Aug   2018



5 Questions to Kick-Start Your College Essay

Assistant Professor, Coastal Carolina University

So you’re ready to start writing your admission essay. I mean, you don’t feel like you are and you don’t want to be ready, but the fact is that the essay only gets written by writing it. So: you’re ready.

The best writing advice most of us ever hear or give is just to get started. Just write. Stop worrying about it. Stop thinking about it. Most important of all: stop reading about how to do it. Just start writing! That’s much, much harder than it sounds for most people, and even most professional writers will tell you that. There are many, many other easier things to do.

Regardless of whether students are using the Common Application, the Coalition Application, or institution-specific prompts, the biggest hurdle they typically face when it comes to getting a start on their admission essay is freaking out over organization, which just means they’re uncertain how to set up their essay the “right” way.

As I previously mentioned, college-bound teens aren’t used to writing about themselves in an academic context most of the time, and they’ve usually never produced a college essay or personal statement before, so it’s understandable that they feel overwhelmed about where and how to start—and then, once they start, how to proceed.

This might help. The pre-writing exercise I described last month helps identify the student’s best bet for a topic; use those initial notes as springboards to the bigger ideas the essay will engage. These bigger ideas will eventually take the shape of paragraphs, but as students begin drafting, they might not have a definite grasp of what their “bigger ideas” even are. They will, however, once they start writing.

So now we’ve got to get from the raw materials we’ve collected about the topic to figuring out what to say about their significance. To build this bridge, try thinking about paragraphs as answers to specific questions. I’m sure I got this idea from a composition textbook somewhere along the line, and it works. 

The straightforward exercise of answering a question gives kids something concrete and contained to do for the space of a paragraph. So once the writer lands on the topic, try asking these five questions:

1. What does it take to be a successful _____________?

(Remember I used the example of a duck hunter last time.)

2. How do I match up with the qualities/keywords for #1?

Be specific! How do these traits/qualities/keywords demonstrate who I really am?

3. Can you describe one time _____________ went really wrong or really well?

Here’s where the writer can plug in some of the detail keywords that indicate expertise. Anecdotes make impacts and grab attention. This should be no longer than a handful of sentences.

4. How did #3 reveal #2?

In other words, how did #3 test my traits/qualities/ keywords? What did this teach me about myself/how did this impact me? (This is moving toward big ideas and larger significance, right?)

5. How does the combination of #2 and #4 connect up with my future plans (during college and perhaps beyond)?

It’s the essay’s job to introduce the writer by drawing meaningful connections between key elements of his or her identity and experience that create a trajectory.

A real-life example would be a high school outfielder who suffered a serious shoulder injury junior year that ruined his baseball season. Instead of being at practice, he was at physical therapy. This was a huge disappointment (that many high school athletes can relate to, right?), but it introduced him to the field of sports medicine. Now he’s back on the field senior year with a recovered shoulder and a prospective undergraduate field of study that he didn’t know anything about before he got hurt. And he’s armed with a winning essay topic that he doesn’t dread writing. His essay combines his favorite interest, talent, and expertise, and he has the raw materials for making a pretty compelling statement that signals more broadly how he handles challenges. Interpreting the biggest bummer of his teenage life as a sign pointing toward his future demonstrates important character traits that are attractive to colleges, including maturity, resilience, and determination.

One of the best things about coming to paragraphs by answering questions is that these questions can be broken into multiple sittings. Addressing even one question per sitting will allay writing anxieties and help students feel productive.

Keep in mind that the five questions do not mean the essay must be five paragraphs. It will likely be more. Any of these questions can lead to other questions that might depend on the essay prompt you’re working on. There’s no hard-and-fast rule. Also, at this stage of the drafting process, the writer is not concerned with perfect word choice or Pulitzer-winning style. The writer is focused only on getting ideas (i.e., words) down on the page.

You’ll find these five questions lend themselves to the Common and Coalition Application prompts, and with some minor tweaking, they should apply to plenty of institution-specific prompts as well. This is because most college essay options are geared to the same end: getting a fuller picture of who the prospective student is.

Find more college essay advice in our College Admission section.

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About Keaghan Turner, PhD

Keaghan Turner, PhD

Keaghan Turner, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Digital Writing and Humanistic Studies at Coastal Carolina University. She has taught writing and literature at small liberal arts colleges and state flagship universities for the past 20 years. As a managing partner of Turner+Turner College Consulting, LLC, Dr. Turner also counsels high school students on all aspects of their college admission portfolios, leads writing workshops, and generally tries to encourage students to believe in the power of their own writing voices. You can contact Dr. Turner on Instagram @consultingprofessors or by email at


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