Feeling stressed about what to write your college essay about? You’re not alone. Thankfully we have some answers that can help you generate ideas. All thanks to an interview we conducted with Keith Wilkerson from College Thoughts - an expert on helping high school students find the right college fit for them.
What’s in this blog post:
- The situation - don’t know where to start? You’re not alone
- The expert - who we spoke to and how they can help
- The solution - do this one simple thing to generate more college essay ideas
- Putting it in practice - coming up with essay ideas and what’s next
- A special gift for you
Don't like to read? Watch the video instead!
Part 1: The situation
So you’ve read the Common App essay prompts. And you’ve read them again.
Here’s the problem:
Nothing. Your mind is blank.
I mean, do you have a talent? Sure, maybe, but does it make a good enough essay to get you into college? Or how about a time when you solved a problem. There was that time when you helped your little sister do her homework. Does that count?
You start to doubt yourself.
The pressure mounts.
After all, the essay is a very important part of your college application. But what makes a good college essay anyway? And where do you begin?
If any of this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Each year millions of students stare at similar essay prompts without any clue what to write about.
Also, if you haven’t faced much struggle in your life (which is a good thing by the way!) it can seem like you don’t have a unique story to tell.
We’re here to tell you that this isn’t true.
There is a way to write an unforgettable college essay.
There is a way to make your college essay personal and meaningful.
And it doesn’t have to be (as much of) a big deal.
We’re here to give you the college essay help you need. Because everyone has a unique story to tell.
Part 2: The expert
At Everydae we know a LOT about making studying fun so you can ace high school without the stress, but we also recognize that we’re not a specialist on everything (!)
That’s why, for many of our blog posts, we interview an expert. This is someone who has spent years in the field helping hundreds, if not thousands of high school students prepare for the next stage of their lives. Today’s expert is Keith Wilkerson from College Thoughts.
Keith’s company helps students get into colleges that are the right match and fit for them. But more than that, College Thoughts helps students build mental toughness - no matter what obstacle students face, with Keith’s teachings, they’ll learn how to approach it.
We caught up with Keith to get his advice on the college essay. During the interview he gave us one incredible nugget of wisdom that we’re excited to share with you so you can generate more college essay ideas.
Part 3: The solution
We started off by asking Keith about how students usually approach writing the essay. Here’s what he had to say:
I think a lot of times, students start with the essays on the common application and they're trying to approach the questions, but some of the questions lead you to familiar places. If you ask a teenager what's the biggest challenge you faced in high school and how did you overcome it, challenges when you're 16 and 17 are often very similar. It's a challenging class, or I didn't get selected for an opportunity. So what we encourage students to do is to start with what is important to them.
This was all great stuff, but the golden nugget was still to come:
For most conversations that I have with students about essays, we start with the same question -- I've been asking it for 10 years and it still produces the most interesting outcomes.
Here it is: the ultimate college essay tip from an admissions counselor:
I ask every student: if you were going to bump your head tomorrow and forget everything you've ever known and right before the accident happened you could save 10 memories from your life, which ten would you keep?
Then Keith said:
Out of that conversation we start talking about what's important to the student. Because a lot of times a baseball player who has tons of baseball to his credit and his activity list, when I ask him about his 10 memories, baseball never even comes up. So now in the essay it's going to give us a chance to give another angle, whereas everybody's expecting him to talk about the time he hit the grand slam and won the big game.
Instead, he's talking about how interested he is in animals and how he's looking forward to being a veterinarian someday, and it's just a real hard pivot because we're thinking about what's important to the student, and what they're thinking about which is something that's really important to us here.
Our takeaway: The power of emotions
What’s brilliant about Keith’s approach is that it’s so simple. But it also gets at something else: what drives us, emotionally. College admissions officers don’t just want to hear the highlights, they want to get to know your authentic self.
As Keith went on to say:
I tell students my goal is not to make the admissions office like you. My goal is to make the admissions office know you. I feel like if I am trying to twist the admissions office's arm, then I am creating outcomes for students to get into schools that might not be good fits for them. I want them to be so authentic that an admissions office can look at their application and say this is an amazing student that would not have a good experience here.
Watch the interview clip about school fit:
Part 4: Putting it in practice
Keith’s memory hack is a great exercise to start the process of generating college essay ideas that are meaningful and personal to you. And remember - you don’t just need to brainstorm good memories, sometimes bad memories teach us the most and they can be a powerful thought starters for an essay.
Once you have brainstormed, what do you do next? Here are our top five pieces of advice:
- Cross off any idea that is a cliche or not recommended (see below).
- Review your essay prompts. Strike through any ideas that don’t fit.
- Rank the remaining ideas from the ones you feel most emotional about to the least. The more emotional you feel, the more powerful the essay can become.
- For your top three ideas, ask yourself: “why is this something that is important to me” and “what did this memory teach me”?
- Take your top three ideas and answer the question: “how will this memory and what I learned help me succeed in the future."
By completing the steps above, you should have 1-3 ideas that you feel passionate about. You should also know why they are important to you and how you think they will influence your future.
From here, start writing. And remember! Most students do many drafts of their essay before they complete it.
FAQ #1: How long should a college essay be?
There is no set length for a college essay. The length depends on the requirement for each school. However, most essays are between 300 - 600 words. Aiming for 500 words is a good place to start. You can always make the essay a little longer or shorter once you have a first draft.
In general, essays are no longer than 600 words and no shorter than 250 words. For context, 250 words is half a page, single spaced. 600 words is a little over 1 page (single spaced).
FAQ #2: What should you NOT write about in a college essay?
Admissions officers read thousands of essays. If you want your application to stand out, avoid the following cliches:
- Accomplishment essays. e.g., the trophies you’ve won or all the amazing extracurriculars you’ve taken. These essays are too broad and don’t tell a deeper story about you.
- The Meta essay. The “why should I write an essay” essay or random thoughts, poems or other artistic interpretations should definitely be avoided. This isn’t the place for you to show just how creative you are. It’s a place for reflecting and communicating who you are, what you’ve learned and how this will help you succeed tomorrow.
- Politics & Religion. While you may feel passionate about these subjects, they can be polarizing. In addition, admissions officers want to know about you, not bigger issues.
- Humor. There are a few exceptions, but the majority of students should avoid trying to be funny - most of the time, it just doesn’t come across.
- Anything illegal or immoral. Use this simple rule when writing your college essay to see if you should write something “if this essay was reported on the nightly news, would I want people to know this about me?”. If the answer is no, don’t write it.
- The Overseas Adventure Essay. If an overseas adventure or volunteering trip made a difference in your life that’s great. But avoid writing a general essay about it. Dig deeper to a moment or a story that was unexpected or that truly gave you some insight for the future.
FAQ #3: Can you re-use a college essay for multiple applications?
Yes! Re-using the same college essay is totally fine. But it won’t work in all cases. Pay close attention to the length requirements for each college and the different essay prompts. From there, you can adjust your essay to match what the college is looking for.
Part 5: A special gift for you
If you liked this blog post, you might also like our College Fit Worksheet. It’s FREE and is a great way to figure out the type of college that is a great fit for you.
About our featured guest:
Keith Wilkerson is the owner and lead teacher at the admissions consulting company, College Thoughts. He is a specialist in developing and implementing programs that teach students the value of making the transition from being a good student to chasing greatness. Whether teaching innovative strategies to master standardized testing, helping students to transition to a more challenging educational setting or speaking about unlocking the mysteries of the college application process, Keith always wants students to strive for excellence instead of mere survival. His no-nonsense approach and proven strategies have helped many programs to have successful events with ongoing follow up.
If you want to watch the full interview with Keith (and get more advice from other expert college admissions experts), subscribe to our YouTube channel here.