How to Write A College Essay

By Maureen Dowd

The college admission essay, Hany Bauld cautioned seniors at the Horace Mann School in the Riverdale section of New York, can be the "ultimate noose with which a 17-year-old can hang himself." Bauld read hundreds of essays-turned-nooses when he worked in the admissions offices of Brown and Columbia universities. Now a writer living in Pepperell, Mass., he returns every year to Horace Mann, where he once taught English, to offer the students some strong and funny advice about the art of writing good essays.

Aside from drooling on the admission officer's oxfords, he contends, the college interview is not going to make that much difference.

"The colleges can't hold 30 minutes of white-knuckled terror against a kid who has four solid years of achievement. " he said. "Besides, the interview staffs are too large and include a lot of student interviewers. You can't count on their impressions."

But the essay, he said, is crucial for applicants, "the gray area" -which he defined as "where you're in the ball park but not one whose academic numbers make you too easy to dismiss or too overwhelming to deny."

"What matters in a big application pool is that you come alive," he said. "And you've got to come alive on paper. This is where the college can really find out whether a kid is imaginative or unresponsive.

"If your essay is No.39 in a pile of 50, and it begins, 'Hello, I am a very unique person," you're in trouble. It goes into the pile with the old potato chips."

Bauld said he dislikes that kind of autobiographical, achievement touting essay because he felt it "promotes the tone of a kid talking to an adult, a counterfeit quality that comes through right away."

There are five other stereotypes that he urged seniors to avoid:

  1. The "my favorite things" essay. Sample: "These are the things that I am for: puppy dogs and sunshine and Mrs. Fields cookies. These are the things I am against: spinach, nuclear war and being grounded. " Bauld said that "in admissions parlance, this is known as a fluff ball."
  2. The trip essay. Example: "I went to Israel this summer, and it was exciting because I had to adapt to different food, different customs and a different way of life." Bauld complained that "everything is different except the essay."
  3. The "3-D essay. Sample: "I feel I have the determination, discipline, and diversity of interests to succeed at whatever I do." As Bauld saw it, "Those 3 D's equal a fourth dull."
  4. The "Miss America" essay. "A high school kid should steer away from the big issues," he advised. "When they go on and on, like a beauty queen about nuclear war or abortion, it just generates a lot of cliches and makes them sound like they're parroting their parents."
  5. The "jock" essay. Sample: "Through wrestling, I have learned control, goals and how to work with people." Bauld did not recommend any formula that showed how the student had accrued "noble achievement A, noble quality B and high-sounding attribute C."

Of course, to a certain extent, the topics are dictated by the colleges. Cornell asks applicants to write about "an intellectual, social, political or personal issue you feel is important." Wesleyan has two: "Identify a person who has had a significant influence on you and describe that influence," and, "Share with us what you believe other Wesleyan students would learn from you both inside and outside the classroom."

Stanford also requires two: "Given the authority to establish a holiday, what would you choose to commemorate?" And, "Suppose you had the opportunity to spend a day with anyone. With whom would it be and how would you spend your time?"

The fact that each college comes up with an individual question --forcing applicants to write as many as a dozen different essays --leaves high school counselors annoyed and seniors anguished. But the admissions deans resist the notion of a standardized essay, arguing that they want to test teenage writing and thinking skills in their own ways. If the colleges use essay questions to filter out students, some students use the essay questions to filter out colleges. Gillan Salton, a senior at Horace Mann, said she was put off by the colleges that required "big issue" essays -"No matter how much you like to pretend, 17 -year-olds don't know that much about Nicaragua or apartheid," she said. She was attracted to schools, like Stanford, whose questions show a sense of humor.

Bauld told students that they can maneuver, no matter what the question, to add a light touch and minimize what he called "the greatest teenage crime: pomposity." "Write about what you know," he said. "Write something only you could write. If the most burning issue in your life is that when you put five pairs of socks in the dryer, you come out with a body stocking and a knit hat, write about that --not nuclear war."

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By Joan McDonald

Most of these tips are in the video WRITING COLLEGE TRANSFER ESSAYS THAT WORK found in the media center. This "Tip Sheet" will serve to refresh your memory and avoid using limited time with your Writing Center Staff Person about these nitty gritty details. Remember to write your essay for your audience, not yourself! That reader knows nothing about you other than what you write. You need to make your words create a 3-dimensional real individual in the reader's mind---a person he/she wants to know more about, a person like no other! Show, don't tell.


  1. For your reader's sake, avoid heavy blocks of paragraphs; many short paragraphs are much easier on the eyes.
  2. This is a not a standard English lA essay. With an absolute limit of 2 pages, you can't waste space with a formal introduction and conclusion.
  3. Redundancy or repetition of ideas have no place in these essays.
    In your final editing, circle every "there is, are, was, were, will be", "here is...etc." and "it is...etc". These empty words simply introduce while pushing the important ideas into the middle of the sentence where they are lost. Try hard to revise any sentence that contains these empty introductory words. The result will be more powerful sentences.
    Example: There are stronger sentence structures that will get the point across.
    Stronger sentence structures will get the point across.


  1. Create a Header for the top right side of the pages with: NAME. SOCIAL SECURITY # .PERSONAL STATEMENT A. B or C (the topic you chose to write about from page 16 in the UC Application Booklet). Push it to match the right margin of your essay after you've formatted everything else. Exception: If you're really hurting for space, you can skip the Header and hand print the information at the very top of the page!. You may gain 2 lines or more on each page.
  2. Limit 2 pages means exactly that. No one will read anything on a 3rd page.
  3. Don't staple the pages. Copies will be made of your entire application including the essay to send to each UC campus to which you are applying. Don't aggravate the reader or the copy person!
  4. Font: Times #12 is the smallest advisable; #11 if absolutely necessary. Try everything else first.
  5. Double space. One and one half lines (spaces) can work with #12 font.
  6. Justified right margin usually adds lines so don't use if you're short of space.
  7. Margins: .75" minimum, 1.25" maximum for sides, top and bottom.

Work hard; nothing you have ever written has had so much impact on your life. Good luck!

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  1. Identify your major and explain why you have prepared to pursue this major. How has your interest evolved? What life experiences drew you to this area of interest? What life experiences have nurtured your interest? If applicable, why are you choosing a particular campus? Are there professors you wish to learn from on a particular campus? Are you interested in conducting research with professors on a particular campus?
  2. Are there special circumstances that may have affected your academic performance? Explain briefly, focusing on how you responded to them i.e. state the problem, but focus on the solution.
  3. Identify any "problem" semesters/quarters and follow with what you learned and/or how you corrected the problem grades.
  4. Do you work? Are you married? Have children? Do you support yourself? Do you provide financial support for family members? Are you the first in your family to attend college? Are you the first in your family to achieve a Bachelors degree? Are you physically challenged? Do you have a learning disability or Attention Deficit Disorder?
  5. Are you a re-entty student? Have you had to postpone college because of other responsibilities? Have you needed to interrupt your college education? Address this and the impact on your motivation, persistence and academic performance.
  6. Have you been involved in extra-curricula activities (clubs, organizations, student activities)? How has your involvement contributed to your development? How do these activities relate to your major?


This is a personal statement showing who you are and some of the factors that have influenced your choice of major and the path you have followed to this point. Therefore, it is appropriate to begin sentences with "I".

The personal statement is not a creative writing exercise! Avoid cute and clever. Strive for honest, clear, and straightforward prose.

While academic scholarship is the principle factor for selection, UC campuses value diversity. Where appropriate include your ethnicity and or gender in terms of academic, financial and emotional challenges you have faced.

The opportunities for appeal of admission decisions are limited. Therefore, do your very best to produce a thoughtful, honest, well written personal statenJent, which allows the evaluators to know you.

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Update: UC Personal Statement
The UC Personal Statement prompts have changed effective Fall 2016. There is one required question you must answer. You will also need to answer 3 out of 7 additional questions. Each response is limited to a maximum of 350 words.
See more at Personal Insight Questions