One of the most challenging parts of a college application is writing a truly memorable college essay. In fact, it can be so intimidating that many students push off the process until the last minute – leaving them with a less than ideal admissions essay. If your student is struggling to get started or looking for help with how to write an outstanding college essay, our 5-way test can help them get there.
How To Write an Outstanding College Essay: The 5-Way Test
Over the years, Bright Futures developed a 5-way test (5WT) to teach students how to write an outstanding college essay. This is the exact framework that we use in our essay workshops – going on right now, virtually.
This framework helps us scratch beneath the surface. Colleges do not want to read some happy, clappy story. They want something genuine. In the 5-way test, we ask 5 simple questions to each student:
- Is it personal?
- Is it insightful?
- What’s the point?
- Who is the audience?
- What’s the format?
1. Is It Personal?
When we teach students how to write an outstanding college essay, the first test is about how personal it is. Your student’s essay must reveal something about themselves that admissions cannot tell from their transcript, resume, or recommendation letters. It must be positive, authentic, and true.
For example, I had one student who had a speech impediment and worked through years and years of speech therapy. She had taken huge strides. I worked with her as she applied for a selective summer program in communications. She got into it! But after the program ended, she found out that she was only admitted to the program because her mother found her original essay and rewrote it. My student felt like her mother had stolen her voice– a voice that she worked so for.
For her college essay, this student wrote about that experience and the feelings that came with it. And they accepted her!
That essay was extremely personal and it communicated her character.
While it should go without saying that parents should not be writing their student’s college essay for them, we do use something called the “Mom Test” to check how personal a student’s essay is.
The Mom Test
When we say your student’s essays should be personal, how personal do we actually mean?
We ask students, “if there were stacks of essays on a table and your mother read them all, could she pick out your essay from the stack?”
If not, they need to get more personal.
Helping Students Write About Themselves
Sometimes, students might find it awkward to get personal and write about themselves. This is a major roadblock to writing an effective college essay.
So when a student doesn’t know what to write about, we often use the Birkman Assessment to help them get started. It’s an assessment used by universities and Fortune 500 companies to objectively identify one’s strengths and interests.
We find the Birkman makes students feel more comfortable talking about themselves and their strengths because it’s someone else telling them what they are. It’s usually less awkward for them to talk about themselves after we review their Birkman.
2. Is It Insightful?
Outstanding college essays are also insightful. Admissions officers are looking to gain insight into a student’s experiences, character, and point of view.
Essays that convey insight are not superficial, rather they go deeper into what makes a student unique. Students can write more insightful essays by “showing” and not just “telling”.
How to “Show” and Not “Tell”
Students who simply tell an admissions officer the message they want to convey can come off as superficial. To be truly insightful, your students should “show” the message instead.
For instance, encourage your student to…
- Avoid describing their character through adjectives like courageous, inventive, or compassionate
- Demonstrate their character through an in-depth, vulnerable, and real narrative, without naming the actual character trait
- Think back to a time when they felt a strong emotion and what experience led to it; how did they change afterwards?
- Use non-judgemental curiosity and maturity in understanding and communicating their story
It can be difficult for students to be emotional and vulnerable in their writing; however, this is what makes for a truly insightful and outstanding essay.
3. What’s The Point?
Personal and vulnerable essays become truly outstanding once they have a point. More precisely, it should be something that strongly exhibits the personal qualities of your student.
This means your student needs to write a personal story that gives insight into their character, and how their character will add to or complement the college they are applying to.
For example, one of my students was a boy adopted from Africa into a Black family. During our essay workshop, he labored and labored over his essay and his experiences with racism. It brought him to tears. It was powerful, personal, and insightful. And there was also a clear point to his essay.
“What’s the point?” can be a difficult question to ask your student – especially when they tap into their emotions.
Keep in mind that your student’s essay will not get very far if it’s only vulnerability.
To help students find their point, have them do the following:
- Write, edit, and re-write. Working through their feelings through multiple drafts can help hone-in the message of their essay.
- Find the positive outcome. Did the experience lead to growth, insight, or perseverance?
I’ve had students who lost a parent or had a friend commit suicide. It’s a big, heavy topic. If your student wants to write about that, that’s fine; however, there needs to be a point. Remember, college essays are not for shock value.
The essay needs to have a point that builds your student up and “sells” their personal qualities to the audience.
4. Who Is Your Audience?
So, who is their audience? The audience is admissions counselors. This demographic is different than most students think. Most counselors are…
- Between the ages of 23 and 35
- Graduated from the college they represent
- Evaluating hundreds of essays
They are closer in age to students than they think. They’re relatively young and can relate to social media and the ups and downs of high school years.
Importantly, admissions counselors read many many essays. They are experts and can tell how much work was put in. They can quickly spot if a student crammed to write their essay the night before, or if it was thoughtfully written over several revised drafts.
That being said, the admissions committee is not looking for students to be the next Charles Dickens. They do not have to write like a 55 year old CEO of a company. They understand your student is in high school.
Of course, they should use their full vocabulary and put in their best effort. But above all, encourage your student to be themselves. It’s all about authenticity.
5. What Is The Format?
The last test of an outstanding college essay is whether or not it meets the required format. Most college essays should…
- Be between 350 to 650 words long
- Have organized paragraphs linked together with topic sentences and clean transitions.
- Have an introduction that pulls the reader (the admissions counselor) in and helps them decide what the essay’s point is.
- Confirm the point of the essay in the conclusion
Although many college essays come with prompts, we don’t take this approach when initially guiding our students on how to write an outstanding college essay. Using a prompt at the beginning can actually stifle creativity or distract students.
Instead, we wait until the end of the polishing process to make sure the prompt is answered.
Essay prompts almost always ask something like, “who are you and why should you admit me?”
However, there are some exceptions where colleges are very specific about their prompts – usually in the supplemental writing requirements. They want straightforward answers in 250 words. Under those constraints, there’s no room to get into a story.
Warnings for Essay Writing
After your student has put their essay through the 5-way test, they should take a few more precautions before sending it in. Here are a couple warnings for essay writing…
- Have your student avoid clichés like winning the big game or using phrases like “the world was turned upside-down”. If your student is speaking authentically and from a personal place, then it will be hard to fall into clichés.
- Parents, do not take over the writing process. Get involved as little as possible – especially at the beginning. As a parent, you have a different view of your teenager. The most helpful thing you can do is step away and be encouraging.
If your student is looking for expert guidance on how to write an outstanding college essay, register for our Essay Boot Camp here!