Writing a Winning College Essay - Part 1

Do you have a teen who is interested in college?  Does the idea of helping them get their college essay done...give you pause?

Do the words College Essay make you cringe, like they did for me?  I was feeling a more than a little nervous about this task, and my teen was, too....

As it turned out, the essay was not nearly as hard as I thought it would be, and my daughter wrote an essay that helped her get accepted by multiple colleges. 

This Personal College Essay serves as an introduction of your student to the college, similar to what an interview would do.  And it is a personal essay, of course.  But for many teens, it can be quite difficult to write about oneself.  That's why we did a lot of brainstorming.  More about that later.

The first thing to do, of course, is to locate the college essay prompts. 

Finding the College Essay Prompts

For the Common Application Essay Prompts:

We began by googling the Common Application, where we found the directions for their essay, and all the essay prompts that were listed there.  

For college applications from the colleges themselves:

Some colleges use their own applications, and not the common application.  You will find the information on their college essay on the college's website itself.  Their essay prompts will not be the same as the ones for the common application.

Here are some sample essay prompts to show you what they might look like:

Sample Essay Prompts

1.  Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

2.  Describe a difficulty or disability that you have, and how you have worked to overcome it.Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

3.  Discuss an event or a place where you felt especially comfortable.  Why was it special to you?  Describe in detail.

4.  Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

5.  What skills have your developed in leadership?  How can you use these to help other?

To get this year's COLLEGE PROMPTS  
click below:  Common Application Essay Prompts 

Ok, now that you have your current essay prompts....you are ready to chose one.  Do you know that, for us, that took quite a while...

Why is the College Essay so important?

The college essay is the best way for the college get to know the student.  So we began by listing the things that we  wanted the college to know....about my teen.  This questions helped us to decide what to focus on.....

What accomplishments, experiences, etc can best describe your student to the college?  Which prompt will let them tell their story the best?


Together, we made a list of things that we wanted the colleges to know about my teen.  Things that would tell the college the important things about my daughter.  

We listed - leadership activities, and her interests, such as videomaking, dance, and photography.  Of course, your list will be entirely different.

We also thought of those things that would show perseverance, such as doing irish dance over 8 years.  And we also listed her volunteer activities.  Of course, every student's list, would be different.

Choosing the College Essay Prompt

Then we looked back at the essay prompts, and thought about how our list might fit with one of the prompts.  I found this quote and it helped us:

Nancy Burgoyne, from Fat Envelope Essays, says:

"Choose a topic that allows your student to shine. Think of the essay as kind of an interview with college admissions.  Pick whichever prompt will help the college to get to know your teen better. "(taken from an interview, August 14, 2014)

My teen wanted to talk about a special youth conference that she attended, that was meaningful to her, maybe with essay prompt #4.  
At the same time, I wanted her to share about her leadership activities so they would know that she had some skills in that area, and suggested essay prompt #5. 

We both thought it might be helpful to talk about her experiences overcoming some visual issues, which related to prompt #2.  Then we brainstormed a little more, put it away, and went to the park, to take a break from it all.

Brainstorming, and setting it aside was key for us, and 
helped my daughter and I, to de-stress and come back later to it with a clear mind. 

My daughter finally chose an essay prompt where she could talk about her special youth conference.  

NOTE - Remember that the essay prompts listed above were samples only, not the real ones.

Once you have your current college essay prompts - which of essay prompts would make your student shine?  Which one inspires him/her?  What is he/she passionate about?  

If your teen chooses to write about a hardship, I recommend focusing on the positives, not the difficulties, and focus on how they overcame any issues.

Working on the College Essay

My teen then started by writing out a first draft, focusing on her youth conference and how it affected her personally.

From that she drew up an outline. choosing her main points and then she began working on her opening paragraph.  This opening paragraph is key.

With this outline in hand, she worked on her draft for a few days, then let it sit.

When she got it out again, it was fresh and she reworked it into a second draft.  Taking some time off was helpful, as it gave her time to order and rework her phrases.  This helped her to share herself in a more authentic way.  I helped her to pace herself.

She then made time for revisions, reviewing the structure of a good essay, then taking time for editing.  Using the basic structure of a five paragraph essay is a good starting point. Time 4 Writing has a nice review of the 5 paragraph essay, although it focuses on writing the essays for the SAT or ACT.  But the principles are the same.

Good grammar, spelling, punctuation and organization of the essay are all points that the colleges will be looking for.

It is nice to have an outside person to check the essay for editing purposes, and this is allowed.  Otherwise, the essay needs to be independently written by the student, of course. 

Click here to reach Writing a Winning College Essay - Part 2.

Are you looking for more help for college?

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..including tips for transcripts, course descriptions, choosing curricula, dealing with college reference letters, and more.
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...including tips for transcripts, course descriptions, choosing curricula, dealing with college reference letters, and more

Thanks for stopping by BJ's Homeschool,


Betsy is a former O.T, preschool teacher and published author of children's stories.  She is mom to her 2e college grad whom she homeschooled through high school.  She blogs at BJ's Homeschool about the early yearshigh schoolcollegeand is the author of "Homeschooling High School with College in Mind".  She offers homeschool help through messages at BJ's Consulting.

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