5 Questions Seniors Are Asking About the College Essay

Comments Off on 5 Questions Seniors Are Asking About the College Essay 16 October 2014


by Sophie Herron


What do admissions officers think of college application essays that jump straight into the action? How do you write supplement essays about “why” you want to go to a specific college? How do you use “your voice” in writing?

Last week, Jack Scotti (COO of Story To College) and I had the pleasure of talking with students at Townsend Harris, one of New York City’s top public high schools. After a brief presentation about college essays and our new online platform, Story2, Jack and I opened up the floor for Q&A. The students asked the questions above, among others. It was a delightful 20 minutes—kudos to the students at Townsend Harris, their parents, and their tireless educators.

Read five of their great questions and our answers below.

Q: What do you think of essays that start in the middle of the action, versus essays that start with a polished, complete introduction?

A: The first please! Just like a movie or a book doesn’t start by telling all of the background details before it gets going, neither should you. You have only a couple minutes, max, of an admissions officer’s time on the first read: be sure you grab their attention from the get-go. Make them wonder what’s next.  More on how to start your essay with a bang here.

Q: How do you write essays about why you want to go to a specific college?

A: If one of your schools has this question, it’s likely the question they’ll be reading the most carefully. Make sure you address what you will bring to and gain from that specific college. Identify not only what clubs you’ll join, or classes you’ll take, but what about that college’s culture is perfect for you. Do they pride themselves on career and internship opportunities (GW University)? Service learning (Rice University)? Find out what they’re proud of, and tell a story that reveals that you share and live that value.

Q: My topic is serious—do I need to use the voice I use with my friends?

A: We encourage students to use their voice in their writing—it’s a death knell when your writing sounds fake. But that doesn’t mean you have to write like everything is funny: serious you is still you. The most important thing is to write like yourself, whether that be funny, serious, controlled, or descriptive.

One of my students this summer was struggling with her essay until I paused and said, “Charlotte. This just doesn’t sound like you. When you talk, you seem rather controlled and quiet—let yourself write that way.” She nodded, slipped on her headphones, and wrote as if a dam exploded. An hour later, she had an essay whose simplicity and directness blew me away. Listen to your voice, and write in a way that speaks to your strengths. (To get started, you can record yourself on Story2!)

Q: I noticed inSundays at Rocco’s,” he says, “I realized…” but you said not to say that. What if that’s the only way to say what you mean?

A: We shared a short video produced by StoryCorps, as an example of the power of oral storytelling. An astute student caught that he ends his story by saying he “realized” the power of family, which we strongly discourage. Saying “I realized” is taking a lazy way out. You no longer have to prove you learned something through your actions. Admissions officers aren’t looking for empty words. Failing to prove a “realization” through action could be the difference between acceptance and rejection.

This challenge is a tool to push you further, not a rule to hold you back. Do your best to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you are hard-working, open minded, responsible, or any other quality you want to show to admissions officers. But if, after you’ve done your very best, you feel that an “I realized” really belongs in your essay, then it does.

Q: Do you have to write about just one moment, or can you write about more than one?

A: You absolutely can write about more than one. In order to make it easy to follow, make sure that you use simple, time and location-clarifying transitions. For example, “Three years later, I sat with my mom in the living room.” Boom. We’re with you.

Just make sure you don’t spread yourself too thin by writing about too many different moments.  You only have 650 words to tell this story. And if you try to cover every moment within an experience, you’ll be writing in clichés and generalities.


Want to get feedback on your college essay? As our gift to the Class of 2015, we’re providing feedback on essays submitted through Story2 through 10/20. Get started today!

Sophie Herron first entered the classroom as high school English teacher in Houston, Texas, as a Teach For America corps member. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing at New York University, then joined Story To College to teach students how to harness the power of their own voice. Her favorite part of the curriculum is when students discover the story that helps them realize their own potential.

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