Be Still Senioritis...We Still Have An Essay to Write

Updated: Sep 29

17 years of living, growing and being molded into a young adult ready to move into the next stage of life. College and new life experiences are on the very cusp and within reach. The college application process can be tedious, time-consuming, and nerve-wracking. Will your application be enough to gain admission to your chosen college? After all the parts of the applications are filled in and ready to submit you will still need to attach your essay or personal statement. This is the best way to show the admission counselor at your potential college why they need to pick you above all other applicants.

Admission counselors want to see what you as a potential student will bring to the campus and examples of those attributes that have been practiced and illustrated in the essay. The best way to do that is to be a memorable standout. The transcript and letters of recommendation are only a very small piece that will showcase who you are to the person deciding if you are a fit for the college. Use your essay to demonstrate to the admissions counselor why and how you will be a positive asset to the campus. What will the opportunity to be an alum of your selected college allow you to be representative of the school?

Always be genuine with your essay. Pieces that are not genuine and do not ring true will find themselves relegated to the bottom of the stack. In other words, don’t be ‘try hard,’ if so this will leave the reader feeling like the piece is inauthentic and contrived.

Surprisingly, another put-off for admission counselors is an essay that reads too edited and perfect. Once an essay filters its way through several adults that offer suggestions and revisions, the essay will lose the voice of the original author.

Admission counselors that range from Ivy league to state-supported universities concur they are looking for one thing: self-reflection. Students that take the time to incorporate self-reflection into their essays show the ability to take self-discovery and make connections that may not have been visible before. By far the biggest mistake most high school seniors make is to treat their essays as a place to list out their laundry list of awards and accolades in text form. While you might work some of your accomplishments into the essay, the purpose behind the essay is to allow an insight into you as a person and how that will impart a positive impact on your chosen university.

A well-developed stand-out essay will have all the same elements of literature you studied through high school: strong images, clear concise writing, minimal grammatical errors, emotional language, and an overall theme, but so will numerous other hopeful people in your same situation wanting to be accepted.

There is no simple checklist for an essay that will guarantee admission. However, the standouts will have several things in common regardless of the specified prompt they will:

  • Clearly answer the prompt. The essay can be filled with analogies, vivid imagery, and connecting parallels, but if it doesn't answer the selected prompt then it fails from the get-go. If your essay can’t answer a question, how can the admissions team expect that you will be able to follow expectations on campus?

  • Tell a story. Plot points that are exciting and enticing get lost if the story isn't told in a captivating way. Think in terms of scenes in a movie or soundbites to hold interest. Think about the people you follow on your social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok. These people are most likely to be able to fully encapsulate and capture a story in short scenes and clips while still keeping interested.

  • Share a catalyst for growth. Successful essays tell about failures, obstacles, and mistakes with the lessons that came from those moments. It’s ok to share the parts you are least proud of. It isn’t only the highs that shape us. It is the lows too. Consider did your low enable you to develop a positive character trait that was not there before? How will that trait make you an asset to the college?

  • Demonstrate reflection. Dig deep and avoid summarizing your story. The ability to internalize and self-reflect demonstrates a skill set that will promote self-awareness and growth. Create a place within your essay that allows for self-reflection and create a balance between self-assurance and benign unguarded with your reflection.

  • ​​Sound like a high school student. After great self-reflection and carefully crafting the words to share, it may sound counterproductive to remember that your voice as a high school student needs to remain intact. Many seniors think the essay is a time to showcase what they will be and to sound more mature and perfect than they are. The simple answer is college admissions know that college is still a time for growth. They will want to know that you can grow on their campus.

While college essays will have a list of common things, they will also avoid specific things. Below we share the biggest don’ts compiled from admission counselors, senior literature teachers, and those with strong essays that were admitted to their choice of college to help you craft an admission-worthy essay for college.

  • Don't tell them what you think they want to hear; they can spot that a mile away and will move you to the bottom of the list

  • Don't be scared to bring your faith into the personal parts of your essay. In a politically correct world, you might be cautioned about this, but colleges want to see and know your passions and how you will apply these to your anticipated adult life

  • Don’t regurgitate the same information. Using your essay to create another highlight reel of the information from your application shows the admissions counselors there is nothing more to you than a list of accolades.

  • Don’t use clichés. There are many topics that admission counselors see on rinse and repeat. Some of the most cliche topics include overcoming sports injuries, tragedies such as the death of a loved one, and volunteer/missionary-type trips

  • Don’t use a thesaurus to sound like someone other than yourself.

  • The biggest don't of all: Do not procrastinate. You will need two people to read and offer suggestions: 1 adult who teaches or is a counselor basically someone who knows effective writing so that they can give you the most constructive feedback while allowing your voice to remain true in the essay.

Feeling a little stuck?


  • One small daily task can be the scene for your essay. Allow it to give insight into how you view the world, tackle problems as they arise, and show off your best skill sets

  • It's all in the details. Don’t retell an event that influenced you. Pick a pivotal moment that will be the most impactful. If you have to summarize to set the scene, do it quickly and concisely with just a couple of sentences.

  • Write about common threads that the counselors can relate to

  • Relationship dynamics can really allow you to show internal reflection when trying to navigate who you want to be in the world

  • Share why one item will always be with you. Is it a special lovey, or a note shared by your mother? Use this to illustrate why you are who you are.

  • Bring the reader on a journey that will have a clear beginning middle and end.

Now that we have established the creative parts of how to author a strong and impactful essay, let's look at some of the housekeeping parts of your college essay.

  • Set an intention for your essay. Decide what you want the reader to know about you and work back from there.

  • Most essays will have a range of 250-650 word count. 500 words are the sweet spot for your college essay. Within a 500-word count, you should be able to impart the goals and aim impact of your essay.

  • Brainstorm and jot down any and everything when considering your essay

  • Draft and re-draft the essay. Take the time to make sure each word and sentence imparts the message you want to share.

  • Have others read it to catch grammatical errors and offer feedback and do this at a minimum of two separate times.

  • Check the deadlines for application and work backward. You want to allow plenty of time for revisions and rewrites. If the application is due on the first of November, your first draft of our essay should be drafted and ready to share by mid-August.

Before you dive in, take a moment to read through the prompts offered by the College Common App.

  1. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

  2. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

  3. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

  4. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

  5. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

  6. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

  7. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

It’s nearly August and if you are a rising senior, now is the time to get started. At Cape Fear Christian Academy, we build leaders for tomorrow by instilling fundamental lessons for developing writing skills that will enable students to draft the very best representation of themselves with a college essay.

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