How to Spend Less Time on a Much Better College Essay

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What's the point of a college essay? If you know what admissions officers are looking for, it's surprisingly easy to give it to them in just four or five hours. If you don't, it's common to spend tens of hours honing and refining an essay that flops.

You'll learn exactly what colleges are looking for — and how to write it efficiently — in this video by the College Guidance Network. The video is in two parts:

Video highlights (full video link):

This post isn't a comprehensive summary of the insights Brad and Dean Roper-Doten share in the video — which includes such gems as their true feelings on the Oxford comma, and whether you can simply write about an academic topic you're passionate about.

Instead, this post shares only the biggest takeaways. To get the full flavor (and you should), watch the full interview (link). We bet you'll learn so much that you'll find yourself watching through the Q&A, too.

Insight #1: The Point of College Essays Is to Set You Apart

The point of college essays is to distinguish you from all the other applicants with similar GPA/test scores/honors course load. The way you distinguish yourself is with a story that illustrates that you've got the qualities that will help you succeed in college and beyond.

→ Those qualities aren't the ability to weave a striking metaphor into your essay, or write an alliterative sentence. It's about the content of what you write, not whether you've got perfect grammar — or even perfect English (good news for English language learners).

Insight #2: Most Personal Essays Wrongly Focus on a Story/Anecdote

Most personal essays wrongly focus on a meaningful story or anecdote — but what counts isn't the story itself. It's how it changed you. What actions have you taken as a result of the personal growth you experienced?

→ Brad says the story tends to occupy 90 percent or more of most personal essays. To impress admissions officers, it should take up only one third, with the last third focusing on the "New You;" the actions that New You takes; and a look into your future.

Insight #3: It's Okay to Focus on Ordinary Moments

An ordinary moment can produce a powerful essay. You don't need a tragic backstory, or to have been short-listed for the Nobel Prize. Rather, let the admissions team in on the introspection that an important moment caused in your life. Show how it changed you into someone more capable of succeeding in college and beyond.

→ Asked for examples of great essays that have stuck with them, both Brad and Emily mentioned ones that hinged on small moments. (Actually, both Brad and Emily had to be cajoled into answering the question at all, as they both strongly advise not reading "good" essay examples.)

A few more video insights:

  • Parents: The one and only thing they can do that's better than getting out of their student's way. (Hint: it's a humbling exercise, but potentially a bonding one.)
  • Feedback: Why it can lead you way, way astray. How to get the most of it when asking a grown-up. And why what your peers have to say about you is often more valuable.
  • The full prompt: Most essay prompts are in parts; many students write beautifully about only one of those parts. Why and how to avoid this common mistake.

Finally, in the video, Brad mentions a number of helpful free resources available on the Prompt website.

  • Free brainstorming tools — To help you quickly figure out that perfect incident and the growth it produced in you. Create a free Prompt account and go to the Content tab.
  • Free essay prompts for almost all US colleges with word counts — Sadly, college websites often don't make all this information available. To gain access, create a free Prompt account and go to the Essays tab. You don't need to buy anything to have full access to the tool.

Next: How to Structure College Essays That Succeed.

Attribution: This article was provided by, the world leader in admissions essay coaching and feedback.