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The Essay

Updated 5/28/2024

If your teenager is planning to apply to a four year college, writing some sort of essay or personal statement is almost certainly in her future.

The Common Application, an online application shared by over 1000 colleges, including most of the highly competitive schools, asks students to write one long essay (up to 650 words) in response to one of seven possible prompts. To see the prompts for 2022-23, click here. Note that the last is a topic of your choice, so students can write on any subject. Many schools also require students to complete additional essays, such as why they want to attend that institution. Colleges that use their own unique application instead of the Common Application frequently ask for a personal statement as well, so it's unlikely your teenager will escape writing at least one or two.

Fortunately, your teen doesn't have to get serious about this until he's ready to start completing his college applications, but one thing you can do before then to make the task a little less daunting is to help him recognize good writing - and appreciate that writing style should be appropriate to the purpose of the piece. While all good writing shares certain key characteristics - like clarity of expression, logical organization, and graceful transitions, there are major differences between the stylistic elements of a well-written scientific journal article and a humorous memoir.

Leave the discourse on rhetorical devices to your teen's English teacher. A better approach for parents is  to simply point out examples of good writing when you see it - particularly samples of more casual, personal pieces, like blogs and articles in the lifestyle section of the newspaper. One take away point should be that the best writers of such pieces often sound conversational, choosing colorful, interesting words, for example, rather than those most likely to be found on the SAT.  

To get a better idea of what makes a good college essay, I 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.

Now that you've finished reading how to help your child prepare for college, it's time to move on to the next, more exciting section, where you'll begin the college search!

Next section:  Explore Colleges


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