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How to Help Your Students Start the College Essay

Just because students have to write their college essays themselves doesn't mean parents can't help them think about it. Here are some tips to get them started!

The college admission essay is often seen as a daunting task for many students. What should they write about? How do they start it? How can they be sure what they’re writing about will represent them well and make them stand out? If you’re trying to help answer these questions and coming up short, here’s a story that shows how you can best aid your student as they go through the essay-writing process.

A simple conversation

A few months ago, I had lunch with a friend who’s a great high school counselor here in Metro Detroit. We started talking about her previous job as a sales manager in the textile industry. I peppered her with questions about her job, what she did, what she liked. How do people pick colors for clothes or fabric for furniture? How does someone know which color paint will be most popular next year on a car or truck? She told me they have an analytics system; it’s quite interesting, and it works, year after year. I wanted to know who decides if red will be the “in” color for the season or how long capris might be cool. She didn’t know, but she said there were people inside the industry who use data to predict that too.
I couldn’t help myself. I find everything so interesting. I like people. I like hearing real stories from real people. Who are they? What’s important to them? Why? While my friend has been out of the textiles field for a long time, she appreciated that I was interested in her and the work she used to do. I asked questions; I listened to her answers. We had a conversation.
Then something clicked, and I told her as such: “You know how to get a great story out of a kid who’s writing a college essay? You do what we just did. Have a conversation. Show the student you’re interested in them. Be curious. Listen to what they have to say. Ask questions. That’s it.”

Related: How to Help a Reluctant Student With College Plans

5 tips to help your student reflect

You can have the same type of discussion with your college-bound student. Here are five ways to get the conversation going and help them think about their college essay if they’re struggling with what to write about.

1. Start with personal characteristics

First, suggest your students get out a piece of paper and ask themselves, “What do colleges know about me?” After that, have them ask, “What else do I want them to know and why?” Students should be thinking of traits and characteristics rather than experiences. (Is your student serious? Industrious? Resourceful? Creative? Shy? Funny? Hardworking? Analytical?) They should write everything down.

2. Think of stories to illustrate their characteristics

Once your student knows what they want admission committees to learn about them, suggest they start thinking about stories or experiences that illustrate those characteristics and write these ideas down in a notebook or on their computer to remember what they want to write about. If college applications aren’t due anytime soon, encourage them to keep the essay in mind while going about their daily lives—they might assign more meaning to a moment if they’re actively thinking about how it represents them. 

3. Think about experiences as a highlight reel

Students should think about their stories like a quick snapshot from their cell phones— something they might post on social media as a particularly good moment from an overall great day. The idea is to jog their memories and remind them about an experience, not to capture every last thing in spectacular detail.

4. Remind them to keep it simple

Keep in mind, if your student tries to record everything that happens on their trip to the Grand Canyon or every life-changing insight from their summer job as a swim teacher, they’ll give up after a day or two because trying to remember too many details is exhausting. On the other hand, if they jot down, “Sunset with Brian and Sarah. The sky looked like it was painted in watercolor,” they’ll remember that evening forever.

5. Focus on the subject at hand

Your student may scribble down how the sun hit the diving board and how the lady in the lounge chair sat by the pool all summer with iced tea and a trashy novel—but that doesn’t mean those details will be relevant to their story about how they taught their cousin how to swim. The college essay should focus on the student, their characteristics, and what meaning they derived from their topic—not mere observations. 

Related: College Admission Essay Topics: Best and Worst
As professional writers, this is the type of writing we do too. Sure, we sometimes write pages and pages, but we also collect scraps of experiences and moments. There’s no doubt that answering a few questions and writing it down will help your students find insight from their life experiences to write an amazing college admission essay.

Find more helpful essay-writing tips for your students in our Application Essay Clinic.  

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About Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton is President and Co-founder of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communication and training company that follows three principles: process, plan, and schedule. Wow also specializes in professional development for consultants, teachers, and high school counselors who work with students applying to college or grad school and teaches college and grad school applicants how to write effective personal statements and supplemental, fellowship, and scholarship essays. Since 2009, Wow has been leading the college admissions industry with our unique approach to the college application essay. We work with students and professionals around the world and are staffed by a small team of experts who understand the writing process inside and out.


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