write the best possible sample to submit with their college application every year, even if you get thrown a curveball.

The Honeycomb

Here is our framework to will help you find your footing as you face a variety of different prompts. We call it “The Essay Honeycomb,” and it maps out different styles of essay and short-answer prompts along a continuum of structured to creative (or open-ended-ness).


Wondering how this translates to a standout college essay? If you are looking for content tips on exactly how to craft that standout essay that college admissions officers will be excited about, remember this: you are the thesis. Write from the heart, do your best to be specific with details, and convey your personal maturity and drive to learn. 

That sounds well and good, but how do I actually start? You can use the Essay Honeycomb to help you decode what kind of information the question is looking for. Obviously, the more structured prompts will be more clear about the requirements you ought to write about to be successful. 

But here’s the secret: even creative prompts want similar information! It’s just a more roundabout, fun way of asking you to demonstrate and defend why you’re a great scholar and deserve a place on their campus this year. 

Real prompt examples of the essay honeycomb in action:

Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences that was particularly meaningful to you. (About 150 words)

Keep it simple. Choose a major activity – one that you did not focus on in the Common Application major essay and write about it. Keep it to one paragraph and focus on what it is, how long you have done it, why it is important to you, and what it means to you. The last two elements of this response are the most important and usually neglected. They just want to know which of your activities in your activity list is the most important to you if you had to choose one.

Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate — and us — know you better. (250 word limit)

As an individual you possess all kinds of habits, hobbies, and personal approaches to social interaction. Topics and range from social justice beliefs to furniture arrangement preferences. Put another way, when your roommate looks back at the housing experience, what information would serve as a defining explanation of your relationship? It would be useful to include aspects of student life/culture/traditions that you would like to experience together or that would contribute to your dynamic.

Overall takeaways

See what I mean? Each essay question or short answer field is an opportunity to flex. So get out there and strut your stuff. Other students may get flustered or overthink those “weird” essay questions, but now, you’ll know exactly what to do.

Interested in touching base with one of our admissions experts before you send in the final thing? Book a consult today and let us know what kind of help you’re looking for, and we’ll match you to a counselor and program to meet your individual needs. We’re here to help you spread your wings and fly into a future that works for YOU!

Questions? Let us know!