Introduction
If you are like most students, you see the college essay as another hurdle that you must jump over on the way to being accepted at the college of your choice. In fact, the essay is not a hurdle but a rare opportunity; it is a chance for you to "talk" directly to the college's admissions committee and to help them "see" you as a thinking and feeling person, rather than simply a set of impersonal statistics.

Except for the interview, the essay is your only chance to share your thoughts, insights and opinions; to highlight your accomplishments; and to convey your maturity and outlook on life. If you see the college essay in this way—as an opportunity—then it is clearly worth the effort to put some extra time, thought and energy into writing it.

Purpose of the Essay
The college essay is extremely important for two major reasons:
  1. It enables the college admissions office to evaluate your communication skills. Through your essay they can assess the clarity of your thinking and your ability to convey your thoughts in written form.

  2. It enables the admissions office to learn more about you as a person, beyond what grades and SAT scores can convey. A well-written essay can speak worlds about your attitudes, feelings, personal qualities, imagination and creativity. For the admissions staff, it adds another important piece to the puzzle because it distinguishes you as an individual, different from any other student who is applying.
Choosing a Topic
The choice of a topic is frequently not an issue, because many colleges and universities will either give you a topic to write about or present several rather specific topics from which you must choose. Other colleges may simply "suggest" broad general topics or give you total freedom to write about something that interests or concerns you.

Regardless of whether you must respond to a prescribed topic or come up with one of your own, here are a few general hints about the most effective way to approach your topic:
  • Narrow your topic and try to be as specific and illustrative as possible.
  • Relatedly, the easiest topic to write about is yourself. No one knows more about you than you. Since one important purpose of the essay is self-revelation, it is no place to be shy or modest, although you should not exaggerate. If you choose to write about yourself, remember that little incidents and facts are often the most revealing of character and outlook.
  • Do not be afraid to write about something you think is a little different. A unique topic or approach is often refreshing to a college admissions officer who has been reading applications all day. Further, an unusual or off-beat essay is an excellent way to show your creativity.
Preparing to Write
Before actually sitting down to write a first draft of your essay, spend some time organizing your thoughts. Develop a framework for your essay so it will have a smooth and logical progression from one idea or incident to the next. Consider your purpose in writing, what you want to convey, and the tone that you think is most appropriate for the topic. Decide on a style that is comfortable for you, not one that you think the college admissions committee prefers.

Finally, remember that organizing your thoughts and deciding on a framework does not mean you must be overly rigid at the start; leave room for flexibility and creativity as you actually begin writing.

Writing the Essay
You do not have to get it right the first time! Instead, write the first draft of your essay with the main focus on content—communicating your thoughts. Then set it aside for a day or two, reread it with a fresh perspective, and make any necessary changes. This is also the point at which you should consider matters of organization, style, grammar, spelling and tone.

Once you have rewritten your first draft, you may wish to try it out on your family, friends, English teacher or guidance counselor. While the final product and final "voice" should be yours, they may be able to offer helpful suggestions for technical or other improvements.

Within this general outline for actually writing the essay, there are some important "dos" and "don'ts," to pay attention to:

Do's
  • Do think "small" and write about something that you know about.
  • Do reveal yourself in your writing.
  • Do show rather than tell. By giving examples and illustrating your topic, you help bring it to life.
  • Do write in your own "voice" and style.
Don'ts
  • Don't write what you think others want to read.
  • Don't exaggerate or write to impress.
  • Don't use a flowery, inflated, or pretentious style.
  • Don't neglect the technical part of your essay (grammar, spelling, sentence structure).
  • Don't ramble—say what you have to say and conclude.
Your college essay, along with your high school record, standardized test scores and extracurricular involvement, will provide the bases upon which colleges make admissions decisions. A thoughtful, well-written essay can effect in a very positive way that final decision. Keep this in mind and take full advantage of the opportunity which the college essay affords you.