With college application deadlines looming, high school seniors are confronting what to many is the most dreaded component - the essay or personal statement. "There's an expectation among students that this piece of writing is so crucial to the process," says Cathy Ganley, a college coach and owner of ForWord Consulting LLC in Northern Virginia. "They see it as so important that they are afraid of getting it wrong."

Because students see the essay as inextricably tied to their prospects, "There's a lot of pressure attached to it," says Emmet Rosenfeld, a teacher, published writer and college essay writing tutor in Northern Virginia. In 650 words or less, they are expected to "reveal their soul, be original and wow people who read many thousands of essays," he says.

"Many students are intimidated because they feel ill equipped to tackle the essay," says Amy Brecount White, a writer and essay coach in Arlington, Virginia. "Given the push, particularly in this area, for students to take AP [Advanced Placement] and IB [International Baccalaureate] classes, they've become adept at writing using the typical five-paragraph format. What they don't know is how to write personal essays and be introspective. That is challenging and puts them out of their comfort zone."

Its Relative Importance

"At most colleges, the essay is an important aspect of the decision-making process but does not supersede academics," says Sharon Gundy, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Maryland in College Park. "What the essay does is round out that flat picture provided by the high school transcript, grade point average and standardized test scores," she says.

What Schools Look for

"The essay gives admissions a sense of who the student is, if he's a good fit and why he is pursuing that institution," says Andrea Felder, assistant vice provost for undergraduate admissions at American University in Washington, D.C. "It's important that the student's voice comes through."

"The essays that impact me the most are those in which I get to know the student, regardless of who he is or what his story is. They make me like him more." says Gundy. "I want to know who the student is and what he will bring to the University of Maryland."

"A voice that is appealing to the essay reader is essential," says Rosenfeld. "It must be honest, thoughtful and have integrity. Readers are looking for some sense of emotional digestion and maturity. They are looking for a trait in the student - open-mindedness, willing to be challenged, willing to struggle - that they want at the school. The essay should be expressive, thoughtful, reflective, clear and show that you can write a little."

Uncovering a Student's Story

"A strong personal essay starts with self-discovery, developing voice and fluency and capturing thoughts," says Rosenfeld. Students should be disabused of the notion that they must get it right the first time. "They need the opportunity to explore ideas and thoughts to arrive at a good topic," he says.

A questionnaire and brainstorming are the tools Brecount White employs during her initial meeting with students. "Students often believe they don't have anything interesting to write about," she says, "but from the brainstorming, patterns emerge and students get excited."

"Reading sample essays can open a student's eyes to the type of writing required and jump start the process," says Ganley. "Check out books or look online," she says. ForWord.com, Ganley's website, links to essays by successful applicants to Tufts University, Connecticut College, Johns Hopkins University and Hamilton College.

"Some of the essays that work best highlight something more mundane than grandiose," says Ganley. She points to essays addressing a Common Application prompt asking students to discuss an event that marked their transition from childhood to adulthood. "One wrote about retiring her American Girl doll. Another wrote about painting her room from pink to blue and covering over the growth chart on her door," says Ganley. "The success of both," she says, "lay in their introspection and conveyance of who the student was and what she valued."

Steering Clear of Troubling Topics

No matter how introspective, there are certain topics that should be avoided. "The mission trip has become cliché," says Brecount White.

Also inappropriate may be stories of personal tragedy. "They can be tough to handle well," says Rosenfeld.

"Stories of pity, such as the death of a parent, can be difficult to tell," says Ganley, "but work well when you can share how the event changed your life."

"Be careful not to set off alarms," says Brecount White. "Colleges don't want to worry about you." If students opt to write about issues such as anxiety, she suggests they show how they overcame the problem. "Describe how you have things under control and are ready to thrive in a college environment," she says.

"Don't write about break ups, sexual activity or illegal activity, even a misdemeanor such as speeding - even if it is the best story ever," says Ganley.

Telling a Student's Story

"Write about something that shows your initiative, not something you did for a grade or for pay," says Brecount White. "Write what you're geeky about because colleges are a collection of geeks."

Brecount White suggests sharing a vivid story from childhood, dropping the reader into a scene from the student's life. "It's an effective way of starting an essay."

"Look at the front page of The Washington Post. Every single article starts with a vignette or snapshot that captures a larger issue," says Rosenfeld.

"Storytelling is crucial and there are elements that make for a successful story," says Howard Reichman, president and cofounder of EssayDog, an online tool that helps students craft college application essays. "We don't believe there are bad stories, just bad ways of telling them."

The website guides students through brainstorming and essay development. It begins with the student creating four sentences revolving around an initial plan, anticipated outcome, setback and discovery. "It asks you questions that help you build out ideas that are reflective of who you are and what you stand for," says Reichman. The $49 program purportedly helps alleviate anxiety and overcome what Reichman calls "the blank page syndrome."

Asked to evaluate the website, Bradford Clarkson, a high school senior at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Maryland was positive. "It was helpful in organizing the essay. The online videos and prompts let me create an essay that was relevant. I had to beef it up, but at least I had a framework."

No matter how a student chooses to write his essay - on his own, under the guidance of a counselor or with the help of an online tutorial - a second set of eyes is imperative. "We don't want to see misspellings or grammatical errors," says Gundy. Nor do schools want the voice of the editor to supplant that of the student. "It's easy to tell if a student has invested his own time and energy. The best essays are conversational and don't use words found in a thesaurus," says Gundy.

"Word choice is important," says Felder. "Students need to understand that their audience is professional people. In the age of social media, some choose language that is inappropriate."

Putting in the Time

The time it takes to write a college application essay varies by student. "Most kids working independently will take five or six hours if they're reasonably competent writers," says Rosenfeld. "Some kids blast it out in about an hour, but it's often not well done."

EssayDog's Reichman says that students using his online platform can expect to write their essay in just a few hours. He notes that one student who participated in the software's initial trials produced a stellar essay in about an hour.

Students should build in time for proofreading by a trusted friend, family member or advisor. "Just don't let others do a substantive edit or you risk losing your voice," says Ganley. When proofreading their own essay, she suggests students read it aloud. "You will always pick up on tense issues that way," Ganley says.

Adapting the Essay

"A strong personal essay can respond to different prompts, though it might require some tweaking," according to Rosenfeld. "Reduce, reuse and recycle," he says. "Kids can tailor the essay to the way the question is asked. They can get creative and adapt it."

Many schools ask students to respond to supplemental prompts. "If they ask, 'Why do you want to go to school here,' you need to get specific," says Ganley. "Try to incorporate the name of a building or reference your study abroad program, interdisciplinary approach or access to undergraduate research. Let them know you've done your research."

Reducing the Angst

"Because of the angst associated with the college application essay, students often procrastinate," says Felder. "If they want to relieve the pressure, it's better to start sooner and not wait until the last minute," she says.

Felder also suggests parents take a step back. "Encourage your son or daughter to take ownership of the process," she says. "Yes, the process can be complicated. But rest assured that students will end up at an institution that is right for them."

Writing Prompts

Several college application websites require students to submit essays. Here are sample prompts from the three most common websites.

The Common Application (250-650 words)

  • 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.

  • 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?

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

  • Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

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

  • 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?

  • 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.

Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success (300-400 words)

  • Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.

  • Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.

  • Has there been a time when you've had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?

  • What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What's the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?

  • Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

Universal College Application

Personal Statement (650 words or less)

  • Please write an essay that demonstrates your ability to develop and communicate your thoughts. Some ideas include: a person you admire, a life-changing experience or your viewpoint on a particular current event.

Activity Description (100-150 words)

  • Tell us about one of your extracurricular, volunteer or employment activities.


Karen Finucan Clarkson is a Bethesda freelance writer and the mother of three sons.