This lesson covers... 12 frequently-asked college essay questions.
By the end you should... understand the basics of how many essays you’ll need to write, what readers are looking for, and how important the essays are.
Time 2 minutes
Note to counselors on how to use this guide:

My notes to you are in boxes like this one. Students won’t see these; only you will. Everything outside of a box is visible to both you AND to your students in the student version of the guide.

As you walk your students through the steps in this workshop, they can access everything in the student version of the guide. If they have laptops in front of them, you can send them to the linked student version here (click that and it’ll open in a separate tab). If you’d rather have them work by pen and paper, you’ll be able to find all the downloadable and printable PDFs below. Print out one copy of the document below and pass out that packet at the start of the workshop.

Recommendation: After the workshop and in your follow-up, I recommend sending students the link to the student version of the guide so they can return to it over the course of their essay writing process.
Counselors: If you’re waiting for students to arrive, or are a few minutes late getting started, this is a great page for students to read while they’re waiting and getting settled.

Note that I typically don’t spend too much time going over this. It just helps me from needing to repeat myself and answer the same question twenty times. (You probably know what I mean.)

Feel free to use my FAQs or create your own.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How do I begin to write my essay?
A: If you’re reading this, you’ve already begun. In this guide you’ll find some ideas on how to brainstorm and structure your essay.

Q: How long should my essay be?
A: It depends. Your main Common App essay can be up to 650 words, while the essays for the University of California (UC) schools, for example, are around 350 words each. The length for supplemental essays, which are additional essays required by most highly selective schools, will vary.

Q: How many essays will I need to write?
A: Around 15 is average. You'll likely write a main personal statement for your Common App, perhaps some separate essays if you're applying to public schools, plus supplemental essays, which number anywhere from 6-20, depending on the number of schools you apply to.

Q: What should my essay be about?
A: In a word, you.

Q: What are college admissions officers looking for?
A: They're looking for the answers to these three questions:

  1. Who is this person?
  2. Will this person contribute something of value to our campus?
  3. Can this person write?

Q: How do college admissions officers evaluate my essay?
A: Each school has its own criteria and different readers will prefer different elements. Michael Gulotta (Associate Director of Admissions at American University) for example, has told me he most looks to the essay to assess a student's writing ability. But Rick Diaz (Regional Director of Undergrad Admissions at SMU) is less interested in writing ability and more interested in a student's story.

Q: So which is more important: your story or your writing skill?
A: Both are important. A good story, well told. That's your goal. 

Q: When should I start writing my essay?
A: Today. Right now.

Q: How do I structure my essay?
A: You’ll learn about two options in this guide: Narrative Structure and Montage Structure.

Q: How much do essays matter?
A: It depends on the college, but generally between 10%-30%. Essays tend to matter more for small schools, or schools who look at applications holistically.

Q: If my grades are bad, can I get into Harvard with a great essay?
A: Nope. Schools look at your GPA, course rigor, and test scores first. But when you're being compared to other students with similar GPA/SAT scores, that's when the essays can make or break your chances. Harvard is great, but there are a lot of other awesome schools too. For a list of Colleges That Change Lives, Google "Colleges That Change Lives." (Really.)

Q: Can a bad college essay negatively affect my application?
A: Yes.

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