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College Essays Explained

“…said my Muse to me, ‘look in thy heart, and write.’” When Sir Philip Sidney introduced this phrase in his first series of Sonnets in English poetry, he certainly was not musing about the myriad of writing that is required in the college application process!"

Like so much in classic literature, his insight rings true centuries later, as some of the best college essays, both short and long, are best begun while looking inward. Many students would probably prefer reading 500 year-old sonnets to completing the inevitable writing tasks accompanying the college application, but do not fear!

Let’s demystify the purpose and process for the main essay, short answer questions, activities list and expanded resume’. I promise it will all make sense. By understanding these pieces now, scholars can budget the appropriate time to create their BEST writing ever!

650 Important Words: The MAIN ESSAY

Simply put, the purpose of the MAIN ESSAY is to humanize the applicant and provide insight into the way they view the world. Think of the application as you would layers of an onion; the outer rings are the numerical data - GPA, transcripts, class rank and test scores. The next layer may be the major the student is applying to and their basic geographic/family/ethnic information. The next layer is the MAIN ESSAY, which provides infinitely more information about a scholar than a drop down or fill-in-the-blank field could ever provide. The main essay should show your communication style, lessons you have learned, your values, and/or insight into how you see the world.

“No problem, Ms. Bonnie, that sounds so easy!” said no scholar ever. If you have attended our Main Essay Lab (or are about to), we will walk you through insightful brainstorming exercises to help you narrow down what topics are best for you. If you are not attending the lab, here are some questions to help you brainstorm:

  • What is a big challenge I have overcome? (YOU define what is a challenge)

  • What is an important lesson that I have learned? How did I learn it?

  • What is an interesting aspect of myself that is not obvious in other parts of the application?

  • What is unique about my world view or life experiences?

The Main Essay does not have to be about something epic. It can be a unique take on an everyday occurrence, or a slanted view of an accepted societal standard. A few topics to avoid are those that are OVERUSED. Having read more essays than I can count, such topics include moving, divorce, anything to do with legos, sports stories that your whole team could have told, mission trips, leisure travel without meaningful insight, and video games.

As with every portion of your application, the main essay should provide information not found in any other portion of your application. No need to reiterate all of your extracurriculars; that’s what the Activity List section is for. At a college with supplemental essays that ask “Why this major?” you will have plenty of opportunity to elaborate on your career/major choice. Your audience is the admissions officer, so answer the questions: Why would we want this student on campus? What unique perspective or life skills/experiences will they bring to the table?

Once you have decided what to write about, consider structure and craft. A NARRATIVE style is one long story with a pivotal turning point/lesson learned. A MONTAGE style incorporates several smaller stories around a central focusing lens…more on this in one of our writing labs or in the Award Winning Essays webinar. Suffice it to say that excellent writing is a must. My advice is to get an outline or draft on paper using one of these two storytelling styles, then edit extensively.

Here is where your mad writing skills come into play. Think about starting with a story - SHOW the reader what you want them to see, don’t simply TELL them. Vary your sentence structure. Use specific (but natural) vocabulary. Don’t try to sound sophisticated, just be yourself. Edit for correct punctuation, subject/verb agreement, clear pronouns and antecedents, etc. Your consultant or other adults can help edit for grammar/structure/word choice, but remember that this needs to be authentically your work, and admissions officers (and other adults) can tell the difference between the words at the end of a 17 year old’s pen and an adult’s! Parents, if you are reading, stay out of the process unless asked to edit. This is your scholar’s chance to shine, so let them.

All in, this essay should take no less than 15 hours to complete. These essays can be the deciding factor when applications are stacked high on an admissions officer’s desk. Make yours so interesting and insightful that they could not imagine their incoming class without you!

Character Counts: The Common App ACTIVITIES LIST!

The purpose of the Common App ACTIVITIES LIST is to highlight extracurricular accomplishments from the summer before your freshman year until now. Think of this as a type of resume’ that admissions officer’s eyes are trained to read. Since most colleges don’t read an actual resume’, think of this as the substitute for that and take the same meticulous care when working on it.

Scholars have up to ten spaces to list activities, and the order in which they are listed is important. If you plan to participate in these activities during the upcoming school year, you may list those as well. There is no need to wait until August to begin. By the end of the junior year, scholars should have enough information to get this out of the way.

I go through how to ‘rank’ your activities in order of importance in my blog HERE. To summarize, activities are generally more important when a student has participated for multiple years, has held leadership positions, or has made a significant impact on her school or community.

The challenge: Describing each activity in just 150 characters or less. Not 150 words, 150 CHARACTERS. That is essentially a sentence. Yikes! My best pro tip - use all of the abbreviations you can! This is not formal writing. Lead with your verbs, separate skills with commas, use &. <,>,+, etc. The trick is to be as specific as you can while staying within the 150 character limit. Here is an example:

Activity: Varsity Swim Team

Position(s) held: Member (10th), Co-Captain (11th/12th)

Years Active: (this will be a drop down): 10th, 11th, 12th

Description: Competed in 16 meets/yr for regional win, managed practice sched, recruited 15 new swimmers, raised < $1500 for travel to state, lead squad of 26. (145 characters)

Instead of simply stating that the applicant recruited newbies or raised money, he is specific with numbers. He also highlights the regional win and leadership. Nice! See how much better it sounds with more detail?

Similar to this, there is an HONORS AND AWARDS section that is essentially the same. This is for any academic honors and awards the student has achieved. Though these may be part of the activities list as well (Say, starting a Spanish club at your high school.), they are often distinct awards (Spanish Honor Society Student of the Year).

Some students will have trouble choosing which 10 activities to list, while others may struggle to come up with six. Don’t worry. Colleges care about the depth, longevity and impact your activities represent, not the number of them. The cool thing is, anything that has occupied significant time in your out of school hours (besides sleeping, video games and social media) is fair game. Did you have a summer job? That counts! Did you volunteer to help an elderly neighbor? Counts. Take on family responsibility? Yep, it counts! Teach yourself a skill on your own time? You guessed it! Sports (in or out of school), clubs, volunteering and hobbies are all fair game.


While the MAIN ESSAY will go to all colleges you apply to, the SHORT ANSWER QUESTIONS are specific to each college and are equally as important as the main essay. On or around the first of August, most colleges release the writing supplements that are required for their application. This is where your College Research will really shine. The length for these essays is often about 250 words. No problem, right? Not so fast. Just because these essays are short doesn’t mean they are not of critical importance. Take your time with these. They should provide NEW information for the reader that is not found anywhere else in your application. Think back to those layers of the onion, each layer provides new information to the reader.

Often, these essays will come in a few flavors. The most common types include the WHY THIS MAJOR question or WHY THIS COLLEGE question.

When responding to a WHY THIS MAJOR prompt, be sure to show a few key indicators of why you are well suited to spend four years studying this topic. This can be done well in a montage style, where the scholar briefly elaborates on a chronological evolution of interest in the subject. (In elementary school, I liked this; then in middle school, I did this; and in high school…. You get the point). The good news is that you may be able to recycle some of this for a few different schools. The catch is, there needs to be a bit about why you want to study this topic AT THE SPECIFIC COLLEGE you are applying to. Remember that colleges want students that want them, too. Give each college your love by indicating why you love this major at THEIR school.

The WHY THIS COLLEGE prompt is all about the marriage of the institution with the scholar. If you have done your research, you have some really solid reasons why your application is landing there. Reference professors, classes, study abroad opportunities, campus traditions and extracurricular things that excite you. This essay is not about telling the college how awesome they are (they know this), but explaining why YOU are an excellent addition to the college. (Pro tip: check out the mission statement of the school. Does it resonate with you? If so, mention it. If not, you may wish to reconsider why you are applying. Don’t bother talking about the sports teams, the climate, the ‘vibe’ or anything that can be found with a surface level Google search.

The same meticulous editing standards apply to these essays as well, be they 150 words or 400. Please do not treat them like an afterthought. Because short answer questions require an economy of words, take care to craft them well. Allow time in the month of August to get these finished.

I wrote a blog about the UT Short Answer Questions that may be helpful to reference as well. We have writing labs coming up this spring for our scholars as well, so be sure to attend.

For UT Applicants: Start With the EXPANDED RESUME’

If you are applying to UT, you will need to submit an EXPANDED RESUME’ in order for your application to be competitive. The purpose of the expanded resume’ is to give students the opportunity to highlight all activities they participated in from the summer before 9th grade until now. It is unique to the UT application and yes, the reader WILL go through and read each item. This goes into much more depth than the Activities List, and it is a chance for admissions officers to go deep into high school accomplishments and learn more than the Activities List has room to tell them. In fact, it isn’t really a resume’, it is a 3-5 page catalog of your awesomeness. We recommend that scholars applying to UT START with this piece of their application.

We have a free EXPANDED RESUME’ guide on our website, and Dale wrote an awesome BLOG) about the topic. The expanded resume’ gives several highlights about each thing the scholar lists, and outlines leadership, quantifiable products or goals, skills attained and what was learned from the experience.

Since UT is a highly selective university, this is an essential piece of the total application picture. This element will provide a level of depth to the Activity List, and also demonstrate, in detail, what you will bring to campus if you are admitted. It is yet another layer to the onion!


These explanations of each portion of the application should complement each other and come together to form a whole picture. The personal qualities you discussed in your main essay may relate to your ‘Why This Major’ essay, but these two sections should not reiterate the same information. Take care to craft each section accordingly so that the picture that admissions officers receive is as complete and interesting as possible!

At Access College America, we guide our scholars through ALL of these writing tasks at different times during the application process. My general advice is don’t wait until the senior year to begin these essential writing tasks! Procrastination never yields a scholar’s best work, so please plan appropriately and tackle these assignments one at a time. The methodical and unhurried approach is the best. If you would like to talk about enlisting Access College America to guide you, schedule a free consultation HERE.

We look forward to helping you PREPARE, APPLY and ACHIEVE in all of your college application tasks!


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