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The College Essay: Let's Talk Content

OK. I've convinced you in The College Essay Parts 1 and 2 that sometimes the best way to help your child with the college essay is by keeping your hands off. I've given you the lay of the land--no intro, no conclusion, every word counts and every word in the student's voice is best. What else do you need to know to help your child?

Let's talk about content.

Some parents are eager to highlight all the amazing accomplishments their child has achieved. Rightfully so. The crafting of the college application in its entirety allows you to do this through a variety of delivery systems. The essay is not the place to relist all those impressive elements of the resume. There is an "upload additional documents" area for the resume. All an admissions officer will see when a student rewrites the resume in narrative form is a series of comma listings and accompanying generalities, and they will skim right through unimpressed.

What you and your child want is deep engagement, the reading of every word in every paragraph. A list of resume accomplishments and accolades can't compel that kind of reaction but a specific, example driven essay centered on one topic and delivered with voice can.

Some topics are simply better than others. It's true. Admissions officers see far too many--we're talking tens of thousands of essays--about mission trips, being in the musical, sports teams/championships, and sports injuries--most commonly the torn ACL. This is not to say these experiences aren't formative nor important. There are, in fact, ways to write about these life events in compelling ways. It takes serious crafting, a brand new angle, and it's not easy. It can be done but should it be done is the right question to ask when there is so much life to mine and so many skills, talents, and values to highlight.

Almost every successful essay I've ever seen incorporates those skills, talents, and values seamlessly. Successful essays do so using a structure which includes elements of a student's past, present, and future with heavy emphasis on the present as readers are most interested in who the student is now.

What is their thinking process?

How do they face and overcome challenges?

Are they proactive? If so, what actions do they take?

How do they learn from adversity?

When do they implement new learning and how?

How do they interact with others?

Almost every early draft I've ever seen has far too much detail about the past and secondary characters. Readers don't care. They need to know the writer and how they will fit into a larger campus community.

Will the writer sit in a dorm room playing video games 24/7?

Will the writer cause conflict within the dorm?


Will the writer contribute to the community? In what ways and through what avenues?

More about content with examples in the next post.


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