From a Teen’s Perspective: The college essay, simplified

by Dylan Lanier on September 19, 2023

Some students are just starting their first essays for college. Many have written a handful but are far from complete. And a select few are nearing or past the finish line — and we enviously admire them for it.

I am certain that every student reading this has been bombarded with essay-writing advice from college counselors, websites, or social media. I would like to throw my hat in the ring as well, but focus on a simpler process — well, simpler in theory — that I use when writing my essays. I’ve divided it into these four steps below:

1. Understand What They Want: It’s important to know what type of response each prompt hopes to elicit. For example, many colleges ask, “Why us?” And while you could spend 200 words talking about how much you love their cafeteria food, you should probably focus on how you would get involved with the school’s academic and extracurricular opportunities. Take some time to analyze the prompt’s language and consider what you would be looking for if you were an admissions officer. Luckily, there are many websites like that offer insight into each prompt’s objective.

2. Take The Plunge: In my honest opinion, the hardest part of every college essay is starting it. I always feel like my first draft has to be perfect. But the truth is, you will be revising that essay again and again no matter how amazing you think that first draft is. We are all guaranteed to write some things we don’t like. But we will also end up writing some things we do like. Sometimes we need to use the wrong words in order to find the right ones. The way I see it, you can either write that first draft now and know that you have at least a fragment of your final essay, or you can procrastinate and go through the same process but with more stress as your deadline approaches. Do yourself a favor and suck it up so you won’t have to later.

3. Determine Its Purpose: You need to figure out what each essay you write says about you, and how it fits into your application as a whole. Maybe one essay shows your dedication to an activity, letting the college know that you are a hard-working student. And perhaps another talks about your dream career, illustrating your collegiate goals. Look at your essays for each school and think about whether they reflect an authentic, multi-faceted version of you.

Colleges should walk away from your essay feeling like they really know you and how you would be a part of their school’s community. I find it valuable to share my essays with family and friends because they can give an unbiased perspective on how I come across in my essays. It’s important to revise your essays until they feel like an accurate representation of who you are and what you want to do. Of course, word limits certainly constrict the level of detail you can use, but there’s still enough space to leave your unique mark on the admissions officer.

4. Edit In Stages: Editing your work can feel just as daunting as writing it in the first place. After all, revisions are how you take your original word vomit and transform it into something intentional. I prefer to edit in distinct phases in order to keep myself from getting overwhelmed.

First, I vibe-check the overall piece and figure out if there needs to be any major re-writes.  I often like to check this with family and friends, as well, because sometimes a section looks inadequate to me but not to the majority of other readers.

Second, once I’m fairly confident with the content of the essay, I move on to editing for clarity. I think about what needs further explanation and I don’t worry about the word count when I add on. I recommend putting yourself in an admissions officer’s shoes and reading your essays with the intention of finding questions to ask in order to find any glaring gaps. Finally, I find places to cut down on the word count, check for grammar, and strengthen certain language with synonyms or varied syntax.

No one can tell you how to write the perfect college essay because it doesn’t exist. But with focus and authenticity, you can write essays that speak truth to your experience and your goals.

I hope you found my process helpful and I wish you the best of luck throughout the college app season — no matter what, I’m proud of you for putting in the work!

Got any topics you want me to cover? Email with your requests!

Dylan Lanier is a senior at Menlo-Atherton High School. His column appears weekly on InMenlo.

Image by Freepik

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