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Articles / Applying to College / Essay Tips for Rising Seniors

Essay Tips for Rising Seniors

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | June 18, 2015
If you are a rising senior this summer and you think of yourself as a sub-par writer, you may be concerned about the application essay challenges that await you this fall, or maybe even later this summer, in case you're a go-getter. I once heard Jerry Seinfeld do a standup bit where he noted that a recent survey showed that people fear public speaking more than death (!). If you've ever had to stand before a public group or even your high school classmates to speak, you may know what Seinfeld was talking about.

College essays are a close cousin to public speaking. Of course, you're not standing in front of a crowd, but your essay will be viewed by a group of strangers — the college admissions committee readers at the colleges to which you apply. That thought alone may be enough to birth fear inside your heart and keystrokes.

Thus, I thought I would address those of you who may be experiencing anxiety about the Common Application's essay challenge, as well as all those pesky supplemental essays that colleges love to torture you with. One of my coaching mantras is, “Knowledge and familiarity breed confidence."

So, below, you'll find links to a collection of my articles about essay writing, along with a brief excerpt from each to appeal to your curiosity. Don't be shy about checking out this information. I promise that you'll feel better about your writing potential after reading these approaches.

First of all, I get lots of questions about what not to write about. I have a relatively simple answer for that. In general, avoid sex, religion, politics, and the mundane sports and world travel cliches. If you want to read a great book on college essays (in addition to my tips below), get this little jewel: http://tinyurl.com/psbsvel (use Amazon's “Look Inside!" feature to sample it).

Now, getting back to me, check out some of these articles I wrote. (Note: some reference the old Common App prompts, but the info on approach is pertinent.):

Application Essays

… I put together a kind of essay clinic for those applicants who are unsure about how to approach application essays. I called my clinic Real-Life College Essay Lessons. Here's an example of what you'll find there:

College Essay Lessons Table of Contents

Yvonne's Sample Essay #1

Yvonne's Sample Essay #2

College Essay Workshop

Humor in the College Essay

College Essay: “What I Overcame"

College Essay or Transfer Statement?

I hope you're aware of the vital importance of the essay as a component of the elite college application. To give you some further perspective, I'm including here some representative sample essays from my archives. I'll make some background comments about the writers (names have been changed for privacy), comment on their essay, and throw in some tips about the college essay process. …

Great Common Application Essays

… These five prompts provide a wide latitude of possibilities for you to conjure an effective statement from the world around you or your personal life and circumstances. Let's take a look at a quartet of excellent examples that have crossed my path.

Here's one about a brotherly-sisterly relationship: …

Using Humor in Your College Essay

A while back, I was chatting with an admissions officer from a highly competitive university. We were discussing the importance of the essay in college applications. She told me that while the essay is almost always not a make-or-break factor in their final decisions, it can tip the scales in the positive direction for the applicant. I asked how an essay can be influential.

Her answer was, “First or lasting impressions." She went on to tell me how dreary the overwhelming majority of application essays are. Some, she said, are downright depressing. Most of the dreary ones, in her view, were just that: blah, drab, and paralyzingly mundane. So, I asked her what element or technique a senior could inject into his or her essay that would score on the lasting impression scale. Without flinching, she said, “Humor!" …

More about Essays

I thought I would offer some advice to those of you high school seniors who are not sweating the clock for your Early Decision (ED) or Early Action (EA) applications. As I write this, two days away from November 1, many of you may be scrambling to put the finishing touches on your Common Application and college-specific supplemental essays.

For all of you, I empathize with your angst (assuming that you are angst ridden). I have written at length about college application essays before. If you need a last-second pep talk about how to approach the larger essays (at this point, I hope that you ED/EA applicants are well beyond needing a pep talk), check out some of my articles on College Confidential. You may find some sparks of inspiration there.

This blog article, however, is aimed at those of you who are targeting Regular Decision (RD), with its traditional January 1 (or even a bit later) deadline. Accordingly, you now have two full months to conjure, plan, and execute your applications' writing requirements. …

Thoughts on Application Essays

Before you start working on your Common Application essay and the associated Common Application supplements that colleges just love to throw your way, you need to start seeing yourself in the proper perspective in regards to being an applicant to your candidate colleges. This stratagem applies even if you're not aiming for the top, as with the Ivies and other elites. Knowing who you are and how you think, plus being able to express that in an articulate statement, will go a long way in advancing your admission chances, regardless of where you are applying.

Here's a little exercise that may help you understand what I mean: …

Assay Your Common App Essay

… Does the thought of writing that CA essay give you chills, indigestion, or nightmares. Not to worry. That's what I'm here for, to lend some helping-hand thoughts to aid your cause. Just keep in mind that the essay is your friend. No, really! In addition to your academic record and recommendations, the essay can can push a borderline applicant into the “Admit" column, if executed properly. That's the purpose of this message — to help you write the best essay you can.

One of my goals for the summer is to make sure that by the time you return to school in late August or early September you will have completed your Common Application essay, or at least have a solid idea to develop. So it's time to start thinking about this, if you haven't already done so. …

[Even] More on Essays

I guess if you say the title of this post fast, it could sound like “Moron Essays." Trust me; I've seen some moron essays in my day, but the sample I'd like to share with you today is far above the moron class. In fact, the writer of this essay was admitted early to one of The Big Three Ivy League universities. The writer has generously given me permission to share his effort with you. Thus, you should be able to see the advantage of using not only picturesque imagery but also one of my favorite essay elements: humor. …

Applying You to Your Application Essays

There are two sides to every story, they say. I say there are two sides to every application essay: (1) your side and (2) the college's side. The New York Times Magazine ran an essay contest inspired by Rick Perlstein's essay, “What's the Matter With College." The 600 or so responses cover some interesting ground.

What you can see in these entries is the contrast between writers who write what they want to say (the winners) and those who write what the contest judges want to hear (the losers). Therein lies the critical key for those of you involved in, or planning to become involved in, the college application process. This is when you will confront the application essay challenge.

There are a lot of opinions out there about application essays. You'll find blogs, articles, and books galore. But what happens when your bundle of writing skills meets the probing prompts of the various schools to which you want to reply? …

Essays with A Smile

You rising seniors out there are looking at the summer ahead for jobs, fun, relaxation, vacations, and maybe–just maybe–some planning for your college applications this fall. If you're like many of the students I've worked with over the years, you're probably most concerned about your essays. Even the brightest students many times have difficulty conjuring decent topics and gathering their compositional forces to put together a winning st of sentences and paragraphs. So, what's a frustrated essayist to do then?

Try a little humor, I say! If you can put a smile on the faces of those admissions folks who will be reading your application, then you will have gone a long way to helping them remember you from amid the piles and piles of applications that glaze over their eyes every year. The goal is to stand out, right? Well, humor in your writing, properly applied, can be a big plus for you. …


There's a lot to absorb from the above articles. However, you'll find not only my advice on how to approach your essay(s), but you'll also find some real-life essays that have propelled their authors to college success.

You can be one of those successes too. Read and heed!


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles on College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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