7.5 College Essay Tips To Tell Your Story Well

7.5 College Essay Tips To Tell Your Story Well

In 2020, more than ever before, your college essay matters. The college essay is 4th on the list of the things colleges look for in applicants, in order of importance. True, it comes after the rigor of your curriculum, your GPA and standardized test scores (if you’re submitting them). It ranks higher on the list than your extracurricular activities! It’s a great way for college admissions officers to get to know you. In the event that students are not submitting ACT or SAT scores, the essay is even more important. It conveys the type of person you are and what you’ll contribute to that school, if admitted.

Best College Essay Tips 2We have an entire course devoted to college applications and essays. It’s called the College Applications & Essays Bootcamp, and it could help seniors still wrestling with the overwhelming task of writing killer essays and completing the Common App.

The college admissions office uses your college essay(s) to better understand who you truly are, what makes you tick, what your passions are and what you’d bring to their campus. They’re reviewing your essay in context with the rest of your college application, so tell them something they CAN’T learn from the other materials you’re submitting. Yes, you can write about an activity that’s already included on your list of activities, but make sure you say something new and deeper than what you’ve already told them throughout the rest of your college application.

Here are some college essay tips, if you want to do this thing right. There are 7 of them, plus a .5 bonus tip to make your essay truly one-of-a-kind.

7 College Essay Tips to Tell Your Story Well

Tip 1: Consider “optional” college essays to be required for you.

Assume “optional” = required. You’ll write essays for the Common App, for particular institutions and also for scholarships, both institutional and private. The Common App essays are more general, while the supplemental essays required by some colleges tend to be more specific, e.g. “Why Duke?” Any essay listed as optional should be considered required. You want to show you’re the type of person who’ll go above and beyond, not that you are simply willing to meet minimum requirements. Get used to it. That’s how most things go in life.

Tip 2: Don’t try to cram your entire life story into a 650-word college essay.

Best College Essay Tips 3Pick your moment, and go deep rather than broad. 650 words is not a lot of space, essentially one full page, single-spaced. One of the biggest mistakes we see students make is trying to cover too much ground. Pick a moment, experience or situation that enables you to reveal who you are at your core. The moment doesn’t have to be earth-shattering or monumental. It can actually be something very simple. Some of the best essays we’ve seen take a moment that’s actually pretty ordinary and MAKE it something unique, something that says something about the author. One student wrote about building a bird house with her grandfather. Another wrote about noticing that the corn field near her house had been turned into suburbs, and it made her think differently about time passing.

Tip 3: Focus on the story you want to tell, not what you think they want to hear.

It’s going to be difficult to be anyone but you, and why would you want to be? The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response.

Tip 4: Pay attention to college essay word counts before you start.

Best College Essay Tips 2020 4Nothing’s more heartbreaking than drafting a 500-word college essay and then learning you’re only allowed 300 words. In most cases you are asked to respond to a “prompt” within a specific word limit (650 or less for Common App and usually 300-500 for others). Do not go beyond the stated limits, and avoid unusually brief essays. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don’t feel obligated to do so. (The application won’t accept a response shorter than 250 words.)

Tip 5: In your college essay, convey not just events, but also your outlook on them.

Getting to know you is as much about learning how you view the world and why, as it is what you’ve done. Give some thought to who you are, how you think, why you think the way you do. Start by making a list of your best qualities: persistent, funny, empathetic, creative, observant, others-focused, adventurous. Think about WHO YOU ARE. THEN consider a moment, experience or scene that enables you to SHOW ME, versus TELL ME, that this is who you are. Learning that you ran your first 10K last year is less important than learning how accomplishing this goal changed you, shaped you, what it taught you about yourself.

Tip 6: Remember that your college essay is an essay, not an expose.

Honesty is good. Brutal and unabashed honesty in the form of a true confession makes admissions officers squeamish, and with good reason. This is not the time to confess to anything illegal or immoral. Sharing serious challenges you’ve faced is great, but remember that you’re talking to people who’ve never met you, not your best friend. Above all, admissions officers are looking for a personal expression of who you are, what you believe and what makes you tick – in the form of a well-crafted and thoughtful essay. Be yourself and write from your own point of view, but don’t be different just to be different or to shock.

Tip 7: Give your college essay the time and attention it deserves.

Best College Essay Tips 2020 5Writing your college essay doesn’t have to consume you for a month straight, but don’t wing it, either. Assume that this will take time, thought and work, as well as rework. Think of any great high school paper you ever wrote. Was that done hastily and in one draft? Probably not, if it was done well. This college essay is of greater importance, so give it its due. Your college essays, if done well, enable you to get to know yourself better, as well as learning how to succinctly present yourself to a brand new audience. This is something you’ll have to do throughout your life, for internships, job interviews, even dating and friendships. Embrace the challenge, enjoy it and create space for yourself to do your best.
And for the bonus point (or 1/2 point…)


Challenge yourself to write an essay that couldn’t possibly have anyone else’s name at the top.
Once you get a rough draft down, ask yourself, could this essay have been written by anyone else? Is it uniquely me? Does it convey my own unique outlook and perspective? If not, take another pass through it and inject more YOU. Make your college essay a unique expression of who you really are. That is the goal of the college essay(s), to get to know YOU. So be YOU.

We offer a College Applications & Essays Bootcamp, as well as other college applications services to help you navigate college essays and applications. We’d love to help you tell your story.

Could a strong ACT score still help the Class of 2022?

Could a strong ACT score still help the Class of 2022?

“With so many schools being test optional for the classes of 2021 and 2022, can I just ignore the ACT?” This is a really common question we’ve received lately from high-school students and parents. Too many people are taking an all or nothing approach, thinking that either 1) nothing’s changed, or 2) everything’s changed, and the ACT is just going away. The real answer is an involved conversation that’s specific to your student, their scores and the schools they’re considering. To talk through your student’s unique situation, schedule a free consult anytime.

We recorded a Facebook Live training on this topic, and you can watch that video right now. For seniors in the midst of college applications, we recorded a special Facebook Live training just for seniors; watch it here.

If you’re a junior or the parent of a junior, this flowchart makes a complex decision process a bit more simple. We walk through it in the video and in the blog post below. Download the PDF here.

Class of 2022 ACT Exam Flowchart

Could a strong ACT score help the Class of 2022 for college admissions?

ACT Test Prep Madison Wisconsin Best ACT ScoresYES, even at test-optional schools, provided that your score falls within the school’s “middle 50% ACT range” and ideally toward the higher end of that range.

Dig deeper than just whether you HAVE to have an ACT score or not in order to apply. The more important question is, could a strong ACT score HELP YOU?

Think about a baseball player who spends extra time working on their swing or a basketball player who invests time stroking those threes. They’re controlling what they can control. They want a competitive edge to get up to varsity or increase their chances to play at the next level. The same is true with the ACT. It’s not what you HAVE to do. It’s what you CAN do to play at your best possible level. The goal when you’re a junior is to enhance and expand college options.

Putting in extra effort could benefit you, even if ACT scores are not REQUIRED for admission.

This is because test-optional doesn’t mean test BLIND. Test-optional schools don’t REQUIRE you to submit an ACT or SAT score as part of your college application, but they WILL consider it if you submit it. Wouldn’t it be great to have an ACT score in hand that you WANT to submit because it strengthens your application?

If you’re able to earn an ACT score that is within (and ideally at the higher end of) a school’s “mid-range ACT”, then that ACT score COULD help you gain acceptance to that school.

It’s like playing with 5 strong cards in your hand versus just 4 cards. The top five things that schools look for when you apply, in order of importance, are:

  1. A rigorous high-school curriculum including challenging courses
  2. Your GPA
  3. Your ACT or SAT score
  4. Your college essay
  5. Your extra-curricular activities

For test-optional schools, if you skip #3, they don’t penalize you. They evaluate you as an applicant based on the other four things. If those four things are exceptionally strong, then you don’t need the ACT score to get in. If those other four elements combined are NOT better-than-average compared to that school’s admitted students, then a strong ACT score could STILL be an important card to play for college applications.

For juniors still shopping for schools, a stronger ACT score can expand options.

ACT Test Prep Boost ScoresMost juniors don’t yet have their “college shopping cart” finalized. They’re still looking around. That’s never been more true than in 2020, when a global pandemic has made college campus visits challenging. At OnCampus College Planning, we like to shop around when it comes to colleges.

When I’m looking at colleges, I’m comparing my practice ACT exam score to the “mid-range ACT scores” for the schools I’m looking at to see how I stack up. To do this, go to collegedata.com and set up a free account. Look up the mid-range ACT scores for schools you’re considering. How does your score compare? Juniors, if you haven’t yet taken a full-length ACT practice exam to gauge how you’ll do on the real thing, sign up here to do so FREE at our office.

Let’s look at one example. The University of Wisconsin’s middle 50% ACT range is 27-32. That means half of the kids who applied and were accepted last year (whether or not they chose to be Badgers) came in between a 27 and a 32 on the ACT. One quarter of UW’s accepted students were below a 27, and one quarter were above a 32. That’s really high.

To discover the middle-50% ACT ranges at schools you’re considering, set up an account on collegedata.com, and look it up. Or email me, and we’ll help you figure it out.

If early on in your junior year, you take a practice ACT exam and don’t like what you see, you then have time to consider your options.

What are my options to gain a stronger ACT score for college applications?

The best option depends on each student and the schools they’re considering. Looking at an example of a student who wants to attend UW and is sitting with a 24 on the ACT, consider these options.

  1. With a super strong GPA, you may be able to withhold your ACT scores and still be accepted. The UW’s average GPA for admitted students is 3.86. If you have a 4.0, a rigorous curriculum for your high-school courses, a great essay and outstanding extracurricular activities, then you have four strong cards in your hand to play, and you don’t need that 5th card: a strong ACT score.
  2. If your GPA isn’t at or above the average GPA for admitted students, then can you move your ACT score up? We’re working with a ton of students who want to invest time preparing for the ACT in order to have another strong card in their hand to play for college admissions, even for schools where ACT scores are optional.
  3. Depending on which schools you’re considering, it’s not just a matter of getting in. You’ll also want to consider whether stronger ACT scores could help you earn merit aid that saves you thousands on college tuition. If you’re a Wisconsin resident and looking at UW, this isn’t a big consideration. But if you’re looking at out-of-state schools or private schools, and they include ACT scores for merit aid consideration, that strong ACT score could help you save money on college tuition.

How can a strong ACT score help you save money on college?

ACT Save Money On CollegeThere are not one, but actually two considerations for whether or not a stronger ACT score is worth the effort and investment for you. One is college admissions. The other is merit aid.

Merit aid scholarships have nothing to do with financial need. For out-of-state public universities as well as for private colleges and universities, you should be looking at not just admission requirements, but also merit aid criteria.

Depending on the schools you’re considering, even if you can earn admittance with (or without) an ACT or SAT score, you may want to strengthen your scores to save money on tuition. This is a school-by-school, student-by-student conversation, and we can talk that through with you during a free consult.

What’s next for juniors wondering about the ACT and college options?

Juniors, now’s the time to figure out what the middle 50% ACT ranges and average GPAs are at schools you’re considering. That way, you’ll know what you’re shooting for.

If you’ve not yet taken a practice ACT exam and want to do so for free, you can schedule that here.

If you’d like to talk through your college options, or are just getting started thinking about what you are looking for in your ideal college experience, schedule a free consult or explore our College Search services.

If you’re not sure whether or not ACT Test Prep is a worthwhile investment for you, or you wonder what your ACT Test Prep options are, email me and let’s talk it through. I’m always happy to answer questions to help students and parents get clear and get confident about your college choices.

Students Squeeze this Summer for All It’s Worth

Students Squeeze this Summer for All It’s Worth

Holy cow, it’s the middle of June already! With COVID-related impacts, this summer isn’t quite what most high-school students and parents planned. Most of the students and families we know have been handed more than a few lemons. Sports, camps, summer jobs and travel are restricted or put on hold. But lemons make for tasty lemonade when it comes to summertime college planning progress. Summer college planning isn’t cancelled! Now’s the time to squeeze in college planning and ACT Test Prep before summer slips away! Get ahead of the game with ACT Test Prep, College Search, College Applications & Essays, and Guidance for Prospective Student Athletes.

Keep reading for ideas for every grade and stage to squeeze all you can out of this summer! During summer, you don’t have AP classes, sports, after-school activities and homework keeping you busy. Check ACT Test Prep and college planning, even college applications and essays off your list! You’ll thank yourself when fall comes and your schedule’s back in full swing.

Seniors Slam Dunk College Applications & Essays this Summer

Class of 2021 College PlanningIf you’re graduating in 2021, you’re a legit high-school senior now! While you can’t hit submit until fall for most schools, you can do everything else right now! Set up your Common App account, get organized, collect all your college applications materials, even write that killer essay this summer. Save yourself stress this fall. We can help with our College Applications & Essays Bootcamp and other College Applications Guidance services.

Rising seniors thinking about retaking the ACT exam have time to prep and boost scores for the July 18 or September 12 ACT exam and still get your score back in time for Early Action college application deadlines.

If you need help finalizing your college shopping cart for fall applications, summer’s the time to do it! While COVID put the brakes on in-person college campus visits, schools have responded with a wider array of virtual visit options than ever before. If you need College Search guidance, now’s the time to get help before college applications peak season this fall.

Schedule a free consult now to make senior year smooth sailing!

Juniors Knock Out ACT Test Prep This Summer

Class of 2022, knock out ACT Test Prep this summer! Many rising juniors and their parents don’t realize that you don’t HAVE to wait until the state-mandated ACT exam the spring of your junior year. For many soon-to-be juniors, summer’s a much easier time to devote energy to ACT Test Prep than fall or winter. We work with a ton of rising juniors, as well as rising seniors each summer who want to make productive use of summer free time to check a killer ACT score off their list of things to do.

Rising juniors should also focus on defining and finding the University of You™, that dream school that sets the standard for what you want, need, don’t want and don’t need in your ideal college experience. Once you’ve defined the University of You™, you’ll know exactly what you’re shopping for. Summer’s the ideal time for College Search, so you can get clear about what you’re shopping for and line up amazing options, including hidden gems and high-value colleges that will reward you for your academic and other achievements with merit aid that makes college more affordable. All year, but especially during the summer, our college GPS, Tom Kleese, is on the hunt for great options for our students. Nothing pleases Tom more than unearthing a school that you’ve never heard of that fits the bill just right.

Prospective student athletes entering junior year this fall are getting serious about finding the right team and right school for you. It can help to have some guidance about how and when to reach out to coaches, how to tackle plans for camps and clinics, especially in light of COVID-related restrictions and impacts. You can contact our Coach for Prospective Student Athletes, Stephanie Barth, to learn exactly what you should be doing, when and how to get noticed by your schools and teams of interest. Schedule a free consult to fast-forward your college recruiting path.

For DIY-ers who just need the right co-pilot, online college coaching can be just the ticket. Join College-Bound Confidence for college planning training & tools month after month on every topic and skill you’ll need to navigate every step of the journey from freshman year to making a confident college choice as a senior.

Sophomores Start Strong Now

Class of 2023 College PlanningRising sophomores (those who’ll be sophomores this year) are smart to schedule a FREE ACT Practice Exam to satisfy your curiosity about what this big old test is all about. An ACT Practice Exam helps you understand what it’s like to sit for a three and a half-hour exam, and shows you exactly how you’ll do, and where you might need help once you’re ready to prepare next year. Our practice exams include a free consult where we’ll review your exam results with you and your parents.

Sophomores and their parents are also super smart to come in for a free consult to get the answers you need to make the path smooth and stress-free between now and when you’re ready to get serious about college planning. Our clients tell us that the free consult was super helpful in addressing everything from AP classes to how to do college campus visits well, and that starting the conversation early really helped reduce stress and lend focus and direction to their college planning efforts.

For prospective student athletes, sophomore year is key for outreach to college coaches, as well as taking it to the next level in competitions, practice and in thinking about what comes after high school. Athletes often benefit from guidance on next steps for College Athletic Recruiting before or once they hit sophomore year. You can schedule a free consult with Stephanie Barth if you’d like to learn more.

Freshmen Fast-Track Your Progress With Focus on Academics

Class of 2024 College PlanningParents of students who’ll be freshmen this fall LOVE free consults with us, where you can count on us to echo some of the key messages you’ve been sharing at home, like “turn in your homework because it all counts day one!” Come in for a free consult to get the answers you need.

For student athletes, the summer before your freshman year of high school is also a great time to consider whether you might want to pursue college athletics. While you certainly don’t need to make any decisions or commitments any time soon, starting early means you can set yourself up for great options later. Our Coaching for College-Bound Athletes helps outline the steps you can take at every grade and stage now throughout your high school career.

Parents of new high school students also benefit greatly from easing into the college conversation with College-Bound Confidence. There’s no better way to keep the pulse on all things college planning than with fresh training, tools and insights, month after month!

For every grade and stage, you can squeeze this summer for all it’s worth and make it your best summer yet!

Game Plan for Prospective Student Athletes Stuck at Home

Game Plan for Prospective Student Athletes Stuck at Home

On April 1, 2020, the NCAA announced it will extend the current recruiting dead period through May 31, a move that was also taken in Division I. Institutional staff members are permitted to communicate with prospective student-athletes by phone or email during this time but cannot engage in in-person recruiting on or off campus. You can read the media release here.

This has significant implications for prospective student athletes still in high school during a time when spring athletic seasons would usually be in full swing, and colleges would be conducting in-person recruiting. It’s frustrating. It’s terribly disappointing, and it may leave prospective student athletes feeling helpless and pretty panicked right now. So what CAN you do? What actions CAN prospective student athletes take to move your college recruiting process forward while you’re standing still?

As high schools and colleges pursue online learning for the balance of this spring semester due to COVID-19, the recruiting landscape is also evolving. Remember, coaches who would usually be out on the road right now are also stuck in their offices or at home, which means they have more time to spend online. They won’t stop recruiting. They’ll just be doing it differently. Here’s how you can make progress in light of our current situation.

Prospective Student Athletes Can Take a Proactive versus Reactive Approach

There are many opportunities for current high-school prospective student athletes to be proactive. Cancelled tournaments, showcases and the dead period now extended through May 31 have changed the landscape of what the recruiting process looks like this spring.

College coaches usually use this time to travel to evaluate players at tournaments and showcases around the country and host student athletes and their families on their campuses. Athletes want to get noticed at these tournaments to set themselves up for the best recruiting opportunities. Students and their families also want to get out to college campuses to explore their options. The pandemic is making recruiting and coaching more challenging, but there are many opportunities for you as a student athlete.

Make These Actions Part of Your College Recruiting Game Plan

  1. Update all of the social media sites you are on. Since college coaches cannot see you in person, they will likely be spending more time online. Update all of the recruiting sites you are on and be sure they are complete.
  2. Update all of your video footage from past games and matches.
  3. Reach out to college coaches per NCAA, NAIA, and junior college rules. This could include emails and phone calls and add links to fresh game film and highlight videos.
  4. Target specific schools you are interested in and reach out. Think about what you want out of your college athletics experience both athletically and academically. What is a good fit for you? Do you want to start right away or are you ok being a reserve player for a few years? Does a smaller school appeal to you or a larger school. Get online and research colleges and universities and take a virtual tour. Most schools have enhanced their virtual tour and video capabilities in light of what’s happening right now.
  5. Look into the classes you should be taking the next several years in order to be eligible to compete in college athletics. If you are a sophomore or junior, think about studying and taking the ACT sooner rather than later and look into the requirements the NCAA has around high school grades and ACT scores. Begin to research academic scholarship opportunities at your target schools.

Email and Phone Outreach to College Coaches

Student athletes stuck at home can still reach out to college coaches using email or phone calls. Here are three great questions to ask college coaches when you call. Email Stephanie Barth for other suggestions on outreach to college coaches.

  1. What are you looking for in a player for my position?
  2. Can you describe your practice environment?
  3. How would you describe your team and school culture on and off the court/field etc.?

We are here at OnCampus College Planning to help you through this changing landscape.

Our College-Bound Confidence Community is an online monthly coaching group to help college-bound students and parents get to college with less stress, less mess and way more confidence. College-Bound Confidence includes training and tools specific to prospective student athletes.

We also offer a one-on-one coaching package for prospective student athletes. Email Stephanie Barth for more information or just to ask questions and get expert answers.

Email Stephanie for a free overview of how the college recruiting process works. We can help you come up with a comprehensive plan for recruiting, applications, and ACT testing to help you prepare for the college recruiting process.

10 Movies to Watch Now with Quaranteens

10 Movies to Watch Now with Quaranteens

Looking for at-home activities with quaranteens? Here are 10 movies to watch now that we’re all spending more time at home together.

Hilary here. My husband Tom predicted it, and here it is. I am sharing a quote from the movie we watched last night.  “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” This quote is from Darkest Hour, a movie about Winston Churchill when he served as Prime Minister during WWII. History helps me “right-size” myself and remember that people in situations more dire than those we face right now have faced those situations with courage, grace, selflessness and integrity.

At times like this, when the moments of today feel daunting and desperate, I find history inspiring and helpful for shifting my perspective and strengthening my resolve.

In case you are, as we are, looking for ways to spend time together while finding hope and inspiration, here are 10 movies (in no particular order) which you might want to put in your family’s Netflix queue these days. I’d love to hear your recommendations for other movies that are good for the soul and our strength right now. We’ll add them to the Kleese watchlist!

  1. Darkest Hour as described above, featuring Gary Oldman and Kristen Scott Thomas.
  2. Lincoln (2012) is an historical drama film directed and produced by Steven Spielberg, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as United States President Abraham Lincoln.
  3. Rudy (1993) may not make the cut as legitimate “historical fiction,” but Rudy is always a good answer, no matter what the question is. This biographical sports film recounts the life of Daniel Ruettiger who dreamed of playing football at the University of Notre Dame, despite significant obstacles.
  4. Glory (1989) is an American war film directed by Edward Zwick about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the Union Army’s second African-American regiment in the American Civil War. It stars Matthew Broderick as Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the regiment’s commanding officer, and Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes, and Morgan Freeman as fictional members of the 54th.
  5. The Help (2011) is a period drama based on the book by the same name by author Kathryn Stockett. I both read the book and watched the movie, and I learned a lot from this story of young white woman and aspiring journalist Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan and her relationship with two black maids during the Civil Rights Movement in 1963 Jackson, Mississippi.
  6. Invictus (2009) Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman), in his first term as President of South Africa, initiates a unique venture to unite the Apartheid-torn land: enlist the national rugby team on a mission to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Bonus, Matt Damon’s in this one.
  7. Patch Adams (1998) is worth the sadness you’ll feel while watching a movie featuring the late, great Robin Williams. This movie is about living for something greater than yourself. It’s actually based on the true story of Hunter Doherty “Patch” Adams (born May 28, 1945), an American physician, comedian, social activist, clown, and author. He founded the Gesundheit! Institute in 1971. Each year, Adams organizes volunteers from around the world to travel to various countries where they dress as clowns to bring humor to orphans, patients and others.
  8. Schindler’s List (1993) directed by Steven Spielberg is based on the real life story of Oskar Schindler. A businessman during the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler, he sold off his last possessions to buy the freedom of 600-odd Jew prisoners.
  9. My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown (1989) is not the feel-good movie you might be looking for right now, but it is incredibly inspiring. It stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown, an Irishman born with cerebral palsy, who could control only his left foot. Brown grew up in a poor working-class family and became a writer and artist.
  10. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) because of course this movie needs to be on this list. Will Smith plays Chris Gardner, a homeless salesman. This movie is based on the memoir of the same name written by Gardner with Quincy Troupe about Gardner’s nearly one-year struggle being homeless.

May you enjoy happy, healthy and inspiring quarantine viewing. Share your recommendations. We’d love to hear them.