The College Essay – Student Handout

There are four components of the college essay to think about before beginning:  

• Purpose: What is the college essay? Who am I writing it for? Why do it?

• Structure: What should it look like? How long is it? How should it be structured?

• Content: What should I write about? What do I “fill it” with?

• Quality: How polished should the essay be when I turn it in?

1. Purpose of the College Essay:

There are two basic reasons college admissions officials want to see a piece of formal writing from you before they accept you into their school. First, they want to get to know who you are as a  person. Therefore, it is important to be specific, and the best way to do this is to tell a story about  yourself. Do not simply list your accomplishments. Instead, think of one specific experience that  you can reflect on in detail. This will help them to accomplish the first part of the purpose, which is  to get to know you and to understand your character.

The second part of the purpose is to glean, from the quality and sophistication of your writing, if  you are ready for the rigors of college.

Do you possess the skills necessary to be able to thrive in an  academically challenging environment? Your essay is their first glimpse into you as a potential  student and scholar.

2. Structure of the College Essay:

If you think of the college essay as telling a story about yourself, then the structure should be that of a well-told story. It should have a beginning, middle, and end. It should also be short, tight, and to  the point. Before you begin writing, you should find out how long your story has to be. If it is 650  words, then plan on dividing the word count relatively equally between the beginning, middle, and  end.

The beginning of your essay should bring us into the scene you are describing. Where were you?  What were you doing? Why were you doing it?

The middle of the essay should focus on the point of telling the story in the first place. What  happened? What was the outcome?

The final part of your essay should be for reflection and explaining why you are telling this story in  the first place. What did you learn as a result of the experience? How did this change you as a  person? How did it improve your character?

3. Content of the College Essay:

The content of the essay depends on the prompt, but in general, every prompt is asking you to  share something about yourself. When they read your essay, it needs to be so specific to you that it  could not have been written by anyone else.

Do not worry about trying to please them or trying to figure out what they want to hear. Instead,  focus on something specific that means something to you. Remember, they want to get to know you  through your writing and find out what you care about. The best way to do this is to tell a story  about yourself. In the essay “Just Keep Folding,” the author tells the story about how she was  determined to create 1,000 origami cranes before the end of high school. This essay impressed the  admissions committee because it showed them who she was, and from that they got a sense that  she could contribute positively to their school community.  You can read the above essay and response here: https://apply.jhu.edu/apply/essaysJthatJ worked/

4. Quality of the College Essay:

The college essay should be technically perfect. There should not be any grammatical mistakes,  such run-on or fragmentary sentences, poor or inappropriate word usage (such as trying to  impress them with a ‘big word’ but then using it incorrectly), subject verb disagreements (like  “washing dishes were a great experience for me”),  or misuses of punctuation. The spelling should  also be perfect.

Using proper transitions to help the reader move from one subject or thought to another and the  use of paragraph breaks to break up differing ideas are also important.

Overall, the quality of your essay depends on the interplay of the technical skill you possess as a  writer (and reJwriter) and the ideas you have decided to include in your essay.