College Essays Don't Have to Be Scary! (But Most of them Suck.)

Uncategorized Oct 31, 2023

Writing the college or scholarship essay doesn’t have to be scary.

(For parents of seniors who have not hit the “submit” button yet, and parents of sophomores and juniors who don’t want to screw this up 365 days from now.)

Writing the personal essay for college apps, or a scholarship, doesn’t have to be scary. Your teen is writing about themselves. The topic is true to your teen, an experience they have had.

I don’t usually review essays that are not from my Cracking the Code to Free College (CCFC) clients. (My CCFC clients have training on winning essays and they know what a winning essay reads like.) But I’ve done a few reviews for non-clients this year, and unfortunately, it was not pretty.

This is hard to say but, for the vast majority, what was initially submitted to me, sucked.

As a parent, it’s difficult to help your teen with this aspect of the application process because what they choose to write about should be personal to your teen. Parents tend to be more concerned about the topic. It’s not the topic that’s the issue. College admissions officers have read pretty much every topic. The goal is not to “grasp at straws” looking for something new. The goal is to take what your teen wants to write about and create a decent essay on that topic.

When choosing a topic ask,

“What is missing from the application that you want them to know about you?”

Is there a moment in time, or several that work together, that you can remember that helped to...

Shape your teen’s character?

Build work ethic?

Change the way that they look at the world around them?


It’s really that simple.

This is why starting CCFC in middle school or early high school allows the entire high school to college process to be less stressful, especially during the senior year. One of the things parents who begin early are coached to do is to pay attention to these little moments that shape who their child is and who they become.

That’s for then. This is now.

What NOT to do in college essays.

Some of the essays I’ve reviewed for non-clients:

—Offered multiple topics within the same essay 🤦🏼‍♀️, but no details on any.

—Everything is surface level. The entirety of the college application is surface-level. Yes, we know you’re a good student, took rigorous courses, and had XYZ activities. 

—But you haven’t told me anything about who you are, how you see the world, your character, your experiences.

That’s what the essay is for, to add color to the black-and-white application.

Like any essay, it should have ONE topic, an introduction, a body supporting what the introduction and topic mentioned, and a conclusion.

Problem #1. All of the application and private scholarship essays should be written the same way, from the first person perspective, “I”, and teens are rarely taught how to write this type of essay. They have never had to be introspective, thinking deeply about themselves, how their own experiences have changed them, or changed how they look at the world, or how they have impacted others.

Problem #2 They don’t know how to read what they’ve written from the perspective of the “audience”  who is reading this— an adult who is determining if your essay pushes your application to the “No” pile!

They do not know what college admissions officers are looking for. College admissions officers want to know “who you are”. You are taking them into a specific moment in time, some part of your life, into great detail so the reader feels like they are there. These kids are writing very surface-level essays. I’m certain they “think” they are going deep, but they are not.

That’s your job as a parent reviewing your teen’s essay, is to separate yourself as the parent, and read from the perspective of an outsider who does not know your teen, who only knows what is on the transcript and application.

What’s Missing?

As you are reading your teen’s essay, what questions are left unanswered? You never want to leave the reader wondering, “What’s missing?” Think of it like reading a novel. You have to “close” all of the loops. Never leave anything open. Don’t leave me hanging.

Here are some examples of statements that went nowhere.:

“I had to be strong.” Why?

“I come from a broken family.” With no explanation as to why that had any impact. (Otherwise, I don’t care. 40% are from divorced families.)

“I struggled with my faith.” In what way? Why is that important?

“I was put under a lot of pressure.” From whom? In what way? Why does it matter?

“I was inspired by (name what or who).” Tell me how, or why, or if they inspired you to do what, or inspired you in what way?

If any of the above, even with additional explanation, doesn’t enhance the topic sentence in paragraph one, dump it. You must stay on point.

Several of the essays I’ve reviewed for non-clients had one sentence that alluded to possible mental health issues but gave no additional information.

Let me be clear, regardless of what trauma the teen may have gone through, unless they have come out on the other side, and are prepared to write such that there is more positive than negative, this isn’t the right topic.

Some essays were all about what was “wrong with my life.” Do not write a “poor. poor, pitiful me,” essay. (This is worse than the, “I won, or lost the big game,” essay.) Everyone knows that life is not all ice cream and puppies, but the entire essay cannot be a bummer.

First paragraph? Maybe.

But your teen had better pick it up in a hurry in paragraph two or the reader will stop reading. Actually, in paragraph one, I’d better know where this is going.

Much like an employment resume, in the college application essay, every word, every sentence must be scrutinized for its relevance and importance. Don’t repeat what you’ve already said. Don’t write too little on a topic leaving the reader wondering why this topic is important to you. (But it’s NOT a resume. That list of things is written in the application itself, not in the essay.)

How Important is the application essay?

It’s not that the essay is critical for all colleges,  it’s not. For colleges where the majority of other applicants have your stats? Yes. The essay is very important. It’s probably your only chance to show yourself as different from the pack.

For most other colleges it’s not likely to be that critical, with the exception that it’s poorly written. (And yes, many of these essays were also poorly written.)

If the student can’t write—at all— it’s going to be tough to get a “maybe” much less a “yes” out of them. So at the very least be sure

  •  the grammar and punctuation are perfect,
  •  that the content flows properly between paragraphs,
  •  stay with the same verb tense throughout
  •  you’ve covered the basics of writing.

If the essay truly sucks, the rest of the application had better “hit it out of the park.” (Maybe the student will have to start in a remedial English class.) But some of these students are “starting behind the stadium.”

Another thing to keep in mind is that colleges are looking for people who will “succeed” on their campus. They are looking for character, character-building moments, and work ethic because both character and work ethic precedes accomplishment. Who will become the next Elon Musk, a successful entrepreneur, scientist who will cure cancer, etc? They are looking for future alumni that they will be proud to advertise, “He came to this school.” They want someone who has a clear direction and will continue to move forward in their goals, and eventually contribute to the college.

This essay is your teen’s moment to show that they have confidence in who they are, and they are ready to tackle what college and the world are ready to dish out.


Let's be real. There are advantages to knowing what you don't know. Let's get on a call and see if I have a program that is a fit for your family's goals. (For parents with middle school, high school, and college-age kids.)



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