A Step-by-Step Guide to Cracking the All-Important Essay

Helping high school seniors perfect their college admission essay can be intimidating; after all, it’s a piece of writing that is unique to every student. But there are several tenets of personal statement writing that are universally applicable to all students setting out to write the perfect essay. 

Of all the difficulties around writing the essay, the one I come across most often in my admissions counseling practice is students’ preconceived notions about what a college admissions essay is supposed to sound like. These notions, combined with the general anxiety that the student is feeling, can get in the way of their natural thought pattern, which blocks the passage of genuine, creative ideas. And if there is one thing that makes an essay stand out in the mind of an admissions officer, it’s originality. After consuming hundreds of essays, sometimes in a single session, a piece of writing that they truly feel engaged with, which tells a story so individual that they actually feel like they’re getting to know the student, is music to their ears. 

My firm has attempted to solve this problem by putting together this step-by-step guide, just for guidance counselors. 

Step 1: Make them feel comfortable

Make the student feel like your friend by sitting on the same side of the desk as her and shutting your computer off. The student needs to trust you, because the key to a good college admission essay is vulnerability. The way to get to vulnerability is trust. I like to talk to the students for 15-30 minutes about nothing in particular. It is a conversation of compassionate small talk blended with heavy eye contact, positive body language, and a genuine understanding of the student’s plight. As the student opens up, relate to them and draw similarities. 

Step 2: Brainstorm a topic

Get ready to take notes. You are going to go through the common app essay prompts one at a time and dissect each one to draw out the best answers, which will determine which one the student should choose. Keep eye contact with the student as much as possible. Ask the student a question and then pause and think about it yourself, encouraging the student to reflect as well. Ask the student what they are thinking about and probe them for information, actively working to keep the conversation jovial and positive. Take your time and do not rush. If the student gets stuck on any question, offer your personal answer to the question with an anecdotal story. Give as many examples from your own life as possible. This will inspire the student to think in unique and creative ways about the question. 

Step 3: Choosing a topic

In step two, the student is likely to have gotten stuck on a few stories. Most of the time, she will get stuck on one to three possible topics. Dive into all of the topics and flesh them out as much as possible. Fill in the blanks of the stories with as much detail as possible. Very quickly, one topic will emerge as the best option.

Step 4: Preparing to write the essay

Now that you have the topic, it is time to write! The goal here is to have the student write from the heart, which can be exceptionally difficult. Because of the sheer amount of popular culture we digest, our minds are clouded with easy constructs and cliches. You should encourage the student to wipe away everything she knows and start from a blank state, from a place of vulnerability. Originality comes easiest to those who aren’t trying too hard; the most interesting ideas are the ones you never put into words because they seem too weird or too obvious. 

Step 5: Writing the essay

With the topic in hand, the only direction the student should have is “tell your story thoroughly, with vulnerability, character and gusto. Add as many lessons and take home points as you can fit.” Tell her to ignore length restrictions, SAT words, or “what the college wants to hear.” The first draft can be long, messy, and redundant. The more the student writes, the more you have to work with. 

Step 6: Editing the essay

You should edit the essay for content and substance before word count. Word count is important, but can be fixed once the structure of the essay is in place. There are many different types of college essays, but, using the question about experiencing failure as an example, the essay consist of about 60% story (in this case, the story of the failure), and 40% concluding remarks, revelations, lessons, and overall take home points. Again, ask the student questions about what she learned from her experience and how she would change what she did to benefit herself in the future. The story flow from as a flawless narrative, interspersed with bits of wisdom. Once all of the necessary content is there, it is time to fine tune the essay. 

Step 7: Perfecting the essay

Perfecting the essay includes cutting it down to the correct length, making sure the most concise and descriptive words are being used, and crafting a clear and concise narrative. Have the student show the essay to exceptionally honest people and good writers. The former will critique her ideas while the latter will critique her craft. Tell the student to not look at the essay for a few days so that she can look at it with fresh eyes. As the student continues to redraft the essay, you will find that it will get better and better, up to a certain point. Once the student has reached that point, she has nothing more to do. 

Finally, keep in mind that at the end of the day, the student is the best judge of whether or not she has produced an inspired college admission essay. Your role is to guide and advise the student throughout the process, helping her find her path to articulate her experience in the most insightful way. We hope you have found this guide as a helpful resource, and encourage you to take a look at our packages, should the student wish to work with a private admissions counselor.

Read Our Sample College Admission Essays

Caroline Koppelman is a college admissions expert. Her admissions consulting firm has helped students get into the finest schools in the country, including Harvard and UPenn.