The college essay checklist

It’s college application season! With seniors in full application mode, now is the time to check that your essays and personal statements help you shine and stand apart from the crowd.

Think strategically because each piece of writing is a chance to show the admissions team new information they can’t find anywhere else on your application. If your resume and extracurriculars are packed with years of soccer, reveal another side of yourself.  Be strategic in choosing your topic and prompts. For example, the UC personal insight topics 1, 4, and 7 are outwardly focused and give you an opportunity to write about your involvement with people, community and ideas. Topics 2 and 6 are inwardly focused, and ask what defines and motivates you. Topics 3, 5 and 8 are about your achievements, obstacles and accomplishments. Choose one from each group plus one more to give a full view of who you are.

On the Common App, if you have had a real setback or challenge (learning difference, illness), write a short and factual account in the additional information section. Give examples, how it affected you academically, what you did to overcome your challenge, and what you learned. If you had a disciplinary issue, write a factual account under the disciplinary history; key to this is assuming responsibility for the action. Colleges love ‘obstacles, challenges &  failure’ essays because they reveal character, growth and maturity — all necessary to survive the road bumps of college ahead.

Here’s a quick checklist to run through before you submit:

  • Does each piece of writing convey unique information about you? If your science teacher is writing a recommendation, assume they will cover your prowess in science.
  • Is your essay an interesting story? It should have a plot, descriptive writing that pulls the reader in, evokes emotion, and has a beginning, middle and end. Dialog keeps it interesting and personal.
  • Are your topics relatable? Admissions readers don’t want to hear about your work with orphaned penguins in Antarctica.
  • Have you avoided cliche topics (i.e. sports) and hints of privilege (i.e. travel)? Don’t write about sports competitions and community service that involved a passport. The Mexico trip is a slight exception, but use this one carefully! Another exception is if you planned and paid for it yourself, which shows work ethic & determination.
  • Do your essays make you personable and relatable? Small experiences inside the home, such as mealtimes or family traditions, are revealing because it’s your unique story.
  • Limit who will read and edit your writing; multiple editors will water down your voice. English teachers are a great resource, as long as 1) it’s not last-minute; 2) it’s a final, polished version and 3) make sure to thank them- this is extra (unpaid) work on top of a long day
  • Aim for a balance between humor/ wit and depth/ insight. Be humble, be clear, and don’t show off your dictionary skills.
  • Make sure your writing is 100% error free . . . your parents would probably be happy to be involved & we are usually pretty good at proofreading & catching punctuation mistakes.

Good luck to all you seniors — stay positive, encourage each other & hang in there!


Ulla Smit is a Piedmont resident, parent of four PHS graduates and a college counselor.

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