College essays

Seniors: The "Why us?" Essay

For all the schools on your list, be sure to do a good job not just on your essays but also on the prompts and short answers in the supplements. Of special note: if there is a "Why us?" question and what you write will work for any other college, chances are it will not pass muster. Colleges want to know you are a good fit for their school and have a real understanding of it.   To begin with, you will need to know enough about each school to be genuinely interested in attending.  And then show those well-researched reasons in the essay in a way that demonstrates that each school is a good fit for you in terms of your intellectual, academic and personal interests. The "Why us?" essay is a unique opportunity. Make sure you put in the necessary time and effort.


For more information and advice on college essays, including selecting and developing a topic and insight from the deans of admission at MIT, Georgetown, Northern Illinois University and Williams College, see Chapter 13, "Essays," in College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step.


Best Advice from our College Counselors


October is the cruelest month for high school college counselors, besieged on all sides with seniors intent on applications and juniors beginning their college search and testing. So we gave the counselors a pass for the month. Instead of our Counselor of the Month feature, we bring you a round-up of best advice from the counselors who have graced our website with their guidance and wisdom. Read on to learn their recommendations for applying and financial aid, mistakes to avoid, guidance for students with learning differences and undocumented students, and do's and don'ts for students -- and parents, as well.  One of our personal favorites?  From Albuquerque Academy's Ralph Figueroa: "Proofread. Spell Czech is knot yore friend and it will betray ewe." See more from Figueroa and others here: 

Alice Kleeman, Menlo-Atherton High School, Atherton, California

What is your best advice for applicants?

Have fun with the process; you have the opportunity to think about who you are and who you want to become. Why shouldn't that be enjoyable?


Jayne Caflin Fonash, Academy of Science, Loudoun County, Virginia

What is the biggest mistake you see students make in applying to college?

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes for the Common App

We just returned from the annual conference for the National Association for College Admission Counseling -- a gathering of admission deans, high school college counselors, financial aid officers, and others who come together to share ideas about everything from scholarships and access to net price calculators and NCAA eligibility.

At one of the sessions we attended, Common Application, Inc., executive director Rob Killion and director of outreach Scott Anderson unveiled the specifics of an $8-million overhaul of the online system that now has 488 colleges and universities as members. As of August 1, 2013, the three million students who use the Common App will see a new, technologically enhanced version -- Common App 4.0. An improved interface and infrastructure will make it easier to use and hopefully reduce the technical issues students often confront. But there will also be other changes that will affect students.

Some of these changes users will likely see in the facelift include:

Seniors: Finding Your Voice in the Essay


Seniors, as you work on your essays, we strongly recommend you avoid books hawking application essays that “worked.” You won’t find the story that says the most about you in someone else’s work. Colleges want to hear your voice in your writing. You’re much better off investing your time— and money— in some good writing. Here are some recommendations of engaging essays written in the first-person:

• David Sedaris:  Santaland Diaries and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim

• Sloane Crosley: I Was Told There’d Be Cake

• Gayle Pemberton: The Hottest Water in Chicago

Writing the Essay: Pushing the Right Brick for Diagon Alley

Today, we welcome guest blogger Irena Smith, a writer, teacher, and independent college consultant, on how to find the story you will tell in your college essay. Spoiler alert: it might be as simple as knowing the right brick to push to enter Diagon Alley or having a reputation for eating like a defensive lineman. 

There is an old saw, beloved of debate teachers and public speaking coaches, that goes something like this: at any given funeral, given the choice between lying in the coffin or delivering the eulogy, most people would rather be in the coffin. The point is not a subtle one: not many people love public speaking.

Essay Lab: Word Counts and Krispy Kremes, Some Advice

We're going to send you off into the Thanksgiving holiday with the following excellent advice about college application essays from Alice Kleeman, a contributor to College Admission and the college advisor at Silicon Valley's Menlo-Atherton High School. Ms. Kleeman knows her way around the personal statement and short answers of the application. She estimates she has read the essays of several hundred students each year for the last eighteen years. The two best?  "There was one about Krispy Kreme donuts and one about a student's job in a hardware store. I like that contrast!" says Kleeman. "Most important thing: The essay is all about you."

Her advice:

•             Respond to the prompt! And if it's a two-part prompt, be sure to respond to both parts.   Example: "Tell us about your world; what impact does your world have on your hopes and dreams?"

•             Don’t hesitate, if you’re working on the Common App 500-word-max essay, to choose “Topic of Your Choice” as your prompt.  That choice may help you respond more naturally and feel less confined to canned topics.

Essay Lab: A Reading List

One of the most challenging aspects of writing college application essays can be finding and writing in the first-person voice. This is partly because the type of academic writing required of high school students is often heavy on the passive voice and expository -- or third-person – writing. So what you have learned in your English class can sometimes get in the way when it comes to writing the personal statement or essay required in the application process. You will have to move beyond what you have learned to write for class to a more personal kind of essay in which you write about things from your unique perspective in a style closer to your speaking voice. We are not fans of "essays that worked" whether found on the web or bookstore shelves.  It's hard to write an essay about who you are when you have someone else's ideas fixed in your head. But we do believe that reading great first-person essayists -- authors like David Sedaris and Annie Lamott -- can help you find your authentic voice and your story.  And they're terrific reading in any case. Here are our recommendations:

Essay Lab: Day Three Prompts

Still stuck? Or still procrastinating? Here are some more prompts for inspiration. We especially like Michel's last one -- the perfect photo of you that doesn't exist?!?

Deborah Michel, author of the forthcoming novel Prosper In Love and parent to two applicants for the Class of  2016

One of my daughter's essay prompts was "You're looking out a window.  What do you see?" I remember a writer friend using that one, and I like it myself. 

I access art a lot when I'm writing.  So…

                Describe a painting or photograph you love in detail.  What is it about that image? 

                Describe your favorite photograph of yourself.

                Or, better yet:   Describe your favorite photograph of yourself that doesn't actually exist.

The web can also be a good source for prompts. College Admission did some web-surfing (one of our favorite methods of procrastination) and found some links for you:

Prompt generator 

Essay Lab: Day Four Prompts and Some Advice

Today, some advice and more prompts:

Meg Waite Clayton, bestselling author of The Four Ms. Bradwells, The Wednesday Sisters, The Language of Light, and the forthcoming The Wednesday Daughters 

From Meg's blog, how to get the words onto paper:   

I remind myself that I can throw anything out if it doesn’t work. The trick is just to write without worrying about exactly what you’re writing. Any sentence will do to start — and if it sucks, you can throw it out later! 

And some prompts from what she calls her "bag of tricks":

                Dig out an old personal photo and write about how it makes you feel.

                Subscribe to an online word-a-day service like Google word, and each day when you sit down to write, start with a sentence that uses your word of the day.