A college essay checklist

As seniors move into the throes of college application season, here’s a checklist of ten questions to ask about each of the essays you’re writing.  Go for “Yes” responses to all of them. 

1. Is the essay about you? 

The point of every college essay prompt is to help them learn more about you.  “Why do you want to attend this college?” is not the same question as, “Why is this college great?”  Yet a lot of students answer the first version as if they're being asked the second one.  If the reader isn't learning about you, you’re focusing on the wrong things.

2. Are you telling the truth?

“Soccer taught me the importance of hard work and commitment” may not be a lie, but if you’ve never actually thought it until you sat down to write your college essay, you’re probably not telling the truth.  Don’t try to impress the admissions officers.  Just be honest. 

3. Seriously, are you really telling the truth? 

Really, trying too hard to impress virtually guarantees your essay will fall flat.  If your story is, “I’m the worst player on my soccer team, but I still love soccer,” tell that (true) story.

4. Have you answered every part of the prompt? 

It’s easy to get wrapped up in your story and forget to answer every part of the prompt.  Something like, “Tell us about a time you failed or made a mistake and describe what you learned from the experience” is actually two questions.  Make sure you answer both.

5. Are you sharing a new story, one they don’t already know from the rest of your application?

Your activities are already listed on your application, so colleges know how you spend your time.  They also know that football is hard and that France is difference from the United States.  Make sure your essays tell a new story they don’t already know.   

6. Would you say any of this while on a first date?

You would never go on a first date and say the words, “Ultimately, my time on the student council has opened my eyes to new opportunities to be found working with others.”  Don’t write sentences like that in your essays (and for the love of everything, never say them on a date, either).

7.  Is it an essay that only you could write?

We teach our Collegewise students a concept we call “Owning your story,” which means that a story is one that only you could write.  You don’t own, “Community service taught me that it’s important to help people.”  To own your stories, inject as much detail as you can so that nobody else could tell the same story.

8.  Have you limited the input from other people?

Yes, you should absolutely seek advice on your college essays.  But don’t seek it from too many people.  When you shop your essays around for feedback, they end up sounding like they were written by a committee.

9.  Have you asked for advice from the right people?

You should only ask college essay advice from people who A) you trust and B) actually know what they’re doing.  The people you go to have to fulfill both roles, not just one.  For most students, your counselor and English teacher usually can.   Friends, your parents, and friends of your parents usually can’t.

10. Are you happy with what you wrote?

The college admissions process feels almost as judgmental as junior high felt.  Everyone from teachers to the College Board to the colleges are judging, grading, scoring and measuring you.  This is going to sound cheesy, but when it comes to college essays, just please yourself.  These are your essays, not anybody else’s.  As long as you can confidently say "yes" to all ten of these questions, you’ll probably have written good stories that will help colleges get to know you.  And that’s really all anyone could reasonably expect from you. 

You can find even more advice in our video, “How to Write Great College Essays.”  It’s $12.99 and available as a streaming download.