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Tips for Writing the College Essay


Despite the persistent summer heat, school is back in session. For seniors, this means that the college process has begun. This can be a daunting experience for seniors, who must find a balance between focusing on senior classes and preparing for that next step in their lives. While teacher recommendations are out of students’ hands and standardized testing is winding down, there’s one aspect of the application process that seniors have not yet been exposed to: the college essay. 

Connor Gerspacher (’19) said, “At this point, I’ve tackled most of the various parts of the college application. The only thing that’s still stressing me out is the college essay. I just don’t really know where to start.”     

The college essay is designed to be short: 650 words at most. While most colleges accept the Common App essay, some have their own required prompts. Through the essay, colleges are looking for a snapshot of what the applicant is like as a person.

Today, both the application and the essay are submitted online.

Gilmour’s new college counselor, Mr. Dan DeCrane said, “I think that sometimes with the essay, students pressure themselves to put on a huge show, dramatically recounting some awesome achievement. That’s not necessarily what colleges are looking for. They’re looking for, obviously, the student’s ability to write, but also what kind of person this 18-year-old is, and whether they would fit into their school.”

While most colleges require an essay, some larger schools, such as the University of Alabama, do not. If unsure, seniors can check the colleges’ websites, as well as with their college counselor to see if the schools of their interest require an essay.        

Luke Shepherd (’19) said, “One of the things that I don’t know about the essay is how much weight it has in comparison to other parts of the application, such as GPA and recommendations.”

Mr. DeCrane would like students to know that the essay does not trump grades and test scores in terms of importance to colleges. However, it still lands fourth or fifth amongst the most important parts of the application. Furthermore, studies show that between In general, colleges consider the essay an influential part of the decision-making process.

Some students find it easier and more productive to write drafts on paper before typing it up. This method also eliminates distractions.

Students should avoid using the essay to explain away weak spots in their application. This is one of the most common, and most ineffective, approaches to the essay. Colleges prefer a much more positive approach to students’ compositions. Seniors should strive to infuse personality into their writing in order to spark the interest of admission officers. Students should ask themselves, “What characterizes me as a person?” This could mean writing about an impactful experience or an activity that students are passionate about.

As with any composition, one of the most crucial aspects of the essay is the introduction. Students should try to grab the reader’s attention from the very beginning. Admission officers are reading thousands of essays, so it is important to make the essay stand out. Seniors should also be careful to stay on topic and be specific about a certain topic, rather than listing many.         

The college counseling department is prepared to guide students through all parts of the writing process, from brainstorming to proofreading. Seniors can and should utilize some of the many opportunities that Gilmour has provided as aid for them. Throughout September, time has been set aside during English classes to work on college essays. Seniors use this time to write, and ask their English teachers for help if needed.

Students are encouraged to utilize the Writing Center in the library if they need assistance in smoothing out the mechanics of the essay. Ms. Tracy Stockard, Director of College Counseling, said seniors are always welcome to visit with the college counselors for any help related to the college essay.

The College Counseling department is hosting a free application workshop on Sunday, September 23 from 5:00 to 7:00 pm. The college counselors will be available for assistance with completing all aspects of college applications, including the essay, at this event.

The due date for the essay coincides with college application deadlines. While most early action applications are due in November, the actual deadlines vary. Students should be aware when they must have their essay done in order to prepare accordingly.

Mr. DeCrane often advises students and parents “that the more you put into something, the more you will get out of it. It’s the same with the college application process.” Starting early and hitting the ground running is key to crafting a strong essay that could make all the difference to colleges.

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Gabe Gainar is a senior at Gilmour Academy and lives in Willoughby Hills, Ohio. Gabe participates in mock trial, speech and debate, tennis, theater, and Lancers for Life. He is also co-founder of a new club at Gilmour, Lancers for Liberty. In the future, Gabe is planning to pursue a career in either law or pediatrics. His love for writing began in middle school through the Power of the Pen program. He is very excited to be a part of Gilmour’s news production team. Gabe wants to help students stay informed about the topics most important to them. He encourages students to use their time in high school to explore various career possibilities by trying courses such as Web Design, Mock Trial, and Management and Entrepreneurship.