Writing a Successful College Application Essay: Four Steps for Students

By Ann Camacho, editor of Bookmarkeda collection of teen essays

Writing a Successful College Application Essay: Four Steps for StudentsIt’s that time of year, when high school seniors are smack-dab in the middle of the college application process. Getting ready for college is in the back of their minds and the stress of getting into college is at the forefront. And believe me, I see the excitement and utter terror in their eyes on a daily basis as my former juniors come to see me, trickling in between passing periods or before and after school. Some come to shyly ask for a letter of recommendation, some ask whether I kept a hard copy of the personal statements they wrote in my class last year (which I did), and some just come in to share their apprehensions and touch base with a familiar face.

For so many students who have dreamt of this moment for years, the actuality feels almost surreal. Some are even reduced to tears as they wonder, even doubt, if they are really ready for this next step.

“You are ready!” I assure them, but I can still see the veiled doubt that hides just behind their eyes.

My students hug me and then say sheepishly, “Ok . . . I guess you’re right,” but as they look back, I smile and nod, knowing that yes, it is daunting and there is a whole lot of work ahead of them.

On its own, writing the personal statement is a harrowing and varied process, and colleges and universities have different expectations: some students will need to answer prompts that have been divided into eight separate questions, with a response required for four of the questions; some students will be asked to respond to a prompt with a 1,000-word essay telling the admissions officers about their backgrounds, communities, greatest assets, and the most difficult challenges they have overcome; and some students will need to give examples in a 500-word essay of how they have changed their communities through their service work.

However, all of these variations have one common denominator: colleges across the nation want to know who that student is in a nutshell and why he or she should be granted entrance to that college. A bit unnerving, if you ask me!

So after years of helping students assemble their thoughts, brainstorm and organize their ideas, and write their personal statements, I have boiled down the process of writing a college entrance essay into four guiding principles:

1. Address the prompt!
If the prompt is asking about family background, emphasize to your students that they need to be willing to be vulnerable (without adding extra drama) about their histories. If the prompt asks students about their communities, they need to be able to describe the world they came from. College admissions officers want clear and concise writing, but they are also looking for students who can eloquently answer a direct question.

2. Write.
Then write some more. Share the drafts, edit, share again, write some more, revise again, and then write some more. I can’t emphasize enough how important the writing process is to personal statements. Colleges are looking for accomplished writers, yes, but since they are also searching to hear the authentic voice of the student, I caution my students to choose an editor who will point out structural or grammatical errors who won’t change the voice or tone of the writing. Colleges are seeking clean drafts, but they are also truly looking to know the student behind the words. They want to see that this student has cared enough to spend some time on a personal essay, one that will show the college admissions board not just what the student has accomplished but who he has become after thirteen years in school.

3. Focus on the delivery.
This is students’ opportunity to write about activities, events, and personal experiences that don’t necessarily show up in the application or on a transcript. I encourage my students to be authentic in their writing and to seize the chance to share a bit more about themselves than their GPA or list of activities will reveal. Students should work on showing, not telling, about their lives, their adventures, their heartaches, and their victories in a story-like manner, with vivid details in an earnest but cohesive style.

4. Tell the truth.
Though Mark Twain notes that one should “never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” no one likes to be duped or emotionally held hostage. Everyone has a story to tell, and each student is worthy of telling her story. That’s where the writing process comes in. I tell my students to find the “seed” to their story, and if they have to cut and rewrite, and even cut again, it is okay. The writing process is a journey that allows individuals to get to the heart of their story. Each person has something to tell, and just like growing up, writing is a process that is not unlike pruning a tree. If your student has suffered some challenges in his life, help him tell about those obstacles but also find the beauty in how he has changed and grown from these hardships. If your student has had a wonderful childhood and adolescence, encourage him to share the gifts he’s been given along the way without apologizing. Each story is valuable and precious in its own right.

A personal statement is just that, personal. Reading about my students’ lives is one of my favorite parts of being an AVID and English teacher, and I revere my students’ courage in taking a deep breath and diving into the process of sharing who they are and who they want to become. It is an honor to share this rite of passage with my students, and I try to support their process by hearing their stories and helping them tighten their writing so others can hear their stories, too. And if all goes well, a young person you help today will come back into your classroom some few months later, beaming ear to ear, saying “Guess what?!” And you will smile with her, knowing that you were a small part of her huge success!

ann-camacho-webAnn Camacho has been an English teacher for more than twenty years. She currently teaches American literature at North High School in Riverside, California. Her students (and the student body as a whole) are very diverse, and many are in the school’s International Baccalaureate program and AP classes. Ann also participates in the AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination) college preparation program for students who have college aspirations but are falling short of their potential or who don’t believe college is within reach.

Bookmarked: Teen Essays on Life and Literature from Tolkien to TwilightAnn Camacho is the editor of Bookmarked: Teen Essays on Life and Literature from Tolkien to Twilight.


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One Response to Writing a Successful College Application Essay: Four Steps for Students

  1. Many thanks for you Ann to giving us these awesome tips to write a better essay.

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