Epistula | 7 Minutes

Demystifying the College Application Essay

Written by Rebecca Au-Mullaney
Demystifying the College Application Essay

It was 2005 when my parents decided to continue homeschooling my two sisters and me through high school. We were one of the first few families in our homeschool group with teenagers, and my parents—competent and pioneering as they are—had their worries. How would we navigate college admissions? Could my sisters and I demonstrate to the outside world that we really were receiving a high quality education?

The college application essay was just one of the hoops that my family learned to jump through together. Through the process, I ended up writing four separate essays:  two to earn admittance to several public and private institutions and another two to partially fund my education at The King’s College. Now that I’ve graduated college and spent a few years in a professional writing career, I thought I would share insights into what can be a daunting subject.

What exactly are admissions committees looking for?

Students often imagine that a college application essay is supposed to be a summary of experiences that make them qualified for college. This misconception gives birth to drab sentences like, “Volunteering at the local soup kitchen taught me to be more compassionate and dedicated.”

While that statement may be true, there are a few problems with this approach. For starters, this kind of description breaks the fundamental rule of writing essays, “Show, don’t tell.” It’s bad writing. What’s more, it’s particularly bad considering your audience. Time-crunched application reviewers already read enough predictable sentences about cookie-cutter experiences. To stand out, your essay should be a beautiful piece of prose.

Harry Bauld’s On Writing the College Application Essay is one of my favorite resources on this. Bauld used to review essays at Brown and Columbia. In the book, he provides a bleak portrait of how rapidly admissions committees must process applications. Additionally, the book’s example essays are excellent and illustrate several of the principles I highlight here.

Prioritize communicating your character rather than bragging about accomplishments.

Students, think about your essay as a chance to express qualities that aren’t evident in the rest of your application. Most likely, you have already written about your service opportunities, international travel, leadership experience, and awards elsewhere in your application materials.

The essay is not meant to be a comprehensive listing of your accomplishments. Instead, you should aim to tell a story (or two) that reveals something about your character. If you do end up mentioning your accolades they need to come up subtly, in a way that supports your overarching theme.

To put it another way, panelists in a 2015 New York Times symposium on college admissions said that colleges see the essay as a significant “tip factor.” A remarkable essay probably won’t compensate for poor grades and nonexistent extracurriculars. However, your authentic voice in the essay can tip your application into the “Yes” bin if reviewers are on the fence. Conversely, a sloppy essay can spur a rejection even if the rest of the application is strong.

Allow time for brainstorming.

Prompts on the Common Application are usually quite broad, with topics like, “Write about a person who influenced you” or “Discuss a time when you questioned one of your beliefs.” These prompts can sometimes get the mental juices flowing, but you might find their breadth overwhelming. Whether you plan from a prompt or not, you’ll need to dig deep to find meaningful real-life examples.

Don’t underestimate the value of daydreaming. When I was writing college application essays in my senior year of high school, I would sit on the steps of my back porch with only a pencil and a notebook. I hand wrote snippets of experiences that had moved me. The girl I met at camp who challenged me to stop thinking in such black and white terms. The time I cooked a dinner for twenty people and missed out on the joy because I was stressed about the details. The way I feel when I walk to the edge of the river at the park down the street. Another trick is to find a private place, turn on a voice recorder, and start talking. Imagine that you are talking on the phone with a friend or writing a journal entry.

I emphasize this step because a college application essay is a different genre than the kind of writing you have likely done before. It isn’t research writing, it’s not a book review, and it’s not a summary of a text. You are the subject. Spend time getting to know yourself before you start writing.

Build your examples into a first draft.

Once you have a small library of examples to use, you can start assembling them into an essay. Consider opening your essay with one of your examples, making it as concrete as possible with sensory details. At this point, you don’t need to know your thesis. Instead, you should write a draft from start to finish, without self-editing, in which you try out the examples you brainstormed. None of the sentences in your first draft have to make it to the final submission, but this step makes it possible to discover what your thesis statement will be.

Review your draft and identify themes.

I find it helpful to print out a copy of the first draft (or, if you drafted on paper, type up that draft and then print it out). Now it’s time to take your pen or pencil and write notes in the margins. For each example in your draft, try to uncover what character trait it illustrates. Suppose you still wanted to write about that soup kitchen and were able to find a real, meaningful story within that experience. Let’s say you volunteered at the soup kitchen every week for a year and you were startled by one of the other volunteers’ sarcastic sense of humor. Eventually, despite your differences, this person became a friend. What does this story show about who you are? (Think about it before you continue reading.)

I would say that this story has potential to show something about openness to those who are different than yourself, or maybe something about taking yourself less seriously. For whatever examples you included in your draft, your job is to determine what significance that experience had for you and find a character trait that will serve as a tagline for that story.

This process will help you decide what examples you need to add, or subtract, to make your essay well-rounded. Your essay should portray two or three character traits that show different sides of your personality. Even if you’re talking about a personal failure (another favorite college application essay topic), you should find the positive qualities that that failure helped you to develop. Above all, the character qualities that shine through should be true to who you really are.

Edit thoroughly.

Now that you have a better sense of what stories you want to include, write up a second draft, trimming or expanding examples that align with the character traits you want to highlight. As you get into the editing process, I recommend you try backwards editing. I learned to write from Andrew Pudewa’s Institute for Excellence in Writing curriculum, which helped me become comfortable creating an outline and writing a paper based on those notes. With backwards editing, you reverse that process. Think about what each paragraph or group of sentences is trying to accomplish in your essay, and use that to adjust your sentences into a clearer flow. While this isn’t persuasive writing, and you aren’t building an argument, each idea should naturally connect to the next. Once the paragraphs are in order, make sure each sentence links to the next so the reader can follow your thinking.

A word on thesauruses: beware including words that you don’t really know. A common mistake is to cram as many thousand-dollar words as possible into an application to seem impressive. But look at the writing of authors you admire. You should use those fancy adjectives sparingly, or else your writing will sound pretentious. Even worse, if you’re using “SAT words” in the wrong context because of blindly inputting a thesaurus recommendation, the reviewers will see right through it. Instead, make your essay sound like yourself. Read it out loud a few times, making changes as you go. Copy the text into Google Translate and listen to the automated English “translation” to catch errors. If you can, even once you think your essay is done, sleep on it and read it again in the morning. You might catch something you missed a hundred times the day before.

The college application essay is an opportunity to create a piece of writing that you’re really proud of. It’s also a chance to discover something new about yourself, or to put into words something you’ve always thought but never spoken aloud. Here’s to finding the joy in the struggle. 



Rebecca Au-Mullaney serves as editorial and news director at The King’s College, a Christian liberal arts college located in NYC. A K-12 homeschool graduate, she has earned numerous regional and national awards for public speaking and writing, her proudest of which was winning the academic writing competition at The King’s College for an essay on C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces and Robert Frost’s Masque of Mercy. She graduated from The King’s College in 2015 as valedictorian, and she can be reached at rau@tkc.edu.