How to Start a College Essay

teenage girl working on college essays

“Have you started your college essay yet?”

“Why not?”
“I have no idea what I should write about.”

Across the country many teenagers are simply stuck. They know they need to, or even want to, get started on their college essay, but they have no idea how to choose a topic.

One way to get started is to have your child pull out their phone. Ask the student to text five of their best friends and five of their closest family members, asking them to share the top three words that describe your child’s character. When they get the responses back, your child will have a good idea of how others perceive them and what others value about them.

One reason for doing this is that much of what is written about the student is from an external perspective—that of teachers and guidance counselors. Another reason for doing this exercise is that sometimes there are aspects of the student that others really value that your child doesn’t think are a big deal. A good example is the good confidant; often these students are great listeners and have solid advice to share with their friends in need, but they don’t feel that this trait is a big deal. Their friends, however, know it is and value the trait enormously.

Once your child has a general sense of what others value in them, ask them to look through the list and think about which characteristics might be sought after on a college campus. Remember that at a college like Duke University, characteristics like “smart” or “dedicated” are going to be really common traits in their application pool. Look for character traits that might be different and/or add to a campus community.

Then, once they’ve chosen what to focus on, think of anecdotes that demonstrate this trait. If the trait is “funny,” think of that time at Thanksgiving dinner when she had the whole family in stitches with her dry wit. If the student is “caring,” tell the story of the time his sister fell off the rope swing at the park and he ran two miles to the ranger station to get help. This is often when parents can be a big help to their kids, recalling their own memories of situations that impressed them about the characteristic the student is to convey.

Conveying ideas and thoughts through storytelling is powerful; it’s easy for an admissions officer to retell the story in a committee room and get their colleagues to see what they see in the student in front of them. If you are lucky, that admissions officer will read your child’s college essay, smile, tilt back in his chair and yell across the hallway “Hey Dave, c’mere, you have to read this.”


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Bright Horizons
Bright Horizons
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teenage girl working on college essays