College App Essays: A Senior’s Guide


Maneesh John, Staff writer

The dreaded college application essay. What is it? How do I write it? What should I write about? Should I be honest? Should I use big words? Should I even care?

We’ve hit the busiest part of college application season, and I think I can safely speak for many seniors when I say some of us are drowning in despair. College applications are already boring enough, with their endless piles of questions about your family and your classes and your test scores and your income . . . and on top of that, they expect us to write essays too?

Some of you seniors may be struggling with essay writing. Some of you may not have started writing essays at all.

If you’re not a senior yet, listen close, ‘cause this advice will be helpful when your time comes: START EARLY! Brainstorm ideas in junior year, start writing in the summer between junior and senior years. Do NOT put off college application essays until the last minute. It will come back to bite you!

If you are a senior drowning in despair, have no fear!

I started my essays early this summer and suffered through a variety of awful essay prompts for different colleges. Over the course of a few months, I’ve figured out strategies to minimize my suffering and maximize my creativity. What works for me may not work for you, but it never hurts to try.

To help you out, I’ve condensed all my hard-earned wisdom into three main categories.


Word count limits are really annoying, but a lot of college app essays have them, so be smart and use contractions. Turn that “do not” into a “don’t”, that “there is” into a “there’s”, that “I am” into an “I’m”, and so on. This may seem like simple common sense, but sometimes we forget to use contractions. It can really cut your word count when you need to shorten your essay by a few more words.


Write what you know.

For example, what if a prompt asks for a person who inspires you? You may be tempted to think big, but it doesn’t have to be Martin Luther King or Elon Musk or some other famous figure. It could be your grandpa, or your sister, or your best friend.

The essay readers aren’t looking for uniqueness. Seriously. They read hundreds, even thousands, of applications every year. At this point, they’ve seen everything.

So don’t try to be as unique as possible. Just be yourself.

One of my essays asked for a hobby. I could have written about so many different extracurriculars I do in school, activities in which I earned leadership positions or titles or awards. Wanna guess what I wrote about? Gardening.

Yes, I wrote about watering tomatoes and weeding a vegetable garden. I feel like that says more to the essay readers about my character than any school extracurricular will.

“Write what you know” also applies to word choice. Yes, using extravagant sesquipedalian prose (big words) makes you sound smart, but only if you know how to use those words correctly and sparingly. The best thing to do is stick to the words you know. It’s okay to look up a synonym or two if you want to make your writing feel more sophisticated, but the essay will be more honest and will show your personality more if you just use the words and phrases you know well. Stay true to your own voice.


Some prompts are just infuriating. You know what I mean. Sometimes you sit in front of the computer with your essay doc open, reading the prompt over and over again. You think, “How the hell am I supposed to answer this?”

In fact, on most days, life feels that way to me. How am I supposed to do this? To keep working, trying, putting in effort? Why should I even keep caring?

This may seem silly, but here’s my answer: don’t.

Whenever frustration weighs you down, take a break. Of course, don’t take too many breaks, ‘cause then you’ll never actually finish the work. But sometimes your brain needs time to rest. Playing games on your phone, watching Netflix, or browsing Instagram does NOT count as rest.

Get some real rest. Short naps, walks, workouts, music, maybe some food, anything to relax your mind. Any caffeinated drink, although it’s unhealthy, is a great motivator.

Take a break, and then get back to work. Trust me, you’ll feel better and do better.

But the greatest feeling of all is the satisfaction of finishing something. Finishing an essay, finishing an application, opening the mailbox to see your acceptance letter. Finishing high school and walking up to take your diploma at graduation.

That’s the reason I still work, the reason I still care about life. I keep going because I hope for that feeling. I hope all of you seniors can have that feeling.

Keep going, guys. So many people are rooting for you. Good luck.