Young woman reading a book

As we continue our fall College Readiness series, Dr. P – Dominque Padurano, Ph.D, founder and president of Crimson Coaching – offers some tips on writing a great college application essay and why the essay matters so much. Dr. P writes: 

“For decades each fall, millions of high school seniors have written application essays in the hopes of earning admission into the universities of their dreams.  Recently, those essays have grown in importance. The Washington Post opined in 2017 that the number one myth in college admissions is that “essays don’t matter.” 

The global pandemic has made essays “matter” even more.  “Test-optional” admissions policies adopted in the wake of COVID-19 have rendered the essay even more “decisive” (to borrow The Post’s term).  With one fewer data point to evaluate applicants, admissions officers must now rely more heavily on the personal statement.

These higher stakes often induce higher levels of anxiety into teenage writers. But it doesn’t have to be that way.  

Read Two or Three Successful College Application Essays

You can find examples of strong college application essays in several places.  Try “10 Successful Harvard Application Essays” published annually by the student newspaper The Crimson, or Fiske Real College Essays That Work, published by the same folks responsible for the venerable Fiske Guide to Colleges.  Wherever you find them, keep in mind that these essays are finished products.  Those students revised their essays five, ten or twenty times before they became the polished gems that you’re reading.

As you peruse the essay, try to pinpoint what elements made it work.  Despite the variety of voices and forms, each effective essay conveys the author’s unique “personal brand.”  Rather than attempt to describe themselves with seventeen distinct adjectives, the author settled on one or two.  These adjectives form what I call the student’s “personal brand,” and they permeate all successful college application essays.

North Star

Identify Your Personal Brand

Before starting your own college essay, brainstorm as many adjectives as possible that describe YOU.  Go with your gut; a list of 5-10 adjectives is fine.  If you get really stuck, ask family and friends for words that best characterize you.

Group similar adjectives (e.g., “compassionate” and “empathetic”) into a single cluster.  Then, pick the one or two most important adjectives / clusters that are most important to you as a person and a student.  Write these adjectives – your own “personal brand” – on a post-it and stick the note above where you write.  This visual cue will help keep you on track, serving as a “North Star” toward which you write every time you open your laptop.

Writing a college application essay can be challenging: it’s a type of writing that most students have never done before.  With planning and the right guidance, however, this process becomes a joyful journey. Teens on the verge of adulthood can use the experience to make sense of their adolescence – and to look forward to the exciting college years that lie ahead!”

To read more tips on writing a college essay, visit Dr. P’s website

About the Author

Since 2014, Dr. P. has helped hundreds of students brainstorm, draft, and polish their college essays.  Her caring yet probing questions ensure that students craft personal statements that help them grow and learn, while appealing to admissions committees at the same time.  Dr. P.’s students have been admitted to Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and dozens of other highly selective colleges and universities.  In addition, Dr. P. assists families to build lists of colleges to apply to that are, in the words of one student’s dad, both sensible and “inspiring.”  

Header Image by Seven Shooter on Unsplash

Inside Image by Alex Conradt on Unsplash