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The Essay

Updated 10/7/22

Of all the plagues unleashed upon high school seniors in the name of college applications, the personal statement is one of the most trying. Ideally, it should be thought-provoking yet completely innocuous, should highlight your attributes without seeming boastful, be written in a style so fresh as to sound like it’s pouring right out of the brain of a 17 year old, yet be beyond grammatical reproach. How does a student begin?

Know One When You See It

The first step in any writing task is to familiarize oneself with the genre; learn what a personal statement is—and what it’s not. It’s not an academic paper, so it shouldn’t sound like the tortured musings of a 50 year old professor. It’s a monologue meant to help the admissions committee get a better sense of who the applicant is as a person. It’s an applicant’s one chance to speak directly to her jury.

To help your senior appreciate what makes a good essay, point out good and bad examples in newspapers, news magazines, blogs, and collections of essays. I also recommend the book, On Writing the College Application Essay, by Harry Bauld. It’s been updated recently and is an excellent yet entertaining resource that includes tips on essay writing and lots of good and bad examples.


A great topic is one that is inherently interesting and reveals something meaningful about the student.  If your daughter insists that she can’t think of anything, suggest that she try brainstorming—jotting down the first five or ten significant or symbolic events from her life that occur to her. Then you can help her think through which might serve as a suitable essay theme. However, the final choice should be hers. In my experience, students rarely write a good essay on a topic that is foisted upon them by their parents.

No Bad Topics—Except One

A nostalgic remembrance of Granny runs the risk of turning into a cliché-ridden sleep aid. However, if Granny’s career as a lumberjack inspired a young woman to apply to the male-dominated field of aeronautical engineering, the essay might be a standout. Even if Granny’s talents were limited to sculpting squirrels out of soap, an engaging essay that explains why that pastime was significant for the author could be charming. The key point is that whatever your daughter chooses to write her personal statement about, she should remember that it must say something about her. The only bad essay topic is one that reflects badly on the writer, so a treatise on a student’s messy room is fine, but a reflection on his conviction for DUI is not.

What’s the Purpose of the Essay, Anyway?

It serves two purposes. First, it gives admission officers some insight into the quality of a student’s writing, but equally important is the insight it gives them regarding who the applicant is as a person and what she will be like as a roommate, dinner companion, teammate, or friend. So simply stated, a great essay is one that makes the author seem like someone who will enrich the college experience of other students.

Parenting Dos and Don’ts

Do encourage your senior to allot plenty of time to develop his essay. In my experience, the best essays are those that undergo several drafts - with a few days between drafts to allow the author to view his writing with fresh eyes each time he sits down to edit. This is a process that is completely foreign to most high school students, however, so don't expect your teen to take this approach on his own. On the contrary, left to his own devices he will probably turn in a first draft completed hours before the deadline.

Don't write your senior's essay! In my view, it’s perfectly okay for a parent to proofread for spelling and grammar errors and give general feedback on the content, but be wary of crossing the line into jeopardizing both your child's writing voice and her integrity. If you're sitting at the computer by yourself, making changes to her essay, you've crossed it. In the course of working with college applicants, I've encountered several essays that were clearly written by a parent and others that appeared to be heavily influenced by one. These reflect very poorly on the parent and student. Trust me, admission officers really do favor essays that sound like they were written by a teenager with an interesting viewpoint rather than a middle-aged parent trying to tell them what he or she thinks they want to hear.

Writing a college essay is a daunting task, but it's worth doing well. A great essay can be the deciding factor in moving a strong applicant from the "possible" stacks into the "accepted" pile.




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