Barbara Phelps

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Fall is the time for high school seniors to begin college applications. For many the college essay can seem daunting. What should I write about? How will I make my essay interesting to an admissions committee? Where do I begin? You actually have many remarkable stories to tell that will set you apart from other applicants. Let’s take a look at how you can thoughtfully approach this task.

What is the purpose of the college essay?

The essay is a way for the admissions committee to see who you are beyond the basics of your application file. Your transcript, application form, letters of recommendation and resume give an overview of your hard work, interests and academic record. Your essay allows you to individualize your application by telling a personal story about what is important to you. The essay also shows the committee how well you write. Can you structure a meaningful essay that interests the reader, conveys a unique message and flows well?

What should I write about?

The college essay is a personal narrative. This essay should be all about YOU! Take some time for self-reflection. What is important to you? What are your values? What do you want the admissions committee to know about you that isn’t already reflected in your application?

• Have you faced a challenge in your life that you overcame, e.g., demanding academics, health concerns, learning disabilities, family or financial struggles?

• Do you have a story to tell about your family traditions, cultural or ethnic background?

• Have you experienced a life-changing event that stretched your thinking and changed your perspectives?

• How do you deal with failure? Tell a story about an obstacle you faced and how you moved beyond it.

• Describe your passions (academic, career, arts, sports, hobby, service projects).

• Have your traveled outside your community? What did you take away from the experience? How will you carry what you learned into the college setting?

How can I make my essay stand out?

Keep your story authentic! Most students do not have a “spectacular” story to relate, rather they write about everyday occurrences that are meaningful to them. Some of the most memorable topics I recall from my students’ essays include the story of a high school senior who wrote about the value of staying in Boy Scouts even when it wasn’t “cool,” how a girl learned to make tamales with her grandmother, an awful summer camp experience and how a student found incredible friendships as a result, and the story of a student who witnessed a live birth and how that led her to a career in medicine.

Tips for success:

• Communicate your story in an interesting, thought- provoking manner.

• Avoid sports injury stories. Admission representatives tell us those stories are over used.

• Keep your 17-year-old voice. Allowing others (parents, teachers, friends) to “over edit” your essay will take away from your perspective and authenticity.

• Stay away from topics that are controversial or too personal. You don’t want to offend your reader.

• Use a hook to grab your reader’s attention, e.g., use a quote, question or personal anecdote.

• Make use of literary devices, e.g., metaphor, simile, vivid imagery, allusion, characterization.

• Vary your sentence structure and vocabulary.

• Establish a tone that reflects your personality.

• Use the conclusion to reinforce your thesis and explain how this will relate to your college experience. Bring the reader full circle.

• Write your first draft, then set it aside for a few days. Come back to it and revise. Read it out loud or better yet, to a parent or friend.

• Proofread, proofread, proofread. Mistakes can give a bad impression.

Your personal story is very interesting to the college admission committee. Start writing now so your essay reflects the best of you.

• Barbara Phelps is an independent college consultant and Ahwatukee Foothills resident. She assists students in grades 9-12 with the college planning, search and application process. Reach her at (602) 697-4543, or

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