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Answering My Top College Essay FAQs

This is essay editing season for me, which means it is essay writing season for students who just finished junior year of high school.

I have written dozens of blogs on how to come up with a great topic for the main college essay and how to write the actual essay. In all the years that I have been blogging, I have never done an FAQ post. Below are the most common questions I get asked and my answers on what can be the most influential piece of a student's application.

When is a good time to start writing essays?
Students write the best essays once junior year is behind them. I like my students to have the main essay finalized by the end of July so that we can spend the rest of the summer writing supplemental essays (often required for the more selective colleges) and filling out applications.
 
Should your essay have a title?
NEVER. Titles waste precious words that could be used for the essay. They also come across as gratuitous rather than helpful. Remember that the college essay isn't a news article; it's a statement about who you are. The title or message of the essay is left to the admissions officer reading it!
 
Should you write your essay in the first person?
This essay is about you (or should be about you) so use first person from start to finish.
How long should the essay be?
The Common Application, the most widely accepted application, has a maximum word count of 650 words for the main college essay. Get as close to 650 words as possible in order to have a fully developed essay.
 
Should the student have one college essay for all of the colleges they apply to or have a different college essay depending on the college?
Writing one main essay is hard enough, let alone writing multiple ones! The topic chosen and the main college essay written should work for every college the student applies to (that requires a main essay). Most students will have plenty of supplemental essays to write, so limiting the main essay to one is crucial in order to get everything done. 
 
Is a main essay always required?
Most selective colleges with set admissions deadlines will require a main college essay. And even colleges that have their own applications, like Georgetown, still require a more traditional main college essay. 
 
Should a student write an essay about a learning difference?
I am an outspoken advocate for students with learning differences, but not all admissions officers are like me! There is still discrimination in the college admissions process surrounding students with learning differences. For this reason, I do not recommend writing about learning differences, a student's own mental health, and eating disorders. Until admissions offices are more transparent, I cannot trust them to treat a student fairly in the process when it comes to a learning or psychological diagnosis.
 
Can a main essay topic include race or religion?
Main essays about a student's own race, race relations, and ethnic identity tend to translate well into a main college essay. Writing about religion is trickier to pull off, but there are some exceptions that I make if the topic is really powerful.

Can I use quotes from other writers in an essay?
A very short quote is probably okay, but anything longer takes away from the student's voice.
 
How do you decide which prompt to use and when do you choose?
Most essay topics actually fit several different prompts. Admissions officers couldn't care less about the prompt you pick; they care about the topic and the way the essay is written.
 
Can you write your essay about another person?
I am not against students referencing someone in their life as long as the essay is about them (the student).
 
Is it okay to write an explanation of a bad grade for the college essay?
Admissions officers may not remember a student's name because they are dealing with thousands of students a year. But they almost never forget what the student wrote about for their main college essay. Do you want to be known for your bad grade or something a lot more positive? You get the gist, right? If a grade needs to be explained, the school counselor can address it in the letter of recommendation or the student can provide a short, contrite explanation in the "Additional Information" or "Covid" section of the application. 
 

Should I write about an activity for the main college essay?

NO. There is an entire section in the application devoted to all of the student's activities. Oftentimes, there is a supplemental essay prompt asking the student to write about their favorite or most meaningful activity. Make sure the main essay is about something else!
 
Should I write about academic interests or future goals?
NO. If a college puts a lot of emphasis on the major choice in the admissions process, there will be a supplemental essay about this. 
 
Does it have to be a traditional essay or can it be an image, poem, or puzzle?
Stick to a traditional essay of 650 words. Get creative about the topic, but not the delivery!


FREE DOWNLOAD: The Ultimate Guide to Picking the Perfect College Essay Topic



The most important thing rising high school seniors can do right now is look within themselves and choose a topic that no one else could write about. It needs to be deeply personal, unique to them, and lead to a better understanding of who they are. When the topic is distinctively powerful, the writing comes easily. And admissions officers love a great essay!