• College Counseling
It Depends, A College Counseling Blog Series: Writing the Essay


Editor’s Note: 

It Depends is a series from the Office of College Counseling, that aims to answer some common questions asked by students and families as they navigate the college search and application process, within the context of today’s world, with today’s technology.   

Check back monthly as Co-Director of College Counseling Keegan Ash poses frequently asked questions to ChatGPT and analyzes the responses, going deeper than the generic replies by reminding us, “it depends.” 


Welcome to It Depends, a blog series from the College Counseling Office.  

In each post, I will pose a question to ChatGPT about the college process and then respond and add perspective to the AI generated response. The goal is to provide the general content anyone could find on internet forums, or websites, or through AI, but to go one step further and add the expertise, experience, and perspective of an experienced counselor. 

AI content will be displayed in normal text, while my comments will be purple and bolded to distinguish between the two perspectives. 


Let's get started.  

Question: What advice do you have for writing my college essay?

Writing your college essay can be a significant and personal part of your college application. Here are some tips to help you with the process: 

1. Start early: Give yourself ample time to brainstorm, write, revise, and edit your essay. Starting early allows you to explore different ideas and have sufficient time for multiple drafts. 

This isn’t helpful.  What does “Start early” mean?  The truth is, you should start thinking of ideas in your junior year.  Outline some options if you can.  Going into the summer between junior and senior year is a great time to draft an essay.  That gives you something to start with as you begin your senior year. 

This is NOT something you need to start earlier than junior year.  You’re going to be a different person between your sophomore year and senior year.  

2. Understand the prompt: Carefully read and understand the essay prompt or question provided by the college. Make sure you comprehend what the prompt is asking you to address or discuss. If there are multiple parts to the prompt, ensure that you address each component. 

Umm… this again is kind of a lame answer.  The prompts for the Common App essay are so broad!  You could literally write about anything!  The last prompt is “Share an essay on any topic of your choice.”  The point is, you’re the unquestionable world greatest expert on one thing: yourself.  You know yourself better than anyone and any college.  That’s what the essay is about!  

3. Brainstorm ideas: Take some time to brainstorm potential topics and ideas. Reflect on your experiences, values, challenges, accomplishments, or significant moments that have shaped you. Consider selecting a topic that is meaningful to you and allows you to showcase your personality, growth, or unique perspective. 

YES!  Brainstorm a bunch of topics that you may discuss.  Talk to your college counselor about your ideas and get an objective perspective.  There are some areas that we very strongly advise students to avoid, such as athletes writing about their sport or fine arts majors writing about their instrument/art - this doesn’t add depth to the application.  Avoid writing about the amazing qualities of your grandmother.  I’m sure she is an amazing woman, but she isn’t applying to the college.  This is a chance for you to express your lessons, goals, grit, and outlook. 

4. Tell a compelling story: Craft your essay in a narrative format that engages the reader. Focus on telling a story that illustrates your experiences or conveys a particular message. Use descriptive language and vivid details to make your essay more engaging and memorable. 

Nobody wants to read a list of accomplishments.  There’s a place for that and you can even attach a resume to your application.  The essay is a chance for you to tell the story behind your success and challenges.  It also makes it more fun to read.  Share a story that shows examples.  That’s always going to be more interesting.   

5. Be authentic and genuine: Be true to yourself and write in your own voice. Admissions officers want to get to know you through your essay, so avoid using clichés or writing what you think they want to hear. Instead, be honest, personal, and showcase your individuality. 

Don’t go to the thesaurus.  The person reading your essay is likely going to be a young admissions representative that is in their twenties.  This is not a tenured English professor.  This is an opportunity to add some soul/life to the application.  AUTHENTICITY IS EVERYTHING!  Don’t write what you think they want to hear.  You will be applying to more than one college so that’s not possible.  Be yourself and share what will add to your application. 

6. Show, don't just tell: Instead of simply listing your achievements or qualities, provide specific examples and anecdotes that demonstrate those qualities. Use storytelling techniques to make your essay vivid and show how you have applied your skills or overcome challenges. 

This is what we talked about in number 4.  Not sure why GPT needed to repeat itself… 

7. Focus on one main idea: Instead of trying to cover too many topics or ideas, focus on one central theme or message. This will allow for a more focused and coherent essay that effectively communicates your point. 

This isn’t clear.  Do I focus on one idea or a theme or a message?  Are those the same thing?  You need a central concept.  That’s it.  You’re going to talk about several things in your essay, but it needs to be connected.  That’s why it’s important to have a central concept.   

8. Structure your essay effectively: Organize your essay with a clear introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion. Your introduction should grab the reader's attention, the body paragraphs should develop your ideas, and the conclusion should provide a sense of closure or reflection. 

Ugh.. the dreaded first hook.  There are books written about how the first sentence is the most important.  There are articles talking about it.  It’s a great concept to sell more books: Stir up a bunch of fear and anxiety and convince people that if the first sentence isn’t great, colleges will not read the rest, but if you buy this book or this program, we’ll teach you how to do it the right way. 

That’s just not the case though.  Make sure the first sentence is clear, but not cliché.  That’s it.   

“It was a cold and rainy night when I heard a knock at the door.”  No thanks. Don’t think the weather is that important and you’re trying to sound like you’re writing a Goosebumps book.  Get into it and let them get to know you. 

9. Revise and edit: Review your essay multiple times for clarity, coherence, grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors. Consider seeking feedback from teachers, counselors, or trusted individuals who can provide constructive criticism and suggestions for improvement. 

Duh… Yes you should edit. First, talk to your college counselor because it’s important that your essay add value to your application.  We talk a lot about adding depth to your application.  It’s important that the content/concept does that.  Then go to anyone you trust to go over it and make sure it’s a clear message.  

10. Be mindful of word limits: Pay attention to any specified word or character limits for the essay. Adhere to these limits and ensure that your essay is concise and focused within the given parameters. 

Yeah. Word limits exist. Common App is 650.  UC insight questions are 350.  One common mistake that students make is thinking you need a title for your essay.  You don’t.  You don’t need your name.  Just the essay.  Some supplemental essays will have character limits.  Don’t think you need to get right to the limit.  Express your message.  You know… it depends. If you can do that with 550 words rather than 650, okay.  Don’t go back and try to fill in a bunch of words to get right to the limit.  Admission reps are not counting your words.   

11. Proofread and finalize: Before submitting your essay, carefully proofread it one last time to catch any remaining errors or inconsistencies. Make sure your essay is well-polished and reflects your best writing. 

Again, this is repetitive.  How is revise and edit different than proofread and finalize?  Here’s my last tip on the essay:  Read it out loud to your mirror. 

Remember, your college essay is an opportunity for admissions officers to get a sense of who you are beyond your grades and test scores. Use it as a platform to showcase your personality, passions, and strengths. Be genuine, thoughtful, and reflective in your writing. 

This is good.  The essay is you.  Don’t try to be something you’re not.  Don’t try to fit into a mold.  Share what’s important to you and provides context to your application. 


. . . 

The college process is filled with nuances, and as the name of this blog series reiterates, a lot of this process comes down to context.  The answers to many questions will be “it depends.”   The College Counseling Office is here to give the best advice possible within that context.  Our student-centered approach is focused on meeting the needs of our students while keeping their goals in mind -- and celebrating them along the way.  

If you have additional questions, schedule a time to speak with your counselor.  You can use the links below to schedule a time. 

Mr. Ash: https://calendly.com/kash-perk

Ms. Davidson-Kellogg: https://calendly.com/perk-davidson-kellogg



College Counseling at Perkiomen School

Read more by the College Counseling Department


Check out the It Depends Podcast


'It depends' is meant to lead to further discussion. It is an opportunity for us as counselors to ask follow-up questions. It is a chance for us to gather more information about each child in this process. We are student-centered.  We know every student is unique and therefore every process will be unique.    - KEEGAN ASH, Co-Director of College Counseling