The College Essay

By College Advice

“I want to write an essay about the college application process.” So said a generally thoughtful senior from Guilford High School.  “I’m going to write about how stressful the process is…”

I politely let her finish and then, as tactfully as possible, let her know that such a topic is both unoriginal (every year, there are thousands of students who write about this topic) cringe-worthy (usually these essays are whiny and smack of privilege) and potentially offensive (admissions officials depend on the college application process for their livelihoods.

There is no reason for high school seniors or their parents to know any of the aforementioned.

Through the years of editing college essays for students throughout Connecticut, I have probably read a few thousand college essays.  This puts me in the position of a college admissions reader who similarly has read thousands of college essays and through that process knows what works and what doesn’t. The one big takeaway from this article: the idea itself doesn’t matter as much as you think. The execution of the idea is what really matters in most every college essay.

There certainly are some college essay ideas that are not great: students who want to write their college essays about the problems with standardized tests, similarly come across as whiny and completely clueless that their essay topic is not in the least bit original.

Many students – most from upper middle class suburbs in Connecticut- say to me: “my life is boring.  I haven’t had any tragedy.” I laugh and tell them to consider themselves lucky and tell them that for the essay the idea doesn’t matter as much as they think.

You can write about something that doesn’t seem that it would be that interesting – your summer job at a restaurant – but bring it to life based on some life lessons passed on by the chef.

The general advice I give to students focuses on the execution of the college essay idea, not the idea itself.  I use movies to explain the point.  Some movie ideas might seem dumb but end up being executed brilliantly – imagine pitching an idea in the 1990s about doing a satire of British spy movies in the 1960s but the Austin Powers franchise grossed over $1 billion – and some might seem pretty good – remaking The Lone Ranger and including Johnny Depp as Tonto – but flop all due to execution.

So it is with college essays.