‘Five Ws’ of College Essays for Your Teen

‘Five Ws’ of College Essays for Your Teen

- in 2021 Editions, Education, Magazine, October 2021

If you have a high school senior in your midst who is considering going to college in fall 2022, you know that college application season is in full swing. Application deadlines range from November 1, 2021, through February 1, 2022, depending on the school. And while it’s highly advisable to start writing the college application essay — also known as the personal statement — early, teenagers (being who they are) often wait until closer to deadlines. 

Typically, high school college guidance counselors assist in gathering transcripts, GPA records, ACT or SAT test scores, and letters of recommendation. But when it comes to focusing individually with students on their essays, they simply may not have enough time.  

The total college experience — from dorm room to dining hall, classroom to quads, friends to finals — will impact the rest of a person’s life. Getting into college is the first step, one that’s based largely on the personal statement within a college application. 

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, many colleges and universities have elected to go “test-optional” and not require standardized test scores, so the personal statement is a more important component than ever in college applications. 

What are some ways your teen can make sure their personal statement really stands out? Consider the traditional “Five Ws” (who, what, when, where, why) when they are writing a college application essay. 

“Five Ws” of Writing a College Essay

(Show this to your teen)  

Who are you? Describe what makes you unique — your talents, skills, interests and traits. It’s okay to boast a little here. You want to set yourself apart and show the college essay reader or admissions officer what you’ve got. No college wants an incoming freshman class made up of all the same kinds of students. Diversity of all types is sought and valued.

What are you passionate about? Share a story about the Herculean efforts you made toward a goal, a strong stance you took, even if it was unpopular, above-and-beyond involvement in a project, or a remarkable commitment to making an idea a reality. Application readers know that the ambition and drive you display in your essay can translate to achievements in college and beyond. 

When did you make a real difference, overcome adversity, feel most proud, or express gratitude? Any of these prompts could be the basis of an interesting and noteworthy personal statement (emphasis on “personal” here). Remember to always be honest and authentic in your writing; let your distinctive voice be heard.

Where do you see yourself within a given school? If you don’t yet know exactly what you want your college major to be, that’s fine (approximately two-thirds of high school seniors fall into this category). Or a student may have a general sense of a direction, like liberal arts or the sciences. Those who already know what they want to major in can include it in their essay. In general, presenting some indication of where you think you’re headed, even if it is “Undecided” at that moment, shows forethought and anticipation. 

Why should a college admit you? A personal statement is, in essence, a sales tool: an applicant is selling themself to the college essay reader or admissions officer. The person reviewing the essay must be favorably impressed by what’s being presented — both in content and form. You need to make the reader WANT you on their campus. A compelling, memorable essay (free of grammatical and punctuation errors, of course) is a critical part of an acceptance decision.

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