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1.1 - Brainstorm | Essay Essentials

This lesson covers... the most common 12 questions I get about college essays.
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 3 minutes

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 are around 350 words each, and your supplemental essays 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 (the UCs require four, for example), plus you'll write supplements for most selective schools, 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?
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 on this site: 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 more than anything. 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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