Ultimate Guide to Writing Your College Essay
Tips for writing an effective college essay.
College admissions essays are an important part of your college application and gives you the chance to show colleges and universities your character and experiences. This guide will give you tips to write an effective college essay.
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Writing a strong college admissions essay
Learn about the elements of a solid admissions essay.
Avoiding common admissions essay mistakes
Learn some of the most common mistakes made on college essays
Brainstorming tips for your college essay
Stuck on what to write your college essay about? Here are some exercises to help you get started.
How formal should the tone of your college essay be?
Learn how formal your college essay should be and get tips on how to bring out your natural voice.
Taking your college essay to the next level
Hear an admissions expert discuss the appropriate level of depth necessary in your college essay.
Student Story: Admissions essay about a formative experience
Get the perspective of a current college student on how he approached the admissions essay.
Student Story: Admissions essay about personal identity
Get the perspective of a current college student on how she approached the admissions essay.
Student Story: Admissions essay about community impact
Student story: admissions essay about a past mistake, how to write a college application essay, tips for writing an effective application essay, sample college essay 1 with feedback, sample college essay 2 with feedback.
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Sat / act prep online guides and tips, how to come up with great college essay ideas.
Writing the college application essay is a tough gig. You've got to be charming, personal, memorable, and insightful--all in under two pages! But I'm going to tell you a secret: half of a great personal essay is a great topic idea. If you're passionate about what you're writing, and if you're truly documenting something meaningful and serious about yourself and your life, then that passion and meaning will come alive on the page and in the mind of your reader.
So how do you come up with an essay idea? The best way is to brainstorm your way to an event from your life that reveals a core truth about you. In this article, I will help you do just that. Keep reading to find 35 jumping off points that touch on every possible memory you could harness, as well as advice on how to use your brainstorming session to fully realize your idea for an essay topic.
What Makes an Essay Topic Great?
What does your application tell admissions officers about you? Mostly it's just numbers and facts: your name, your high school, your grades and SAT scores. These stats would be enough if colleges were looking to build a robot army, but they aren't.
So how do they get to see a slice of the real you? How can they get a feel for the personality, character, and feelings that make you the person that you are? It's through your college essay. The essay is a way to introduce yourself to colleges in a way that displays your maturity. This is important because admissions officers want to make sure that you will thrive in the independence of college life and work.
This is why finding a great college essay topic is so hugely important: because it will allow you to demonstrate the maturity level admissions teams are looking for. This is best expressed through the ability to have insight about what has made you into you, through the ability to share some vulnerabilities or defining experiences, and through the ability to be a creative thinker and problem solver.
In other words, a great topic is an event from your past that you can narrate, draw conclusions from, explain the effect of. Most importantly, you should be able to describe how it has changed you from the kind of person you were to the better person that you are now. If you can do all that, you are well ahead of the essay game.
How Do You Know If Your College Essay Topic Is Great?
Eric Maloof, the Director of International Admission at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas has a great checklist for figuring out whether you're on the right track with your essay topic . He says, if you can answer "yes" to these two questions, then you've got the makings of a great essay:
- Is the topic of my essay important to me?
- Am I the only person who could have written this essay?
So how do you translate this checklist into essay topic action items?
Make it personal. Write about something personal, deeply felt, and authentic to the real you (but which is not an overshare). Take a narrow slice of your life: one event, one influential person, one meaningful experience—and then you expand out from that slice into a broader explanation of yourself.
Always think about your reader. In this case, your reader is an admission officer who is slogging through hundreds of college essays. You don't want to bore that person, and you don't want to offend that person. Instead, you want to come across as likable and memorable.
Put the reader in the experience with you by making your narrow slice of life feel alive. This means that your writing needs to be chock-full of specific details, sensory descriptions, words that describe emotions, and maybe even dialog. This is why it's very important to make the essay topic personal and deeply felt. Readers can tell when a writer isn't really connected to whatever he is writing about. And the reverse is true as well: deep emotion shows through your writing.
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Coming Up With Great College Essay Ideas
Some people know right off the bat that they have to write about that one specific defining moment of their lives. But if you're reading this, chances are you aren't one of these people. Don't worry—I wasn't one of them either! What this means is that you—like me—will have to put in a little work to come up with the perfect idea by first doing some brainstorming.
I've come up with about 35 different brainstorming jumping off points that ask questions about your life and your experiences. The idea here is to jog your memory about the key life events that have shaped you and affected you deeply.
I recommend you spend at least two minutes on each question, coming up with and writing down at least one answer—or as many answers as you can think of. Seriously—time yourself. Two minutes is longer than you think! I would also recommend doing this over several sittings to get your maximum memory retrieval going—even if it takes a couple of days, it'll be worth it.
Then, we will use this list of experiences and thoughts to narrow your choices down to the one topic idea that you will use for your college essay.
Brainstorming Technique 1: Think About Defining Moments in Your Life
- What is your happiest memory? Why? What was good about it? Who and what was around you then? What did it mean to you?
- What is your saddest memory? Would you change the thing that happened or did you learn something crucial from the experience?
- What is the most important decision you've had to make? What was hard about the choice? What was easy? Were the consequences of your decision what you had imagined before making it? Did you plan and game out your choices, or did you follow gut instinct?
- What decision did you not have any say in, but would have wanted to? Why were you powerless to participate in this decision? How did the choice made affect you? What do you think would have happened if a different choice had been made?
- What the most dangerous or scary thing that you've lived through? What was threatened? What were the stakes? How did you survive/overcome it? How did you cope emotionally with the fallout?
- When did you first feel like you were no longer a child? Who and what was around you then? What had you just done or seen? What was the difference between your childhood self and your more adult self?
- What are you most proud of about yourself? Is it a talent or skill? A personality trait or quality? An accomplishment? Why is this the thing that makes you proud?
Brainstorming Technique 2: Remember Influential People
- Which of your parents (or parental figures) are you most like in personality and character? Which of their traits do you see in yourself? Which do you not? Do you wish you were more like this parent or less?
- Which of your grandparents, great-grandparents, or other older relatives has had the most influence on your life? Is it a positive influence, where you want to follow in their footsteps in some way? A negative influence, where you want to avoid becoming like them in some way? How is the world they come from like your world? How is it different?
- Which teacher has challenged you the most? What has that challenge been? How did you respond?
- What is something that someone once said to you that has stuck with you? When and where did they say it? Why do you think it's lodged in your memory?
- Which of your friends would you trade places with for a day? Why?
- If you could intern for a week or a month with anyone—living or dead, historical or fictional—who would it be? What would you want that person to teach you? How did you first encounter this person or character? How do you think this person would react to you?
- Of the people you know personally, whose life is harder than yours? What makes it that way—their external circumstances? Their inner state? Have you ever tried to help this person? If yes, did it work? If no, how would you help them if you could?
- Of the people you know personally, whose life is easier than yours? Are you jealous? Why or why not?
Brainstorming Technique 3: Recreate Important Times or Places
- When is the last time you felt so immersed in what you were doing that you lost all track of time or anything else from the outside world? What were you doing? Why do you think this activity got you into this near-zen state?
- Where do you most often tend to daydream? Why do you think this place has this effect on you? Do you seek it out? Avoid it? Why?
- What is the best time of day? The worst? Why?
- What is your favorite corner of, or space in, the place where you live? What do you like about it? When do you go there, and what do you use it for?
- What is your least favorite corner of, or space in, the place where you live? Why do you dislike it? What do you associate it with?
- If you had to repeat a day over and over, like the movie Groundhog Day , what day would it be? If you'd pick a day from your life that has already happened, why would you want to be stuck it in? To relive something great? To fix mistakes? If you'd pick a day that hasn't yet occurred, what would the day you were stuck in be like?
- If you could go back in time to give yourself advice, when would you go back to? What advice would you give? Why? What effect would you want your advice to have?
Brainstorming Technique 4: Answer Thought-Provoking Questions
- If you could take a Mulligan and do over one thing in your life, what would it be? Would you change what you did the first time around? Why?
- Or, if you could take another crack at doing something again, what would you pick? Something positive—having another shot at repeating a good experience? Something negative—getting the chance to try another tactic to avoid a bad experience?
- Which piece of yourself could you never change while remaining the same person? Your race? Ethnicity? Intellect? Height? Freckles? Loyalty? Sense of humor? Why is that the thing that you'd cling to as the thing that makes you who you are?
- Which of your beliefs, ideas, or tastes puts you in the minority? Why do you think/believe/like this thing when no one else seems to?
- What are you most frightened of? What are you not frightened enough of? Why?
- What is your most treasured possession? What would you grab before running out of the house during a fire? What is this object's story and why is it so valuable to you?
- What skill or talent that you don't have now would you most like to have? Is it an extension of something you already do? Something you've never had the guts to try doing? Something you plan on learning in the future?
- Which traditions that you grew up with will you pass on? Which will you ignore? Why?
Brainstorming Technique 5: Find a Trait or Characteristic and Trace It Back
- What are three adjectives you'd use to describe yourself? Why these three? Which of these is the one you're most proud of? Least proud of? When did you last exhibit this trait? What were you doing?
- How would your best friend describe you? What about your parents? How are the adjectives they'd come up with different from the ones you'd use? When have they seen this quality or trait in you?
- What everyday thing are you the world's greatest at? Who taught you how to do it? What memories do you have associated with this activity? Which aspects of it have you perfected?
- Imagine that it's the future and that you've become well known. What will you become famous for? Is it for something creative or a performance? For the way you will have helped others? For your business accomplishments? For your athletic prowess? When you make a speech about this fame, whom will you thank for putting you where you are?
- What do you most like about yourself? This is different from the thing you're most proud of—this is the thing that you know about yourself that makes you smile. Can you describe a time when this thing was useful or effective in some way?
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How to Turn Your Brainstorming List Into an Essay Topic
Now that you have a cornucopia of daydreams, memories, thoughts, and ambitions, it's time to thin the herd, prune the dead branches, and whatever other mixed metaphors about separating the wheat from the chaff you can think of.
So how do you narrow down your many ideas into one?
Use the magic power of time. One of the best things you can do with your stack of college essay topics is to forget about them. Put them away for a couple of days so that you create a little mental space. When you come back to everything you wrote after a day or two, you will get the chance to read it with fresh eyes.
Let the cream rise to the top. When you reread your topics after having let them sit, do two things:
- Cross out any ideas that don't speak to you in some way. If something doesn't ring true, if it doesn't spark your interest, or if it doesn't connect with an emotion, then consider reject it.
- Circle or highlight any topics that pop out at you. If it feels engaging, if you get excited at the prospect of talking about it, if it resonates with a feeling, then put it at the top of the idea pile.
Rinse and repeat. Go through the process of letting a few days pass and then rereading your ideas at least one more time. This time, don't bother looking at the topics you've already rejected. Instead, concentrate on those you highlighted earlier and maybe some of the ones that were neither circled nor thrown away.
Trust your gut instinct (but verify). Now that you've gone through and culled your ideas several times based on whether or not they really truly appeal to you, you should have a list of your top choices—all the ones you've circled or highlighted along the way. Now is the moment of truth. Imagine yourself telling the story of each of these experiences to someone who wants to get to know you. Rank your possible topics in order of how excited you are to share this story. Really listen to your intuition here. If you're squeamish, shy, unexcited, or otherwise not happy at the thought of having to tell someone about the experience, it will make a terrible essay topic.
Develop your top two to four choices to see which is best. Unless you feel very strongly about one of your top choices, the only way to really know which of your best ideas is the perfect one is to try actually making them into essays. For each one, go through the steps listed in the next section of the article under "Find Your Idea's Narrative." Then, use your best judgment (and maybe that of your parents, teachers, or school counselor) to figure out which one to draft into your personal statement.
How to Make Your Idea Into a College Essay
Now, let's talk about what to do in order to flesh out your topic concept into a great college essay. First, I'll give you some pointers on expanding your idea into an essay-worthy story, and then talk a bit about how to draft and polish your personal statement.
Find Your Topic's Narrative
All great college essays have the same foundation as good short stories or enjoyable movies—an involving story. Let's go through what features make for a story that you don't want to put down:
A compelling character with an arc. Think about the experience that you want to write about. What were you like before it happened? What did you learn, feel, or think about during it? What happened afterwards? What do you now know about yourself that you didn't before?
Sensory details that create a "you are there!" experience for the reader. When you're writing about your experience, focus on trying to really make the situation come alive. Where were you? Who else was there? What did it look like? What did it sound like? Were there memorable textures, smells, tastes? Does it compare to anything else? When you're writing about the people you interacted with, give them a small snippet of dialog to say so the reader can "hear" that person's voice. When you are writing about yourself, make sure to include words that explain the emotions you are feeling at different parts of the story.
An insightful ending. Your essay should end with an uplifting, personal, and interesting revelation about the kind of person you are today, and how the story you have just described has made and shaped you.
Draft and Revise
The key to great writing is rewriting. So work out a draft, and then put it aside and give yourself a few days to forget what you've written. When you come back to look at it again look for places where you slow down your reading, where something seems out of place or awkward. Can you fix this by changing around the order of your essay? By explaining further? By adding details? Experiment.
Get advice. Colleges expect your essay to be your work, but most recommend having someone else cast a fresh eye over it. A good way to get a teacher or a parent involved is to ask them whether your story is clear and specific, and whether your insight about yourself flows logically from the story you tell.
Execute flawlessly. Dot every i, cross every t, delicately place every comma where it needs to go. Grammar mistakes, misspellings, and awkward sentence structure don't just make your writing look bad—they take the reader out of the story you're telling. And that makes you memorable, but in a bad way.
The Bottom Line
- Your college essay topic needs to come from the fact that essays are a way for colleges to get to know the real you , a you that is separate from your grades and scores.
- A great way to come up with topics is to wholeheartedly dive into a brainstorming exercise. The more ideas about your life that tumble out of your memory and onto the page, the better chance you have of finding the perfect college essay topic.
- Answer my brainstorming questions without editing yourself at first. Instead, simply write down as many things that pop into your head as you can—even if you end up going off topic.
- After you've generated a list of possible topics, leave it alone for a few days and then come back to pick out the ones that seem the most promising.
- Flesh out your top few ideas into full-blown narratives , to understand which reveals the most interesting thing about you as a person.
- Don't shy away from asking for help. At each stage of the writing process get a parent or teacher to look over what you're working on, not to do your work for you but to hopefully gently steer you in a better direction if you're running into trouble.
Ready to start working on your essay? Check out our explanation of the point of the personal essay and the role it plays on your applications .
For more detailed advice on writing a great college essay, read our guide to the Common Application essay prompts and get advice on how to pick the Common App prompt that's right for you .
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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.
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- College Essay Examples | What Works and What Doesn’t
College Essay Examples | What Works and What Doesn't
Published on November 8, 2021 by Kirsten Courault . Revised on August 14, 2023.
One effective method for improving your college essay is to read example essays . Here are three sample essays, each with a bad and good version to help you improve your own essay.
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Table of contents
Essay 1: sharing an identity or background through a montage, essay 2: overcoming a challenge, a sports injury narrative, essay 3: showing the influence of an important person or thing, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about college application essays.
This essay uses a montage structure to show snapshots of a student’s identity and background. The writer builds her essay around the theme of the five senses, sharing memories she associates with sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste.
In the weak rough draft, there is little connection between the individual anecdotes, and they do not robustly demonstrate the student’s qualities.
In the final version, the student uses an extended metaphor of a museum to create a strong connection among her stories, each showcasing a different part of her identity. She draws a specific personal insight from each memory and uses the stories to demonstrate her qualities and values.
How My Five Senses Record My Life
Throughout my life, I have kept a record of my life’s journey with my five senses. This collection of memories matters a great deal because I experience life every day through the lens of my identity.
My classmate pulls one eye up and the other down.
“Look what my parents did to me!”
No matter how many times he repeats it, the other kids keep laughing. I focus my almond-shaped eyes on the ground, careful not to attract attention to my discomfort, anger, and shame. How could he say such a mean thing about me? What did I do to him? Joseph’s words would engrave themselves into my memory, making me question my appearance every time I saw my eyes in the mirror.
Soaking in overflowing bubble baths with Andrew Lloyd Webber belting from the boombox.
Listening to “Cell Block Tango” with my grandparents while eating filet mignon at a dine-in show in Ashland.
Singing “The Worst Pies in London” at a Korean karaoke club while laughing hysterically with my brother, who can do an eerily spot-on rendition of Sweeney Todd.
Taking car rides with Mom in the Toyota Sequoia as we compete to hit the high note in “Think of Me” from The Phantom of the Opera . Neither of us stands a chance!
The sweet scent of vegetables, Chinese noodles, and sushi wafts through the room as we sit around the table. My grandma presents a good-smelling mixture of international cuisine for our Thanksgiving feast. My favorite is the Chinese food that she cooks. Only the family prayer stands between me and the chance to indulge in these delicious morsels, comforting me with their familiar savory scents.
I rinse a faded plastic plate decorated by my younger sister at the Waterworks Art Center. I wear yellow rubber gloves to protect my hands at Mom’s insistence, but I can still feel the warm water that offers a bit of comfort as I finish the task at hand. The crusted casserole dish with stubborn remnants from my dad’s five-layer lasagna requires extra effort, so I fill it with Dawn and scalding water, setting it aside to soak. I actually don’t mind this daily chore.
I taste sweat on my upper lip as I fight to continue pedaling on a stationary bike. Ava’s next to me and tells me to go up a level. We’re biking buddies, dieting buddies, and Saturday morning carbo-load buddies. After the bike display hits 30 minutes, we do a five-minute cool down, drink Gatorade, and put our legs up to rest.
My five senses are always gathering new memories of my identity. I’m excited to expand my collection.
Word count: 455
College essay checklist
Topic and structure
- I’ve selected a topic that’s meaningful to me.
- My essay reveals something different from the rest of my application.
- I have a clear and well-structured narrative.
- I’ve concluded with an insight or a creative ending.
Writing style and tone
- I’ve crafted an introduction containing vivid imagery or an intriguing hook that grabs the reader’s attention.
- I’ve written my essay in a way that shows instead of tells.
- I’ve used appropriate style and tone for a college essay.
- I’ve used specific, vivid personal stories that would be hard to replicate.
- I’ve demonstrated my positive traits and values in my essay.
- My essay is focused on me, not another person or thing.
- I’ve included self-reflection and insight in my essay.
- I’ve respected the word count , remaining within 10% of the upper word limit.
Making Sense of My Identity
Welcome to The Rose Arimoto Museum. You are about to enter the “Making Sense of My Identity” collection. Allow me to guide you through select exhibits, carefully curated memories from Rose’s sensory experiences.
First, the Sight Exhibit.
“Look what my parents did to me!”
No matter how many times he repeats it, the other kids keep laughing. I focus my almond-shaped eyes on the ground, careful not to attract attention as my lip trembles and palms sweat. Joseph couldn’t have known how his words would engrave themselves into my memory, making me question my appearance every time I saw my eyes in the mirror.
Ten years later, these same eyes now fixate on an InDesign layout sheet, searching for grammar errors while my friend Selena proofreads our feature piece on racial discrimination in our hometown. As we’re the school newspaper editors, our journalism teacher Ms. Riley allows us to stay until midnight to meet tomorrow’s deadline. She commends our work ethic, which for me is fueled by writing一my new weapon of choice.
Next, you’ll encounter the Sound Exhibit.
Still, the world is my Broadway as I find my voice on stage.
Just below, enter the Smell Exhibit.
While I help my Pau Pau prepare dinner, she divulges her recipe for cha siu bau, with its soft, pillowy white exterior hiding the fragrant filling of braised barbecue pork inside. The sweet scent of candied yams, fun see , and Spam musubi wafts through the room as we gather around our Thankgsiving feast. After our family prayer, we indulge in these delicious morsels until our bellies say stop. These savory scents of my family’s cultural heritage linger long after I’ve finished the last bite.
Next up, the Touch Exhibit.
I rinse a handmade mug that I had painstakingly molded and painted in ceramics class. I wear yellow rubber gloves to protect my hands at Mom’s insistence, but I can still feel the warm water that offers a bit of comfort as I finish the task at hand. The crusted casserole dish with stubborn remnants from my dad’s five-layer lasagna requires extra effort, so I fill it with Dawn and scalding water, setting it aside to soak. For a few fleeting moments, as I continue my nightly chore, the pressure of my weekend job, tomorrow’s calculus exam, and next week’s track meet are washed away.
Finally, we end with the Taste Exhibit.
My legs fight to keep pace with the stationary bike as the salty taste of sweat seeps into corners of my mouth. Ava challenges me to take it up a level. We always train together一even keeping each other accountable on our strict protein diet of chicken breasts, broccoli, and Muscle Milk. We occasionally splurge on Saturday mornings after interval training, relishing the decadence of everything bagels smeared with raspberry walnut cream cheese. But this is Wednesday, so I push myself. I know that once the digital display hits 30:00, we’ll allow our legs to relax into a five-minute cool down, followed by the fiery tang of Fruit Punch Gatorade to rehydrate.
Thank you for your attention. This completes our tour. I invite you to rejoin us for next fall’s College Experience collection, which will exhibit Rose’s continual search for identity and learning.
Word count: 649
- I’ve crafted an essay introduction containing vivid imagery or an intriguing hook that grabs the reader’s attention.
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This essay uses a narrative structure to recount how a student overcame a challenge, specifically a sports injury. Since this topic is often overused, the essay requires vivid description, a memorable introduction and conclusion , and interesting insight.
The weak rough draft contains an interesting narrative, insight, and vivid imagery, but it has an overly formal tone that distracts the reader from the story. The student’s use of elaborate vocabulary in every sentence makes the essay sound inauthentic and stilted.
The final essay uses a more natural, conversational tone and chooses words that are vivid and specific without being pretentious. This allows the reader to focus on the narrative and appreciate the student’s unique insight.
One fateful evening some months ago, a defensive linebacker mauled me, his 212 pounds indisputably alighting upon my ankle. Ergo, an abhorrent cracking of calcified tissue. At first light the next day, I awoke cognizant of a new paradigm—one sans football—promulgated by a stabbing sensation that would continue to haunt me every morning of this semester.
It’s been an exceedingly taxing semester not being able to engage in football, but I am nonetheless excelling in school. That twist of fate never would have come to pass if I hadn’t broken my ankle. I still limp down the halls at school, but I’m feeling less maudlin these days. My friends don’t steer clear anymore, and I have a lot more of them. My teachers, emboldened by my newfound interest in learning, continually invite me to learn more and do my best. Football is still on hold, but I feel like I’m finally playing a game that matters.
Five months ago, right after my ill-fated injury, my friends’ demeanor became icy and remote, although I couldn’t fathom why. My teachers, in contrast, beckoned me close and invited me on a new learning journey. But despite their indubitably kind advances, even they recoiled when I drew near.
A few weeks later, I started to change my attitude vis-à-vis my newfound situation and determined to put my energy toward productive ends (i.e., homework). I wasn’t enamored with school. I never had been. Nevertheless, I didn’t abhor it either. I just preferred football.
My true turn of fate came when I started studying more and participating in class. I started to enjoy history class, and I grew interested in reading more. I discovered a volume of poems written by a fellow adventurer on the road of life, and I loved it. I ravenously devoured everything in the writer’s oeuvre .
As the weeks flitted past, I found myself spending my time with a group of people who were quite different from me. They participated in theater and played instruments in marching band. They raised their hands in class when the teacher posed a question. Because of their auspicious influence, I started raising my hand too. I am no longer vapid, and I now have something to say.
I am certain that your school would benefit from my miraculous academic transformation, and I entreat you to consider my application to your fine institution. Accepting me to your university would be an unequivocally righteous decision.
Word count: 408
- I’ve chosen a college essay topic that’s meaningful to me.
- I’ve respected the essay word count , remaining within 10% of the upper word limit.
As I step out of bed, the pain shoots through my foot and up my leg like it has every morning since “the game.” That night, a defensive linebacker tackled me, his 212 pounds landing decidedly on my ankle. I heard the sound before I felt it. The next morning, I awoke to a new reality—one without football—announced by a stabbing sensation that would continue to haunt me every morning of this semester.
My broken ankle broke my spirit.
My friends steered clear of me as I hobbled down the halls at school. My teachers tried to find the delicate balance between giving me space and offering me help. I was as unsure how to deal with myself as they were.
In time, I figured out how to redirect some of my frustration, anger, and pent-up energy toward my studies. I had never not liked school, but I had never really liked it either. In my mind, football practice was my real-life classroom, where I could learn all I ever needed to know.
Then there was that day in Mrs. Brady’s history class. We sang a ridiculous-sounding mnemonic song to memorize all the Chinese dynasties from Shang to Qing. I mumbled the words at first, but I got caught up in the middle of the laughter and began singing along. Starting that day, I began browsing YouTube videos about history, curious to learn more. I had started learning something new, and, to my surprise, I liked it.
With my afternoons free from burpees and scrimmages, I dared to crack open a few more of my books to see what was in them. That’s when my English poetry book, Paint Me Like I Am , caught my attention. It was full of poems written by students my age from WritersCorps. I couldn’t get enough.
I wasn’t the only one who was taken with the poems. Previously, I’d only been vaguely aware of Christina as one of the weird kids I avoided. Crammed in the margins of her high-top Chuck Taylors were scribbled lines of her own poetry and infinite doodles. Beyond her punk rock persona was a sensitive artist, puppy-lover, and environmental activist that a wide receiver like me would have never noticed before.
With Christina, I started making friends with people who once would have been invisible to me: drama geeks, teachers’ pets, band nerds. Most were college bound but not to play a sport. They were smart and talented, and they cared about people and politics and all sorts of issues that I hadn’t considered before. Strangely, they also seemed to care about me.
I still limp down the halls at school, but I don’t seem to mind as much these days. My friends don’t steer clear anymore, and I have a lot more of them. My teachers, excited by my newfound interest in learning, continually invite me to learn more and do my best. Football is still on hold, but I feel like I’m finally playing a game that matters.
My broken ankle broke my spirit. Then, it broke my ignorance.
Word count: 512
This essay uses a narrative structure to show how a pet positively influenced the student’s values and character.
In the weak draft, the student doesn’t focus on himself, instead delving into too much detail about his dog’s positive traits and his grandma’s illness. The essay’s structure is meandering, with tangents and details that don’t communicate any specific insight.
In the improved version, the student keeps the focus on himself, not his pet. He chooses the most relevant stories to demonstrate specific qualities, and the structure more clearly builds up to an insightful conclusion.
Man’s Best Friend
I desperately wanted a cat. I begged my parents for one, but once again, my sisters overruled me, so we drove up the Thompson Valley Canyon from Loveland to Estes Park to meet our newest family member. My sisters had already hatched their master plan, complete with a Finding Nemo blanket to entice the pups. The blanket was a hit with all of them, except for one—the one who walked over and sat in my lap. That was the day that Francisco became a Villanova.
Maybe I should say he was mine because I got stuck with all the chores. As expected, my dog-loving sisters were nowhere to be found! My mom was “extra” with all the doggy gear. Cisco even had to wear these silly little puppy shoes outside so that when he came back in, he wouldn’t get the carpets dirty. If it was raining, my mother insisted I dress Cisco in a ridiculous yellow raincoat, but, in my opinion, it was an unnecessary source of humiliation for poor Cisco. It didn’t take long for Cisco to decide that his outerwear could be used as toys in a game of Keep Away. As soon as I took off one of his shoes, he would run away with it, hiding under the bed where I couldn’t reach him. But, he seemed to appreciate his ensemble more when we had to walk through snowdrifts to get his job done.
When my abuela was dying from cancer, we went in the middle of the night to see her before she passed. I was sad and scared. But, my dad let me take Cisco in the car, so Cisco cuddled with me and made me feel much better. It’s like he could read my mind. Once we arrived at the hospital, the fluorescent lighting made the entire scene seem unreal, as if I was watching the scene unfold through someone else’s eyes. My grandma lay calmly on her bed, smiling at us even through her last moments of pain. I disliked seeing the tubes and machines hooked up to her. It was unnatural to see her like this一it was so unlike the way I usually saw her beautiful in her flowery dress, whistling a Billie Holiday tune and baking snickerdoodle cookies in the kitchen. The hospital didn’t usually allow dogs, but they made a special exception to respect my grandma’s last wishes that the whole family be together. Cisco remained at the foot of the bed, intently watching abuela with a silence that seemed more effective at communicating comfort and compassion than the rest of us who attempted to offer up words of comfort that just seemed hollow and insincere. It was then that I truly appreciated Cisco’s empathy for others.
As I accompanied my dad to pick up our dry cleaner’s from Ms. Chapman, a family friend asked, “How’s Cisco?” before even asking about my sisters or me. Cisco is the Villanova family mascot, a Goldendoodle better recognized by strangers throughout Loveland than the individual members of my family.
On our summer trip to Boyd Lake State Park, we stayed at the Cottonwood campground for a breathtaking view of the lake. Cisco was allowed to come, but we had to keep him on a leash at all times. After a satisfying meal of fish, our entire family walked along the beach. Cisco and I led the way while my mom and sisters shuffled behind. Cisco always stopped and refused to move, looking back to make sure the others were still following. Once satisfied that everyone was together, he would turn back around and continue prancing with his golden boy curly locks waving in the chilly wind.
On the beach, Cisco “accidentally” got let off his leash and went running maniacally around the sand, unfettered and free. His pure joy as he raced through the sand made me forget about my AP Chem exam or my student council responsibilities. He brings a smile not only to my family members but everyone around him.
Cisco won’t live forever, but without words, he has impressed upon me life lessons of responsibility, compassion, loyalty, and joy. I can’t imagine life without him.
Word count: 701
I quickly figured out that as “the chosen one,” I had been enlisted by Cisco to oversee all aspects of his “business.” I learned to put on Cisco’s doggie shoes to keep the carpet clean before taking him out一no matter the weather. Soon after, Cisco decided that his shoes could be used as toys in a game of Keep Away. As soon as I removed one of his shoes, he would run away with it, hiding under the bed where I couldn’t reach him. But, he seemed to appreciate his footwear more after I’d gear him up and we’d tread through the snow for his daily walks.
One morning, it was 7:15 a.m., and Alejandro was late again to pick me up. “Cisco, you don’t think he overslept again, do you?” Cisco barked, as if saying, “Of course he did!” A text message would never do, so I called his dad, even if it was going to get him in trouble. There was no use in both of us getting another tardy during our first-period class, especially since I was ready on time after taking Cisco for his morning outing. Alejandro was mad at me but not too much. He knew I had helped him out, even if he had to endure his dad’s lecture on punctuality.
Another early morning, I heard my sister yell, “Mom! Where are my good ballet flats? I can’t find them anywhere!” I hesitated and then confessed, “I moved them.” She shrieked at me in disbelief, but I continued, “I put them in your closet, so Cisco wouldn’t chew them up.” More disbelief. However, this time, there was silence instead of shrieking.
Last spring, Cisco and I were fast asleep when the phone rang at midnight. Abuela would not make it through the night after a long year of chemo, but she was in Pueblo, almost three hours away. Sitting next to me for that long car ride on I-25 in pitch-black darkness, Cisco knew exactly what I needed and snuggled right next to me as I petted his coat in a rhythm while tears streamed down my face. The hospital didn’t usually allow dogs, but they made a special exception to respect my grandma’s last wishes that the whole family be together. Cisco remained sitting at the foot of the hospital bed, intently watching abuela with a silence that communicated more comfort than our hollow words. Since then, whenever I sense someone is upset, I sit in silence with them or listen to their words, just like Cisco did.
The other day, one of my friends told me, “You’re a strange one, Josue. You’re not like everybody else but in a good way.” I didn’t know what he meant at first. “You know, you’re super responsible and grown-up. You look out for us instead of yourself. Nobody else does that.” I was a bit surprised because I wasn’t trying to do anything different. I was just being me. But then I realized who had taught me: a fluffy little puppy who I had wished was a cat! I didn’t choose Cisco, but he certainly chose me and, unexpectedly, became my teacher, mentor, and friend.
Word count: 617
If you want to know more about academic writing , effective communication , or parts of speech , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.
- Writing process
- Transition words
- Passive voice
- How to end an email
- Ms, mrs, miss
- How to start an email
- I hope this email finds you well
- Hope you are doing well
Parts of speech
- Personal pronouns
A standout college essay has several key ingredients:
- A unique, personally meaningful topic
- A memorable introduction with vivid imagery or an intriguing hook
- Specific stories and language that show instead of telling
- Vulnerability that’s authentic but not aimed at soliciting sympathy
- Clear writing in an appropriate style and tone
- A conclusion that offers deep insight or a creative ending
There are no set rules for how to structure a college application essay , but these are two common structures that work:
- A montage structure, a series of vignettes with a common theme.
- A narrative structure, a single story that shows your personal growth or how you overcame a challenge.
Avoid the five-paragraph essay structure that you learned in high school.
Though admissions officers are interested in hearing your story, they’re also interested in how you tell it. An exceptionally written essay will differentiate you from other applicants, meaning that admissions officers will spend more time reading it.
You can use literary devices to catch your reader’s attention and enrich your storytelling; however, focus on using just a few devices well, rather than trying to use as many as possible.
Most importantly, your essay should be about you , not another person or thing. An insightful college admissions essay requires deep self-reflection, authenticity, and a balance between confidence and vulnerability.
Your essay shouldn’t be a résumé of your experiences but instead should tell a story that demonstrates your most important values and qualities.
When revising your college essay , first check for big-picture issues regarding message, flow, tone, style , and clarity. Then, focus on eliminating grammar and punctuation errors.
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How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application
What does it take to land in the “accept” (instead of “reject”) pile?
How can you write an essay that helps advance you in the eyes of the admissions officers and makes a real impression? Here are some tips to get you started.
- Start early. Do not leave it until the last minute. Give yourself time when you don’t have other homework or extracurriculars hanging over your head to work on the essay.
- Keep the focus narrow. Your essay does not have to cover a massive, earth-shattering event. Some people in their teens haven’t experienced a major life event. Some people have. Either way, it’s okay.
- Be yourself. Whether writing about a painful experience or a more simple experience, use the narrative to be vulnerable and honest about who you are. Use words you would normally use. Trust your voice and the fact that your story is interesting enough in that no one else has lived it.
- Be creative. “Show, don’t tell,” and that applies here — to an extent. The best essays typically do both. You can help your reader see and feel what you are describing by using some figurative language throughout your piece.
- Make a point. As you finish your final body paragraphs ask yourself “So what?” This will help you hone in on how to end your essay in a way that elevates it into a story about an insight or discovery you made about yourself, rather than just being about an experience you had.
Where your work meets your life. See more from Ascend here .
We’ve all heard about the dreaded “college essay,” the bane of every high school senior’s existence. This daunting element of the college application is something that can create angst for even the most accomplished students.
- AA Amy Allen is a writer, educator, and lifelong learner. Her freelance writing business, All of the Write Words , focuses on providing high school students with one-on-one feedback to guide them through the college application process and with crafting a thoughtful personal essay. A dedicated poet, Amy’s work has also been published in several journals including Pine Row Press , Months to Years, and Atlanta Review .
What are your chances of acceptance?
Calculate for all schools, your chance of acceptance.
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4 Things To Keep in Mind When Writing Your College Essays
This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Robert Crystal in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.
Be confident in your topic, find unlikely connections, use unique language, draw insights from your personal anecdotes and experiences.
In this article, we will discuss how to improve your college essays, particularly “montage essays,” where you use a theme or topic to showcase different parts of who you are. For more guidance on writing college essays, read our post on how to write the Common Application essays .
It is important to choose a topic that you feel confident writing about. This confidence may come from enjoying what you do, feeling proud about something you have accomplished or because this activity or pursuit makes you feel unique. For topics that are commonly written about, such as Girl Scouts, robotics, or basketball, you will need to work hard to find an interesting angle that will help you stand out.
If possible, try to choose a topic that is less common and more unique to you and various aspects of your identity and background. Ultimately, only you and you alone will know if you are writing about something that makes you feel confident. But if you find yourself struggling during the writing process, there is a strong likelihood that you are not confident about the topic you have chosen.
Try to find unlikely connections to the topic that you have chosen. For example, with a more common topic like Girl Scouts, you could discuss a time when you accomplished something or performed an act of service for which there was no badge to put on your vest. This could lead to a rich discussion on the importance of random acts of kindness, being generous of spirit, and always doing your best to serve your community, especially when your actions go unrecognized.
To find unlikely connections, consider the following questions in relation to your topic:
- What did you learn and how did you end up learning it?
- How did you change or grow as a result of what you learned?
- How does this relate to your values and goals?
- What is an unexpected takeaway that you had from it?
- Are there other people who had the same experience or takeaways as you?
Part of what makes an essay compelling is not what you choose to write about, but how you write about that topic. Your voice will be more memorable if you use language that is typical for you but unique to others.
For instance, if you are writing about your passion for working on car engines, you might use technical jargon that demonstrates your strong understanding of auto mechanics. If you are writing about working at your family’s Chinese restaurant, you might include Chinese characters or pinyin (with English translations) for the slang that the cooks in the kitchen shout at each other. This would make your essay feel more authentic and represent the restaurant environment better.
A large portion of what you will write about in your college essays are anecdotes and experiences that demonstrate your values, character, thought processes, and way of conducting yourself in the world. Consequently, it is important that you identify anecdotes and experiences that are unique to you and ripe for discussion and analysis.
Here is a helpful exercise to do as you begin to write an essay:
- Write a list of the most cliche aspects of your chosen topic. Use this list as a reminder of what not to include in your essay.
- Write a list of personal anecdotes and experiences that are unique to you (and only you) in relation to your chosen topic. The best way to determine if your anecdotes and experiences are unique to you is to ask yourself if they could be copy-pasted into someone else’s essay.
- Write a list of core values that you hold, such as honesty, patience, and active communication.
- Draw connections between the unique aspects that you identified in Step 2 and the core values that you listed in Step 3. You may need to identify more unique anecdotes or experiences to relate to the values you listed in Step 3.
By relating your personal anecdotes and experiences to your values, you lay the groundwork for deep insight. Insight refers to the meaning that you find or make from the experiences that you have. In other words, insight is what you have learned about yourself and the world around you, with some of the best insights being gained from making mistakes or being incorrect. The last one or two sentences of each paragraph in your essay or the concluding paragraph of your entire essay are great locations for you to share your insights.
Use Representative Examples
A powerful move you can make in your essays is to turn a specific example into a representative example where you show how to apply the skills you gained and lessons you learned in other areas of your life as well as in your short and long-term goals.
For instance, consider an applicant who writes about their passion for long-distance running. The applicant describes training for their very first marathon and the high degree of mental fortitude and physical endurance that were required. They discuss how they trained diligently, made incremental progress over many months of training, and always stayed positive in the face of setbacks.
This applicant could transform their specific example into a representative example by discussing how the skills they developed through marathon training will translate to pursuing their other long-term goals, such as graduating from college, earning a doctorate degree, becoming a tenured professor, and completing the World Marathon Majors.
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"Why would anyone in their right mind subject themselves to this much work when they can only enroll in one school?" writes Alexander Calafiura. (Getty Images)
I applied to 23 colleges and wrote 50 essays. Here’s what I learned.
Find your voice, beat procrastination, and other lessons from my college application journey..
The writer of this essay is a 2023-24 Student Voices Fellow at Chalkbeat. Click to learn more about our high school fellowship program.
Tap. Tap. Tap. Sitting in the Seward Park Public Library, my fingers dance as they click away at my laptop’s keyboard, their momentum fueled by the overwhelming sense that all my hard work will pay off on decision day. But hours later, when all my mental power is drained and the rock songs on my Spotify playlist start repeating, I feel a sense of dread. What if I don’t get in?
For the past few months, the stress of the college application dominated my life, fueled by my desire to study at what society refers to as “top schools” — prestigious institutions of higher education that provide students with a world-class education but accept only a tiny percentage of those who apply.
Overall, I spent some 200 hours applying to 23 schools and writing 50 supplemental essays, with topics ranging from my interest in a school to the three words that best describe my life. Answer: providential, earnest, and excited. Of all the schools that I applied to, seven were “safeties,” meaning I was more likely than not to get in, four were “targets,” for which my grades and scores made me a strong candidate, and 12 were “reaches,” schools with the most competitive and unpredictable admissions practices.
Why would anyone in their right mind subject themselves to this much work when they can only enroll in one school? Why pay application fees, some of which top $80, for so many schools? Turns out, among my friends, many of whom attend some of New York City’s most competitive public and private schools, this is becoming an increasingly common practice .
The trend is not limited to my social circle or New York City students. In recent years, the Common Application , a platform that allows students to use one application for the majority of U.S. colleges , has made it easier for students to apply to multiple schools. And with fee waivers , which I qualified for, the Common Application has given students the ability to apply to a wide range of schools at no cost. Since schools that accept the Common Application may ask for supplementary essays, the number of schools I applied to was limited only by my own time, effort, and sanity. For instance, the University of Pennsylvania asks you to write a thank you note to someone who you’ve yet to thank, and Columbia University asks you to list the literature and media that has had the most impact on your intellectual development.
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Additionally, in recent years, the Internet has popularized what is called the “shotgunning” method — that is, applying to many elite schools at once in hopes that at least one school will accept you. Essentially, “shotgunners” believe that because they have no insight, year to year, into the exact mix of qualities and skills a school is looking for, they might as well spread out their options in the interest of finding one singular “match” school.
And since many prestigious colleges went test-optional during COVID — meaning SAT and ACT scores are no longer required for admissions consideration — the Common App saw a 30% increase in total applications, which resulted in an even lower percentage of applicants getting in.
I am no expert in college admissions, but I have spent hundreds of hours applying to colleges. In the interest of benefitting future applicants and providing some insight into what it’s like to apply to college, here are some of my biggest takeaways from the whole process.
Strive to be yourself and find your authentic voice.
I’ve always thought that “be yourself” is a reductive piece of advice, but having been through the application process, I have to admit that it’s true. In my case, I wrote about my love for cycling around New York City and my passion for Russian literature. Colleges want to know what makes you unique, and your thoughts and emotions are a large part of that. To that end, rather than inventing aspirations and exaggerating your experiences just to appeal to an admissions officer, you should genuinely believe what you’re writing. If you don’t, why would the person reading your application believe it?
Stay organized or waste hours of your time.
If you’re like me, and you find it hard to keep track of things in your head, a spreadsheet or document that contains or links to all your college application-related materials will be invaluable. I’d say that more than anything else, following my college counselor’s recommendation of using a spreadsheet saved me tens of hours of my time, and made my life 10x easier. Added bonus: Keeping track of the total number of supplements I had left to do was motivating as well as therapeutic.
Love your schools, or you won’t love applying to them.
Applying to so many schools is not for everybody. In fact, if you don’t truly love a school, don’t feel pressured to apply for the sake of prestige or name value. Without a genuine interest and passion for these institutions, it’ll only be a matter of time until you burn out and the quality of your applications suffers. For instance, I wanted to attend college in the Northeast or California, so I made the difficult choice to take great schools, such as the University of Texas at Austin and Vanderbilt, off my list.
The process is temporary, but the takeaways are forever.
After writing so many essays about my experiences, interests, and desires, I realized that my supplemental essays were emblematic of what I wanted out of life and my college experience. For example, after I began writing about my intended major (economics), it occurred to me that what I’m truly passionate about is policy’s intersection with economics and mathematical modeling. After I began writing about my most treasured extracurricular experiences, it became clear to me how much I valued using my voice as a tool to impact my community and effect change. I believe that writing about your genuine interests is more valuable to you than simply trying to present something that you think will appeal to colleges.
Find ways to avoid (my archnemesis) procrastination.
As I started writing my essays, I struggled a lot with procrastination because I worried that no matter how artistic or beautiful the essays I wrote were, I’d still be rejected from a school. Over time, I’ve learned that this is a natural emotion. But once you fall into the trap of thinking this way, you’ll waste so much time that the quality of your work will suffer. Thankfully, I got around these thoughts by staying off social media, taking consistent, relaxing breaks, and practicing mindfulness. For example, I found it to be particularly helpful to take a “mental reset” every few hours; I did this by jogging along the East River, getting boba with friends, and going to the gym. After my brain and body took a break, I found it to be a lot easier to pour my thoughts onto paper and discover prior flaws or mistakes in my writing.
Now that I’m essentially done with the college application process, I’m extremely excited for admissions decisions over the next couple of months. But in the short term, I face the alarming, perennial beast: senioritis. I’ll take my time to address it after one … more … episode … of … “Suits” on Netflix.
Alexander Calafiura, a Chalkbeat Student Voices Fellow for 2023-2 is a senior at East Side Community High School in New York City. In his spare time, he enjoys folding origami, reading classic literature, and discussing politics. At school, he is a co-editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, The East Sider.
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The Loss of Things I Took for Granted
Ten years into my college teaching career, students stopped being able to read effectively..
Recent years have seen successive waves of book bans in Republican-controlled states, aimed at pulling any text with “woke” themes from classrooms and library shelves. Though the results sometimes seem farcical, as with the banning of Art Spiegelman’s Maus due to its inclusion of “cuss words” and explicit rodent nudity, the book-banning agenda is no laughing matter. Motivated by bigotry, it has already done demonstrable harm and promises to do more. But at the same time, the appropriate response is, in principle, simple. Named individuals have advanced explicit policies with clear goals and outcomes, and we can replace those individuals with people who want to reverse those policies. That is already beginning to happen in many places, and I hope those successes will continue until every banned book is restored.
If and when that happens, however, we will not be able to declare victory quite yet. Defeating the open conspiracy to deprive students of physical access to books will do little to counteract the more diffuse confluence of forces that are depriving students of the skills needed to meaningfully engage with those books in the first place. As a college educator, I am confronted daily with the results of that conspiracy-without-conspirators. I have been teaching in small liberal arts colleges for over 15 years now, and in the past five years, it’s as though someone flipped a switch. For most of my career, I assigned around 30 pages of reading per class meeting as a baseline expectation—sometimes scaling up for purely expository readings or pulling back for more difficult texts. (No human being can read 30 pages of Hegel in one sitting, for example.) Now students are intimidated by anything over 10 pages and seem to walk away from readings of as little as 20 pages with no real understanding. Even smart and motivated students struggle to do more with written texts than extract decontextualized take-aways. Considerable class time is taken up simply establishing what happened in a story or the basic steps of an argument—skills I used to be able to take for granted.
Since this development very directly affects my ability to do my job as I understand it, I talk about it a lot. And when I talk about it with nonacademics, certain predictable responses inevitably arise, all questioning the reality of the trend I describe. Hasn’t every generation felt that the younger cohort is going to hell in a handbasket? Haven’t professors always complained that educators at earlier levels are not adequately equipping their students? And haven’t students from time immemorial skipped the readings?
The response of my fellow academics, however, reassures me that I’m not simply indulging in intergenerational grousing. Anecdotally, I have literally never met a professor who did not share my experience. Professors are also discussing the issue in academic trade publications , from a variety of perspectives. What we almost all seem to agree on is that we are facing new obstacles in structuring and delivering our courses, requiring us to ratchet down expectations in the face of a ratcheting down of preparation. Yes, there were always students who skipped the readings, but we are in new territory when even highly motivated honors students struggle to grasp the basic argument of a 20-page article. Yes, professors never feel satisfied that high school teachers have done enough, but not every generation of professors has had to deal with the fallout of No Child Left Behind and Common Core. Finally, yes, every generation thinks the younger generation is failing to make the grade— except for the current cohort of professors, who are by and large more invested in their students’ success and mental health and more responsive to student needs than any group of educators in human history. We are not complaining about our students. We are complaining about what has been taken from them.
If we ask what has caused this change, there are some obvious culprits. The first is the same thing that has taken away almost everyone’s ability to focus—the ubiquitous smartphone. Even as a career academic who studies the Quran in Arabic for fun, I have noticed my reading endurance flagging. I once found myself boasting at a faculty meeting that I had read through my entire hourlong train ride without looking at my phone. My colleagues agreed this was a major feat, one they had not achieved recently. Even if I rarely attain that high level of focus, though, I am able to “turn it on” when demanded, for instance to plow through a big novel during a holiday break. That’s because I was able to develop and practice those skills of extended concentration and attentive reading before the intervention of the smartphone. For children who were raised with smartphones, by contrast, that foundation is missing. It is probably no coincidence that the iPhone itself, originally released in 2007, is approaching college age, meaning that professors are increasingly dealing with students who would have become addicted to the dopamine hit of the omnipresent screen long before they were introduced to the more subtle pleasures of the page.
The second go-to explanation is the massive disruption of school closures during COVID-19. There is still some debate about the necessity of those measures, but what is not up for debate any longer is the very real learning loss that students suffered at every level. The impact will inevitably continue to be felt for the next decade or more, until the last cohort affected by the mass “pivot to online” finally graduates. I doubt that the pandemic closures were the decisive factor in themselves, however. Not only did the marked decline in reading resilience start before the pandemic, but the students I am seeing would have already been in high school during the school closures. Hence they would be better equipped to get something out of the online format and, more importantly, their basic reading competence would have already been established.
Less discussed than these broader cultural trends over which educators have little control are the major changes in reading pedagogy that have occurred in recent decades—some motivated by the ever-increasing demand to “teach to the test” and some by fads coming out of schools of education. In the latter category is the widely discussed decline in phonics education in favor of the “balanced literacy” approach advocated by education expert Lucy Calkins (who has more recently come to accept the need for more phonics instruction). I started to see the results of this ill-advised change several years ago, when students abruptly stopped attempting to sound out unfamiliar words and instead paused until they recognized the whole word as a unit. (In a recent class session, a smart, capable student was caught short by the word circumstances when reading a text out loud.) The result of this vibes-based literacy is that students never attain genuine fluency in reading. Even aside from the impact of smartphones, their experience of reading is constantly interrupted by their intentionally cultivated inability to process unfamiliar words.
For all the flaws of the balanced literacy method, it was presumably implemented by people who thought it would help. It is hard to see a similar motivation in the growing trend toward assigning students only the kind of short passages that can be included in a standardized test. Due in part to changes driven by the infamous Common Core standards , teachers now have to fight to assign their students longer readings, much less entire books, because those activities won’t feed directly into students getting higher test scores, which leads to schools getting more funding. The emphasis on standardized tests was always a distraction at best, but we have reached the point where it is actively cannibalizing students’ educational experience—an outcome no one intended or planned, and for which there is no possible justification.
We can’t go back in time and do the pandemic differently at this point, nor is there any realistic path to putting the smartphone genie back in the bottle. (Though I will note that we as a society do at least attempt to keep other addictive products out of the hands of children.) But I have to think that we can, at the very least, stop actively preventing young people from developing the ability to follow extended narratives and arguments in the classroom. Regardless of their profession or ultimate educational level, they will need those skills. The world is a complicated place. People—their histories and identities, their institutions and work processes, their fears and desires—are simply too complex to be captured in a worksheet with a paragraph and some reading comprehension questions. Large-scale prose writing is the best medium we have for capturing that complexity, and the education system should not be in the business of keeping students from learning how to engage effectively with it.
This is a matter not of snobbery, but of basic justice. I recognize that not everyone centers their lives on books as much as a humanities professor does. I think they’re missing out, but they’re adults and they can choose how to spend their time. What’s happening with the current generation is not that they are simply choosing TikTok over Jane Austen. They are being deprived of the ability to choose—for no real reason or benefit. We can and must stop perpetrating this crime on our young people.
- Our Mission
The Lasting Value of the Personal Essay
This writing form has a value that goes beyond the college application as it nurtures self-reflection and inspires creativity.
I still remember my own personal essay that I wrote decades ago during my college admissions process. My essay focused on movies and how movies were a conduit of curiosity. It was also about the death of my father and how movies, in part, had provided a common ground for us—a connection. Although my essay, of course, was not the sole determining factor in my admission, it’s a predominant memory from that time of my life. To this day, I feel it had a persuasive effect on my admittance.
In fact, now looking back, I can’t recall my grade point average or my class rank or the final grade that my English teacher gave me on my literary analysis of Heart of Darkness. Even my exact SAT score, back then a real measure of academic aptitude, remains fuzzy to me all these years later, “shaded in wistful half-lights,” as described by Norman Maclean. I can, however, remember nearly every sentence, if not quite every word, of the personal essay I submitted to my first-choice college, which has undoubtedly, for me, over the years remained one of the most important pieces of writing I have ever produced.
The personal essay is an enduring literary genre and an art form that provides often-challenging material in English classes. In my Advanced Placement Language and Composition course, we frequently read works from an array of authors from various eras, including Michel de Montaigne, Virginia Woolf, E. B. White, Joan Didion, André Aciman, Brian Doyle, Dr. Oliver Sacks. These writers function as exemplars for my students to both analyze and model not only for their rhetorical value but also for their stylistic technique and philosophical ruminations.
Power of Personalization
One of the most predominant rhetorical strategies we recognize in these texts is personalization. And so Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth” has impacted my students throughout the years with its frank depiction of psychological tension, addressing philosophical themes on an existential level that never fail to capture their attention—so much so, that a group of students painted a mural on the wall outside my classroom, a visual interpretation of Woolf’s essay that they titled Memento Mori .
The candor and intimacy of Dr. Oliver Sacks’s depiction of his final days before his death from cancer have engendered numerous touching and insightful comments from my students during our Socratic seminars analyzing his almost unendurably moving personal essay, “My Periodic Table.”
Students respond viscerally, it seems, to the personal. Sadly, many students have been touched by some of the same tragic subject matter that we analyze through these texts. During our seminars and journal assignments, my students have revealed their own personal connections to some of the personal essays we read in class, connecting, I think, to the shared experiences that we have all had throughout human history.
Our students often find themselves facing a vortex of standardized tests, AP exams, and benchmarks throughout the school year, which often emphasize the formulaic. The active process of personal choice on topic and subject seems lost. So often my students ask me questions when writing an essay, seeking a particular answer, as if literary analysis were calculus. Missing is the creativity, the exploration of writing free from academic constraints like rubrics and scoring guides. Writer-editor Steve Moyer asserts in Edsitement , “Nuanced thought... requires a greater gestation period than the nearly instant gratification made possible on Twitter.” I have witnessed this impatience from my own students.
There can be a restlessness in the writing process, a hesitancy for revision or drafting. Personal essays require self-reflection and a free-flowing freedom from rigid form that my students embrace in a way that they don’t with an argument or research-based essay. On more than one occasion during parent-teacher conferences, I have had parents tell me that their child used to love creative writing, but somewhere along the way, the rigor of school seemed to have killed it.
Personal essays, then, restore that creativity, since they encourage a freedom from form. Students can experiment with style and figurative language and syntax in ways that the traditional academic five-paragraph essay often thwarts.
Personal essays also allow teachers to really get to know our students, too. The inherent intimacy of a personal essay, the connection between the writer and the reader—in this case, a student and a teacher—provides insight into the concerns, the dreams, the emotions of our students in addition to allowing us to assess how they exercise their compositional skills, including imagery, syntax, diction, and figurative language. Here, then, a teacher has the best of both worlds. We’re able to both connect to our students on an emotional level and evaluate their learning on an academic level. Personal essays also serve as an emotional outlet.
There seems to be a common assumption that personal essays for high school students serve only the college application process, so the process begins during their senior year. Personal writing, however, should occur throughout a student’s academic experience. The narrative essays that most elementary school students encounter evolve into the more ruminative, philosophical, and reflective personal writing they will encounter during their senior year from many of Common App essay prompts.
Many teachers implement journal writing in their classrooms that provides a firm foundation for the type of personal writing that the college admissions essay requires. In my own class of juniors, the last assignment we complete for the year is a personal essay. My intent is to help prepare them for the college essay they will write, hopefully, during the summer so that they will have a solid draft before the application process begins.
Teaching our students this strategy in their own writing benefits them in their futures, not only for the imminent college application process but also for job interviews. For example, I was mentoring a student, a senior who had no desire to go to college, about the job interview process he would soon face after graduation. We rehearsed and practiced the types of questions he might encounter from a future employer. I encouraged him to remember the personal details of his experience, personalizing everything in a way that would allow him to ideally stand out as a job candidate.
Through personal essay writing, my overarching, grand ambition is to instill in my students ultimately a love of reflection, looking back on their experience, reminiscing on significant memories that linger, carefully considering the seemingly little moments that, only upon reflection, have an enormous impact on us.
Example prompts to try with Microsoft Copilot with Graph-grounded chat
Experience the power of Get started with Microsoft Copilot with Graph-grounded chat (formerly named Microsoft 365 Chat). See how much time you can save and how much more you can get done. Use Microsoft Copilot to catch up, create content, and ask questions. This article provides several example prompts you can try.
Tip: When you’re giving Copilot instructions, you can direct it to specific work content by using the forward slash key (“/”), then typing the name of a file, person, or meeting. If you write a prompt and don’t reference a specific file, person, or meeting, Copilot will determine the best source of data for its response, including all your work content.
Synthesize large amounts of data into simple, consumable responses and catch up on things quickly. Here are some examples:
You've been on vacation now you're back. You need to find out what's going on with Project X. Find the latest about Project X. What's the current timeline? When are deliverables due?
You've just joined a new team and you're trying to ramp up on recent activities. Summarize team communications over the last 30 days. What are the team's priorities?
There's been a recent change in how your team is tracking work. Find information about the new way our team is tracking work. Include email communications and points of contact for questions.
Brainstorm ideas and draft new content based on information at work. Here are some examples:
You want to draft a one-page description of a new project (let's call it Project Foo) that's just about to kick off at work. Using information in file1, file2, and file3, write a one-page description of Project Foo. Write it so non-technical people can understand what the project is about and when it's scheduled to be completed.
You're preparing an email to invite customers to attend an upcoming conference and visit your company's booth. Using information in Document Z, write a fun, catchy email inviting our customers to come see us at our booth during next month's conference.
You want to plan a morale event for your team. List 3-5 ideas for group activities in the Seattle area that would be suitable for my team. Include approximate cost and time estimates.
Find information and get answers quickly, even if you can't remember where the information you need is or how it was shared. Here are some examples:
You need to know what's left in the budget for supplies. How much did we spend on supplies for Project Foo? How much budget do we have left for Project Foo?
Your team received customer feedback. You want to identify the top things your team should address. Review the feedback we received from customers via email last week. What are the top three issues we should address?
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