Advice on College Essays: The Freedom of Uncertainty

Advice on College Essays: The Freedom of Uncertainty

“I knew it.”

“You knew what?”, I asked as I peered over my ubiquitous reading glasses while reviewing an essay from another student. The essay in front of me aimlessly meandered like a lazy southern river that had nowhere to go and didn’t care. Thankfully, Maddie interrupted me.

“I knew my essay was the reason I didn’t get into Carolina. I worked so hard on it,” she said.

I countered quickly, “You have nothing to be ashamed of—it was a beautiful piece of you.”

I’m certain that rejection from “dream colleges” elicits a number of self-reflective moments that are akin to mental and emotional flogging. The truth of the matter is that every student really, truly doesn’t KNOW for sure what tipped the scales against them. Test scores? That C- in 9th grade Ancient History? And, of course, the essay.

The essay is that opportunity for the student to express their essence, their voice and their power as a young adult. Of course, college essays are important and require introspective effort, painstaking review, and done well, a comfort with vulnerability. I will tell my students that the uncertainty about what actually gets you in (or rejected) to Dream U should be liberating. Let’s let the world hear your voice, knowing that no red-marking from a college admission adult can diminish your worth and dignity as a thoughtful and engaging young person. Shameful is the reality the kids’ writing voices are only seen as valuable if an adult puts some grade on it. Writing for the sake of writing should be a validating experience; we should celebrate student voice without marking it for grammar.

While I realize grammar is important, and addressing the essay prompt is critical, there are a few other essential components of the essay writing process I try to share with my students:


  • Embrace the power of the unanticipated lesson. Students will readily recognize that their essay thought processes are born from life experiences. I try to move students away from the big-ticket event—my summer mission trip to XXX—and towards that serendipitous, crazy event, no matter how large or small, that made them realize a certain something about themselves. Students: people want to know how you became the person you are, not just what you have done.
  • Don’t tell me you’re “XXX”, show me! The Power of Story. Capturing the imagination of a reader in a story, even if it’s brief, is a great way to express who you are in a creative and intellectual way. Remember—these people reading essays are most likely extremely well-educated and tire quickly from the rudimentary, ‘I did this, therefore I am,’ writing. Let them dive into you and come the conclusion about you themselves. They’ll appreciate it.
  • You have 90 seconds to prove you’re an intelligent life form. Speaking of intelligence, you have a lot of it. Don’t squander the first impression. I don’t mind a ‘Joe Friday’ essay (just the facts, ma’am) but it must be on prompt, establish the point succinctly and be well written. Grammar matters. Transitions are essential. Loyalty to the prompt and thesis is critical. I tell students that these things not done distract from the message they are attempting to be convey. 
  • Reflection goes both ways—what are the things you’ve stopped doing? Discipline, fortitude and resiliency are all admirable traits and are welcome in some college essay prompts. How a student gets to these attributes reveals so much about their character. I encourage my students not merely to articulate the aspirational—‘I experienced this, therefore I will always be resilient…’—but to express the things they’ll never do again. Aspirations are behaviors changed in the future…maybe. Things ceased to be repeated require at times discipline and courage, and these signs of character are what the essay needs to convey.
  • Let the reader be in on a secret. What’s that “one thing” about you? That’s what I’ll ask a student who is struggling to get a foothold into an essay. Everyone has something that they wish people knew about them—the athlete loves theater, the dancer is into coding, the math and science geek is totally sentimental—and letting people in on that secret and how it makes the student vulnerable, likeable and authentic is important. I will say, ‘this is the stuff of coffee shops and emerging friendships. You will meet your new best friend in college, and these are the secrets you will tell him/her. Practice now.’


Authentic voice means no regrets. Students should always feel that what they express in writing is valuable and reflective of their inherent worth and dignity. Any attempt to diminish worth of a young adult runs counter to the expressed purpose of a college education: to build a sense of self, to be willing to serve others with a full and open heart, and to create a life worth living.

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.