6 ways to ease the college essay panic—and end up with something admission committees will love


Is it possible to help your teen write the all-important college application essay—without stirring up storm clouds in your house? According to Kathleen McCleary, a novelist and college-essay coach who just sent her own second daughter off to school, you really can do it.

Just follow this recipe, she says, for taking those tears and fears out of the college stressay:

1. Help your teen choose a topic that reveals something that might not show up in the rest of the application.

As with most things in life, the first step is the hardest. And it IS daunting: Just try summing up who you are, what you value, and what you struggle with in six or seven paragraphs. What makes you unique? Why should a highly selective college choose you over any of thousands of other qualified applicants? Oh, and can you explain it all in a way that’s engaging and fun to read? Here’s your blank page: Go!

To get your kid over that first hurdle, have her write down a list of 15 things she values, from honesty and teamwork to family dinners to Fluffy the stuffed bunny. Then get a timer. Give her two or three prompts (“Five things I know for sure are…” “The most challenging things I’ve ever done…” “I’m happiest when…”) and have her write down whatever comes to mind, spending just two minutes on each prompt. It should be totally stream-of-consciousness.

Then dig a little deeper on what seem like the most promising topics, with questions like these:

 – How did that make you feel?

What did you learn about yourself?

-Why does this matter to you?


Last year, for example, a student came to me with an essay he’d written—a single paragraph about how much he loved basketball. One paragraph. I asked why basketball mattered so much to him. At first he couldn’t really say, other than that he loved the game and felt at home on the court. But when I pressed him to say why that feeling of home mattered to him, the words came pouring out. Turns out he’d emigrated to the U.S. as a child, had to learn a new language and how to fit in, then felt displaced all over again when his parents divorced. In finding his sport he’d found a place of security and belonging that had eluded him. He’d found a home—and a pretty great essay topic.

2. Encourage your teen to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end. It’s possible, even in 650 words. And it helps if something happens—he’s struggling with an opponent, or she’s facing down a deep fear, and then takes some kind of action. One student I worked with wrote a story describing the moment he arrived in a small Spanish town to begin a month-long exchange program, only to experience sheer terror as the bus drove away and he realized his host family spoke no English and he spoke almost no Spanish. As he struggled through the next week he grew increasingly frustrated, until one night at dinner when his host father slurped his entire dessert (a Spanish flan) in one huge, noisy gulp and the entire family burst out laughing. The shared laughter broke the ice and helped the student discover a common “language.”

3. Suggest starting in the middle. Opening an essay with a line of dialogue or in the middle of a moment, incident, or event is an immediate attention-grabber. It makes the reader want to know what happens next. “As I stared at the bookshelf, tears welled in my eyes.” “’My name is Chase,’ he said to me. ‘But everybody calls me Squirrel.’” Remind your teen that the readers on college admissions committees are poring over hundreds of essays. Make them want to keep reading this one.

4. Coax your teen into showing a few flaws. Every kid applying to college is smart, confident, generous, competent, diligent, and responsible—on paper. But real people—like the people who read your kid’s essay—are occasionally insecure, get scared, make mistakes, and fall flat on their real faces. Admissions officers want students who are mature enough to see themselves as they really are: sometimes scared, sometimes foolhardy, never perfect, and self-aware enough to know it. 

5. Remind your teen to write the way he or she talks. An easy, conversational style is by far the most engaging—and helps the reader get so caught up in your teen’s story that she forgets she’s reading an essay. Suggest that your teen read his essay out loud and record himself reading it. Does it sound like he does when he’s talking to friends?

6. Make the case for, yes, one more revision. Your teen wants to cross that essay off her to-do list and get back to the really important stuff, like snap-chatting. Not a good idea. Better: Suggest that she let that draft sit for a day or two before looking at it again. Does it tell a meaningful story? Does it say something revealing about her? Does it reflect some of those values—the things that really matter to her—that she wrote down during that original brainstorming exercise? If not, encourage her to try again, even if it means changing topics. When she has a version she likes, suggest that she show it to some trusted readers (maybe not you if you’re too close) and listen to their feedback—even if it hurts. It may take two drafts; it may take 12. It’s worth the extra time.

I worked with one student who was a friend of my daughter’s. I pushed her to revise her essay again and again. She went through 6 or 7 drafts, to the point that my daughter said to me, “You know, you’re making Jane cry. Can’t you say her essay is good enough?” But when Jane finally uncovered the story she needed to tell (about what working with kids in Africa helped her to understand about her own disability) she was overjoyed. “It was worth it,” she told me. It was better than that. It was amazing.


That’s the icing on the graduation cake: an essay that not only reveals something awesome about your kid but helps him or her learn something about the hard process of writing and rewriting that got them there.

And being done with the stress of it all? That’s something every parent going through this can feel pretty great about.

Photos from top: Pixabay, K.M. Klemencic/Flickr, Katrin Hagen/Flickr, David Goehring/Flickr,

See also: 

Photo at top: “Zelda was kicking my butt. xD” by Ashley Sturgis is licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0

By | 2017-09-05T09:11:16+00:00 September 10th, 2015|Teen|


  1. Isidra Mencos November 22, 2014 at 5:41 pm - Reply

    Love the advice of starting in the middle of a story, I’m sure after a few dozen applications, admission officer must be dozing off and a little jolt with an interesting nail biter at the beginning of an essay is what they need to pay attention.

  2. […] a college essay. It’s probably the biggest stressor during high school, so getting it out of the way can make […]

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