Time for seniors to think about their college essays

By Lee Shulman Bierer, College Admissions Strategies – Founder


Summer is a great time to ponder deep thoughts and right about now rising seniors should be pondering their college essays.

The essay is a student’s best opportunity to set themselves apart in the college application. Their grades through junior year are set and while they may be able to improve their test scores in the fall, it’s the essay where they can truly put the spotlight on their personality.

Remember there are more than 25,000 other student government presidents, nearly 25,000 other school newspaper editors and thousands more members of the National Honor Society. The essay can be the ticket out of “Sameville.” No question, summer is the best time to start thinking about and drafting essays.

Where to start? I’m a firm believer that while brainstorming a compelling topic is much more challenging than just sitting down and writing an essay; in the end it is a much more rewarding process. It is tough work because it requires self-analysis and a willingness to dig deep to provide the college admissions reader with thoughtful, introspective writing.

How do you brainstorm?  First off find a quiet place where you can think and write, away from distractions. To start, free-write some thoughts on different or defining moments you’ve had. Have you moved? Did you choose to become vegan? How has your community service commitment affected you? How have you changed in the last few years? Which experiences have been the most meaningful? Ask yourself, “What do I want colleges to know about me?” This is a great time to think about what is important to you and how you have changed or matured over the last several years.

Once you have written up some thoughts, take a deeper look at each of the essay prompts, searching for common threads.


Here are this year’s Common Application’s essay prompts:

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. 
  6. Desribe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Now see if anything you’ve written has a natural connection with one of the topics. Think beyond the literal interpretations for each prompt, i.e., something so central to your identity doesn’t have to be your race, family background or your socio-economic level, it can be a value or a characteristic that truly defines who you are.

Write some more and then take a break. Reread what you’ve written with fresh eyes and see if you still think it truly reflects who you are. Don’t be discouraged if you need to start over. Crafting a solid essay is worth the investment.


Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to: lee@collegeadmissionsstrategies.com; www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com