Writing the College Essay: Dumplings, Dogs, the Letter S, and the 5-Step Process That Makes Sense of All the BS

This five-step framework will help you demystify the falsely daunting task of writing your college essay and craft a piece that ties the full story of your application together in a way that speaks to the college of your dreams, from a Dartmouth alumna and college admissions coach.

Celeste G.

By Celeste G.

Posted January 10, 2024

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Every year, over one million students use the Common App personal statement essay to tell their stories. The best and worst part: you can write about anything (literally anything–the last prompt is completely open-ended).

With freedom of choice comes the potential to feel overwhelmed by options, and choosing a topic is only the first step in the college essay writing process. With this 5 step framework, I aim to demystify the falsely daunting task of writing your college essay, helping you craft a piece that ties the full story of your application together and packages it in a way that speaks to the college of your dreams. It’s helped my clients get into schools like Dartmouth and Princeton, so it’s well worth a try.

1. Choosing Your Topic: No Wrong Answers

The biggest misconception in college essay writing is that the subject matter is make or break. I’m a strong believer that, as long as you showcase a main aspect of your identity, it doesn’t matter what you write about but how you write it. The best essays I’ve seen start by discussing something relatively mundane, using it as a jumping-off point to tie into a broader life takeaway. A strong example is an essay I read about dumplings. The introductory paragraph was a simple description of the dumpling-making process, but the body that followed used the delicate culinary process as a metaphor for rebuilding a new identity after moving hometowns.

What made the essay doubly successful was the fact that cooking was also a large part of the student's identity or ‘edge’ showcased in his application. He led a kitchen chemistry club at school and worked for a catering company in the summer months, where he learned how to make dumplings. His essay reinforced how meaningful these engagements were to him.

Dumplings certainly aren’t the only route. Perhaps it makes sense to write about a physical space, a role model, or, if applicable, a tragedy. So long as it can be connected to shaping your identity and engagements showcased in your application, it is a worthy subject.

Main takeaways: Write about something that reinforces who your application says you are, and, in the writing process, spend the majority of your time on the how rather than the what.

2. The Hook: Use it, but Get to the Point

Using a hook is essential for drawing your reader in. The best ones are a perfect mix of perplexing and intriguing, and take up one main sentence followed by a short paragraph at the very most. The dumpling essay mentioned above is an exemplary case. ‘Making dumplings is no easy task’ is a clever and concise way to prompt your reader to wonder what’s to follow without giving too much away. It also is simple enough to avoid a cheesy, cliché tone that many students mistakenly think will make them stand out. Admissions officers can find this disingenuous, so it’s best to keep it simple.

Not running your hook on for too long is also important, especially given tight word limits on these pieces. An essay that waits until the conclusion or even halfway through is getting to the point too late, both confusing and losing the attention of the reader in the process. Start with the non-corny metaphoric and catchy language off the bat, and make sure to tie it to what you are really trying to say early on, ideally at the end of your first paragraph. The famous Harvard ‘I hate the letter S’ essay does this remarkably well, opening with the following:

“I hate the letter S. Of the 164,777 words with S, I only grapple with one. To condemn an entire letter because of its use .0006 percent of the time sounds statistically absurd, but that one case changed 100 percent of my life. I used to have two parents, but now I have one, and the S in parents isn’t going anywhere.” (See full essay reading on TikTok)

Main takeaways: Make it a little confusing, avoid cheesy clichés, and keep it short and sweet.

3. Tone: Strike the Right Balance in Terms of Formality

In addition to corny metaphors that have no real function, slang, and overly informal language are other common essay faux pas. It’s important to keep in mind that you really never know who is on the other end of your essay. While some younger admissions officers may be okay with slang, more senior members may misinterpret it as unthoughtful. The other side of the coin is true as well. Using highly formal, academic language can convey a lack of personality, which, as we learned in step one, is the very point of the personal statement.

Balancing your tone between formal and relatable is a delicate act, but it can be boiled down to the following: write your personal statement as if it’s an email to an adult family friend.

Leave curse words, Gen-Z-specific slang, and incorrect grammar and punctuation out. Don’t assume that your reader knows what specific acronyms describing high school clubs or other engagements mean. Rely on your serious yet friendly voice, weaving in bits of general relatability without losing focus on the story at hand. Make use of contractions, but do so in moderation. In sum, pretend you’re that family friend opening up this essay in email format, and go with whatever sounds best when read in your head.

Main takeaways: Don’t curse, but also don’t be afraid of contractions.

4. Technical Writing Tip: Master the Syntax

Traditional advice on college essays often makes no mention of writing mechanics. Though perhaps not as ‘sexy’ as the topic of essay subject matter, nailing the technical aspect – particularly the syntax – of your personal statement pays dividends. It establishes your credibility as a strong writer and demonstrates your effort to make the piece engaging.

You want your essay to read quickly and snappy with a few longer, more thought-out statements to be digested throughout. See below for a great example from John Hopkins University's “Essays that Worked” list for the class of 2027:

“I wasn’t ready to parent a senior dog. As the youngest in the family, I was the one who was always looked after. Once Rock came along, I was suddenly completely responsible for someone else’s life. Roles like being a school student council member taught me responsibility, but not to care for someone else. I realized the stark difference between acknowledging responsibility and actually taking it on.” (See full essay here)

The variation in sentence length – starting with a series of shorter ones followed by two longer ones that make the main point of the paragraph – creates an effective section where it’s nearly impossible to lose track or interest. This structure is foolproof for reader engagement and works with any topic.

Main takeaways: Keep it short, sweet, and varied.

5. The Conclusion: Make Sure it Ties

Your English teacher has probably told you that an essay conclusion should never be a mere restatement of your main point. Reality is, we’re all guilty of this. I myself have asked ChatGPT to ‘reword the following’ and simply pasted in my introductory paragraph. This is great for a tight deadline crunch, but the college essay is no place for rushing. Given the strict word count requirements, there is also no room for restatement.

I would caution against waiting to write your conclusion by reviewing the rest of your essay before tackling it. Save your editor eyes for the very end of the process, and use that time to make sure that your voice and identity are shining through. Treat the conclusion as a mere continuation of the tone and writing tactics you’ve used throughout. If you’ve followed the steps above, you’ll know that you don’t need to – and shouldn’t – save anything show-stopping for this part of the essay.

Main takeaways: Don’t get lazy – finish with consistency!

Celeste G. earned her BA in English Literature and Economics from Dartmouth College, then joined Bain Capital as an Associate. She is a college admissions and career coach and would love to help you create a compelling candidacy for your dream school. Book a FREE intro call with Celeste today!

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