Writing the College Essay:
What Students (and Families)
Need to Know
Countdown to College
Mountain View High School
Writing the College Essay: Presentation Overview
II. The College Essay: What it can and can’t do for your application
III. Choosing a Topic
IV. On Writing and Revisions
V. The Many Incarnations of the College Essay: Private School vs.
UC; Long Essay vs. Short Answer Questions
Scholarship prompts – all from local scholarships MVHS kids have won in the past.
Pacific Gas & Electric Company Hispanic Employees Association
1. Describe yourself, your goals, and tell us why you feel it is important for you to obtain a college
degree and how you will give back to the community.
2. One of PG&E’s core values is to respect each other and celebrate diversity. Given your personal
background, describe what diversity means to you and an experience that illustrates the
importance of diversity.
Comcast Leaders and Achievers Scholarship Program
Describe in detail a time when you were able to use your leadership skills.
Good Tidings Foundation Community Service Scholarship
Describe your unique community service activities discussing any of the following subjects:
1. What made you choose/create this project;
2. How did you help the community;
3. How many people were affected by your work;
4. Why is community service important to you;
5. What have you gained or learned from this experience; and
6. What will you do in the future?
College Application Essay – following are choices offered on Common Application used by many schools
across the country, available online at www.commonapp.org.
Please write an essay (250 words minimum) on …. one of the options below. ….This personal essay helps
us become acquainted with you as a person and student, apart from courses, grades, test scores, and other
objective data. It will demonstrate your ability to organize your thoughts and express yourself.
1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have
faced and its impact on you.
2. Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
4. Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.)
that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.
5. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the
educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you
would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the
importance of diversity to you.
UC Essays (1000 words for both)
#1 Describe the world you come from – for example, your family, community or school – and tell us how
your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.
#2 Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to
you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you
The Top 10 List: Choosing a College Essay Topic
10. Pick a Passion: Write about something you have a genuine interest in, not
what you think admissions officers are seeking. Sincerity goes a long way, as
does your knowledge of the topic.
9. Find a Muse: Whether you brainstorm with a friend or chat with a family
member over dinner, hash out your ideas aloud with someone else. That person
may be able to remind you of events, activities, and experiences you’ve been a
part of that may be ideal for a college essay.
8. Write It Down: Carry a little notebook with you, text notes to yourself, or keep a
pad of paper next to your bed. You never know when inspiration will strike, and
you don’t want to miss a golden opportunity by forgetting it later.
7. Be Truthful: What happened to someone else or what never happened at all
often comes across as hollow in an essay. Unless the prompt asks for or invites
fiction, avoid it at all costs.
6. Be Appropriate: Topics like sex, illicit or illegal activities, or things chosen solely
for shock value are not well received. If you wouldn’t show it to your parents,
don’t write it in your college essay.
5. Think Small: No one realistically expects that you’ve climbed Mount Everest,
written a novel, or founded a medical clinic in rural Montana while still in high
school. Many times the richest, most thoughtful essays emerge out of a small
moment in your life.
4. Avoid Overused Topics: While your mission trip to build houses in Mexico was
no doubt an important part of your growth, tens of thousands of other students
took similar trips. Remember: Your essay should distinguish you from others.
3. Watch out for Clichéd Themes: “How being on a sports team taught me to
persevere” or “How I came to realize my privileged existence” or “How my dog’s
death made me realize the value of life” have been done many times.
2. Be Different: Think about what makes you unique and write about it. Allow your
personal traits, unique quirks, and individual perspective to showcase you.
And the most important thing to remember…
1. Answer the Question/Prompt: While it’s tempting to use the same essay for
every school (and some of you may be able to do this when appropriate), make
abundantly sure that it’s fitting to do so. Nothing looks sillier than writing off topic.
College Essay Writing: Do’s and Don’ts
• Make sure your essay reveals something about your character and
• Answer the question.
• Show your character and personality through an anecdote that makes you
come alive as a person.
• Be honest, both in your content and your voice.
• Write about something small in scale, a story only you can tell, in your own
words, something an admissions reader wouldn’t otherwise know about
• Follow directions concerning length and format. If you have 528 words for
a 500-word essay, no big deal; however, if you have three pages for a
one-page essay, it’s time to start editing.
• Edit and revise carefully. Grammatical and spelling errors, structural
awkwardness, misuse of punctuation, and so on definitely annoy
• Buy and read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.
• Use quotations judiciously, if at all. Breaking open Bartlett’s Familiar
Quotations may be useful, but should not be your go-to strategy.
• Use the same essay for every application unless colleges ask the same
open-ended question. If applicable, be sure to change the name of the
college in each!
• Just tell about your character and personality by listing activities or
• Rely too heavily on a thesaurus: You are applying to college, not Roget.
• Write about your SAT scores or grades. The essay is a chance for you to
express yourself as a person, not just a statistic. (If there’s something on
your record that needs explaining, consider asking a teacher or counselor
to include that in his/her recommendation letter.)
• Use gimmicks, like writing in haiku, Old English, or text-messaging jargon.
• Write about yourself in the third person. You’ll sound very pretentious.
• Get bogged down in the traditional, five-paragraph essay.
• Use the passive voice.
• Use exclamation points. Unless someone is screaming in your essay,
please don’t use them.
Material used and adapted from Rock Hard Apps (Katherine Cohen), College
Essays That Made a Difference (Princeton Review), and Cracking College
Admissions (Princeton Review)
Application Essays: UC versus Private Schools
Although both the UC system and private universities will require students to
write essays, the expectations for and focus of each type of essay can – and in
most cases should – be different.
UC Essays Private School Essays
Speaks specifically about Provides details and Allows for more creativity
yourself in a more traditional reflection about an idea or and uniqueness in format,
essay format (has a central activity not developed writing style, structure, and
focus or thesis that you elsewhere in your voice
support with details) application
Provides a broader range of
Demonstrates your ability to Addresses special topic choices, including the
read the questions critically qualities or unique opportunity to design your
and respond both analytically circumstances about you own
and reflectively that would set you apart
from other applicants Encourages depth and
Provides information about you reflection on one topic, rather
on three levels: facts (details), Is clearly organized, well than two
interpretation (meaning of written, thoughtfully
details), and reflection (larger revised, and above all, May involve several,
significance) honest and forthcoming campus-specific short
about yourself answer questions
Suggestions for the Revising and Editing Process
Hint: Select 1-2 trusted adults to assist you with the revision process. As the
saying goes, too many cooks may spoil the soup!
Questions to help you think like an admissions officer:
• What did I learn about you from reading your essay?
• What will I remember about you from this essay?
• Do I have a sense of your intellectual vitality and /or how your mind
• Do I have confidence in your overall writing ability?
• Am I left with any nagging questions or concerns?
Topics to address when revising and editing:
• Show vs. Tell
• Vague Language
• Passive Voice
• Inappropriate Word Choice
• Flowery language / Overly complex constructions
• Spellcheck vs. Proofread (do both!)
General points of feedback to gather:
• What did you learn about me?
• Summarize my essay in one sentence.
• What will you remember about my essay?
• Do I come across as thoughtful? Interesting?
• What do you think I am trying to say in my essay?
• Is it well written?
• Any worries or concerns?