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The College Essay-a few questions answered

The college essay can seem both daunting and mysterious. Is it just a rite of passage or do colleges really read these creative masterpieces? Following, are a few questions that might have been keeping you up at night.

How do I know if I need to write an essay?

Typically, you will know if you need to write an essay (or more than one) when you look at the application. The Common Application (www.commonapp.org) has partnered with over 600 colleges and universities. This application has five questions of which you must answer one. Depending on where you apply, you may be asked to answer one or more supplemental essay questions as well as the main one. These are typically more specific to that school and are generally shorter. If a college or university uses their own application, they may have no essay requirements or a question different from the choices on the Common Application. You should be able to get all this information from college websites or by calling the admissions office.

How long should the essay be?

The essay for the Common Application has to be between 250-650 words. Anything less will be rejected and anything more will be cut off at 650 words.  Individual college applications should have word counts on the application and on the website.

Why do colleges want an essay?

Typically, the essay is both evaluative, to see how well you write and express your thoughts, and used as a way to get to know more about you as an applicant. The essay is your chance to tell admission counselors something about you that they can’t find anywhere else in your application file.

How long should it take to write the essay?

This depends! Most high school students don’t regularly write in first person for school assignments. It may take some time to get used to this style of writing. In my experience, most students write at least four drafts of their essay. It’s not unheard of to scrap an essay altogether and pick a new topic. Also, many 17 year-olds don’t regularly think deeply about ‘what makes them tick’ or why they make the decisions that they do. This type of thinking is vital to the essay and may take some time to get comfortable with. The essay is definitely not something that should be started on the day before the deadline!

Can my parents help me?

Parents can be a great resource for helping students brainstorm for the essay. They can also be very useful in helping the student determine if the essay accurately reflects him/her. Does the essay sound like you wrote it? Parents should never write the essay. Don’t laugh; it happens. Parents should also be very careful with any proofreading as they may interject a word or phrase that a 17 year-old just wouldn’t ever say. Admissions counselors have read thousands of essays and they know when something doesn’t ring true.

So now that the mysteries of the college essay are unraveled, you can take this long weekend and get cracking. Early decision deadlines are just around the corner!

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