Essay Advice

Emily Roper-Doten

I presented an essay writing workshop recently while I was traveling in California (shout out to the East Bay Innovation Academy!). Talking to students about essays is honestly one of my favorite things to do.  I LOVE essays. One of the things I loved about being an admission officer from the start was reading season because admission essays are like little short stories, windows into your worlds. Below are a few highlights of what I talked about.

Disclaimer: If you haven’t even thought about writing your college essays yet, don’t worry. There’s still time. There could be many reasons why you haven’t crossed the essay writing off your to-do list:

  • Senior year is busy!
  • You’re still wrestling with your college list (totally understandable!).
  • You have no idea what to write about (too many choices! What do those crazy admission people want to hear?!?!).
  • Fear.

Regardless of the reason, I’m here to help. I will break my tips down into things to think about before you write and things to think about after you write.


  • Don’t pick your prompt first. Instead think about what you want the admission officer reading your application to learn about you through the essay. Then consider what prompt will help you best tell that story.
  • Take some time thinking and reflecting on what you want to write about before actually starting to write. I’ll compare this to a design process: it’s better to interrogate your idea and iterate on the idea so you can come to something that is really useful, desirable, and helpful before investing time in building the prototype. You don’t necessarily want to build a beautiful, perfect prototype of your first idea. It may not be the right idea to prototype. So, invest the time getting to a good idea before you even write a draft.
  • Know that your essay doesn’t have to be dramatic or traumatic. There is truth in your understanding of your day to day experience.  
  • Remind yourself that it’s okay to feel nervous or uncomfortable about writing a college essay. You have likely spent more time in high school writing about things or events or presenting arguments or rationales for an idea. We’re asking you to write about you.


  • Read your essay out loud. It will help you catch errors, but also give you a sense of if the “voice” that comes through in the words you’ve written sounds like you. Is the tone of the essay comfortable for you to read? It should be.
  • Ask yourself: Do I like this essay? The more you like it, the more likely we are to learn something interesting about you from reading it.
  • Imagine if I were to give 25 essays based on the same topic as yours to your best friend…could they pick yours out? This is another way to try to see if your authentic voice is coming through. There should be enough detail that they know it is your story, not just another story on the same topic.

And remember, the essay is one piece of a holistic review of an application. Good luck and HAVE FUN!

Posted in: Emily Roper-Doten, All Admission Staff Blogs