The Anatomy of a College Essay

I’ve covered how to write the actual essay or personal statement itself (here) and (here), but what does the process look like? Many professionals will simply write the essay on behalf of the college applicant, but does that benefit you?

Part of the intent in writing personal statements to apply for college lies in gauging the applicant’s dedication and ability to take ownership as they transition into a more autonomous, quasi-adult stage of their lives. The college applicant should, then, write this themselves, and not simply because the admissions counselor will want to hear your voice.

Ergo, I do not write this on their behalf but lay out a step-by-step process to elicit the information and the student’s voice.


Most high school students applying to college hesitate beginning their essays for one of two reasons: they’re stymied and don’t know what topic to write about; or they don’t like their writing and so they put it off because their best effort might not be accepted.

So what do you talk about in your personal statements on the common application (or a university-specific essay prompt)? Individuality. Something others cannot talk about because it comes from your perspective.

If you’re a dancer, don’t talk about dance itself – talk about one performance experience, or one rehearsal. How did it change your artistic expression? What specific skill did you work to perfect, and how did that impact your ability to connect to and better demonstrate your artform? Did the theme of the dance, or the artistic director’s vision, alter your understanding of that work and open up new creativity? What one thing do you want to grow in through a college program in this discipline?

Change the topic from dance to…graphic design or animal science, economics, international business, or biology – the concept applies.

Regardless, I’ll work through identifying with each student the stories and the details which will intrigue the admissions office and make this student stand out from the tens of thousands of others.


Now that we’ve decided on your topics, it’s onto outlines and giving each essay a clear structure. I’ve talked more than once about how an outline benefits you in writing just about anything by giving your mind a guide as you think through the content. This is no different. After having an in-depth discussion with the student – where I ask questions based on the writing prompts like what I’ve described above – I’ll construct a detailed and ordered list of topics to cover, keeping it to the subject presented.

First draft

Get the first draft written. Completely. Don’t edit through the drafting process – not least because you’ll literally never finish your draft. You’ll also become weary and disinterested, which will come through (yes, a reader can tell when you give up on the piece and continue out of necessity).

You can always edit a bad draft, but you cannot edit a blank page. First drafts are called rough on purpose: they are not polished, and they are not the version you present as the finished copy. They need reworking. Paragraphs might get moved around. Sentence structure might need some variation to make it interesting to read. Verbs might get replaced, and verb tenses will need cleaning up for consistency (so you’re not jumping back and forth in a timeline from present to present progressive to pluperfect to past progressive and back).

But get it out first…then onto editing.


Now, once your first draft is done and you’ve sent it to me, I’ll edit it. This will come as a redline so you can see the thought process and how things get moved around in addition to a clean-copy with all the revisions incorporated so you can read and experience it like the admissions counselor will. I’ll bring out the details which will stand out to another reader and streamline the things you don’t need to express in written form, making sure you’re on topic and addressing the question they asked of you – while incorporating as much hyper-unique story variables as you’ve told me.

At the end of this, each student will have a complete work which they can proudly upload to the common app or the coalition app or the university’s internal questions. Student-applicants I’ve worked with have been accepted to highly-competitive institutions such as NC State and Wake Forest University, in addition to medical school and direct-admit nursing programs.

Contact me from the form on the website, and I’ll set up a time to discuss your student’s needs and create a plan.

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