Writing the college essay

As a St. John’s College admissions counselor, I am frequently asked questions like “What are you looking for in an applicant?” or “How do you weigh each part of the application?”

At St. John’s, we look well beyond grades and test scores (in fact, we’re test optional). With that in mind, I thought I’d take some time to highlight the college essay. Our essay prompt this year is:

“Discuss a book that has particular significance for you. What makes this book great in your view? What effect does it have on what you think or how you think?”

The essay is the heart of our application, and we all really look forward to reading your essays each year. In fact, some of my colleagues have also shared their thoughts on writing a strong essay in the past:

Ryan Johnson, Associate Director of Graduate Admissions (Essay writing tips)

Amanda Stevens, Director of International Recruitment (College essay writing 101)

Emily Slagel, Admissions Counselor (Owning your college essay)

Adding to what they’ve said, here are some things you can think about when responding to any college essay prompt.

  1. Think about your unique perspective.

I talk with a lot of students who think they haven’t done anything or read anything “interesting enough” for a good college essay, but all truly great college essays are about the same thing—the person writing them. If you’re a world champion Sumo wrestler, or you’ve read James Joyce’s Ulysses both forwards and backwards (I’m not sure which would be harder), that’s great! But if your essay ends up being about James Joyce or Sumo wrestling generally, instead of about your unique experience with them, that’s probably not a good college essay. By contrast, your essay could describe riding the bus to school, or a children’s book, but as long as it tells me about you, that’s a fantastic college essay right there.

2. Write the worst college essay in the world.

I don’t mean that you should sit down and intentionally write a bad essay! But sometimes, wanting your essay to come out perfect and polished can get in the way of actually writing the first draft. Of course your first draft is going to have mistakes! Of course it will have parts that you may later decide to scrap or rewrite! That’s what first drafts are for. Sometimes, getting your words down on paper is half the battle. Save the polishing for step three:

3. Edit, edit, edit.

Once you have your draft, take a break. Take a walk, play some video games, read a book, juggle—whatever clears your head. Then come back to your essay and look at it with fresh eyes. Once you’ve done a first round of revisions, it can also be really helpful to show it to someone else–a college counselor, teacher, family member, friend, whoever!  If you have the chance, it can even be helpful to show your essay to someone who doesn’t know you very well, and see what impression it gives them. Don’t be discouraged if you end up deciding you need some big changes! That’s all part of the process.

4. One last check for typos!

One last run-through will give you that much more peace of mind once you send your essay out in the world, while also eliminating any potential distraction from your essay about winning a Sumo title while riding the bus to school.  With that said, I want to reassure you that we’re not going through your essay with a red pen, and we understand that mistakes happen! A goof here and there won’t derail your amazing work.

5. Know that we’re on your side.

We love reading your essays, and we want them to be great! When I read, I’m not looking to tear you apart. I’m looking to find the cool things that make you who you are, that tell me why a book is so great, or why a particular experience was so important to you. By reading college essays, I get to meet a lot of incredible people and hear about some incredible things—not to mention some great book recommendations—and I can’t wait to read yours!

Want to read sample essays from years’ past? You can find some of our favorites on our website!


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