Writing the College Essay:: Tips for the High School Senior

It is the fall of your child’s senior year of high school, and that means it is college application time.
As someone who reads hundreds of college honors essays each year, I’m often asked what makes a good college essay? When preparing your child to write their college essays, here are few things to help you get started.

Often times, involvement is evaluated on both breadth and depth of experience.

Don’t be discouraged if you are “just in band.” My guess is that you are in marching band, ensembles, tried out for honor band, etc. Depth of involvement is just as important as the variety of involvement.

Demonstrate evidence of leadership, both formally and informally.

Leadership doesn’t always present itself in a formalized position or title. If you have informally taken the lead, it can demonstrate initiative and ingenuity. For example, if you recognize an inefficiency in your part-time job or a problem and you spearhead the solution, you are a leader.

The Dos of College Essays

  • Prepare your responses in advance.
  • Be comprehensive but brief.
  • Keep your text simple – Follow the specific formatting guidelines.
  • Have someone review your essay: parents, siblings, teachers, etc.
  • Give all parts of the application, equal effort, and thought.
  • If it is a two-part prompt, make sure to answer both parts.

The Don’ts of College Essays

  • Rehash your resume in your essays—we have already seen that.
  • Use an essay you previously wrote for another prompt –we can tell.
  • Assume we know what an organization or activity from your school is –explain your acronyms and the purpose behind your organizations.
  • Don’t assume your ACT or GPA alone are enough to get you admitted or considered for a scholarship etc.
  • Wait until the last minute to apply.

Here are a few writing prompts to get you thinking about a topic for your college essays.

  • What is a significant setback or obstacle you’ve overcome? How has it made you who you are today?
  • How are you different than your peers? Are there things that feel “normal” to you that your peers do not experience?
  • What keeps you up at night? What are you constantly thinking about?
  • How have you made a difference in your school/community? It’s about meaning, not magnitude.

Remember, it not about the topic you select but the way you share your story. College essays are often evaluated on both the quality of content and the execution of writing. A college essay that is easy to read, engaging, and lets the reviewer feel a connection to the applicant will always prevail.

Becka is an Iowa native who moved to Omaha in June 2015. She is one half of a higher education couple, a mom to identical twin boys (Avery and Elliot 2014) and two sassy wiener dogs (Nora and Knox). Becka enjoys the craziness of twins and the unpredictability of each day. Even with three degrees, most recently a doctorate in higher education, she continues to find herself googling things like “pachycephalosaurus + herbivore” or “excavator vs digger.” With two very energetic and curious preschoolers at home Becka enjoys the peacefulness of her daily commute to Lincoln where she is a coordinator in the Nebraska Business Honors Academy. Becka loves being outdoors in her garden, on the lake with her family, or sitting on the patio with a friend. Her kryptonite is diet coke, peanut m&m’s and a kid free Target trip.