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College Advice

College Essay Ideas: How to write and edit your college essay?

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CJ interviews Ethan Sawyer, author of the top selling books on colleges essays “College Essay Essentials: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Successful College Admissions Essay” for some great college essay ideas. You’ll get strategies on finding the best idea, writing, and editing your college essay.


Source for all text in article: Sawyer, E. (n.d.). College essay essentials: A step-by-step guide to writing a successful college admission essay.

What should you write?

Before you write your essays, Ethan Sawyer offers a perspective on why these essays are just important to you as the college admissions office.  I have witnessed my son writing his college essays and I can see this as a rite of passage.  It’s that important.  Ethan Sawyer explains that the writing process helps you not only understand your past, but also your future and possibly a career path.

“The process of writing your personal statement is more about reporting about the facts of your life- you’re actually assigning the meaning in the larger context of your life.

“I feel like this process has helped me realize the importance of everything I’ve experienced.” (quote from Ethan’s student)

What is your story?

One of the keys to writing a good college essay is to spend some time reflecting and doing some introspection on ideas that tell your deepest story.  You’ll find a few exercises Ethan uses to draw out your deepest story. How do you know which story to tell?   The deepest story is one where you feel it in your gut because it’s that vulnerable. If you read your story aloud and it feels superficial or that it could be written by any number of people, then it’s probably not your deepest story.

Some fun exercises to get your ideas flowing:

  • What is the essence object? You describe that the essence object map to emotions, memories, and complex meanings and it maps to an important complex part of you (your dreams and aspirations).
  • Make sure to check 60 Brainstorming Questions from Ethan’s book to trigger some good juicy topics (p5).
  • Core Values exercise- Values are about your dreams and aspirations. Check out the exercise here:
  • More tips on getting inspired:

Writing about your extracurricuar

How to write an essay for college ?

Everyone has different life experiences.  Ethan offers two different ways to tell your story, which are based on his previous work experience and training as a screenwriter.

How to tell your story?

Ethan offers two ways to tell your story, each with a different structure:

  • Narrative structure- This structure uses cause and effect, where one moment leads to the next
  • Montage structure – This is good to use when you have lots of experiences that relate to a common idea or theme.

In the book “College Essay Essentials: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Successful College Admissions Essay”, Ethan breaks down essays into 4 categories. More here :

  • A: The student has faced significant challenges and does know what he or she wants to study. Tips on writing this kind of essay.
  • B: The student has faced significant challenges and does NOT know what he or she wants to study. Tips on writing this kind of essay.
  • C: The student has NOT faced significant challenges and does know what he or she wants to study. Tips on writing this kind of essay.
  • D: The student has NOT faced significant challenges and does NOT know what he or she wants to study. Tips on writing this kind of essay.

Narrative Structure

This structure follows a structure very similar to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s journey.  In montages, the events in your essays are linked through cause and effect (check out an analysis of Star wars where the storyline is mapped to this structure and told chronologically) .

  • Status Quo: The main character (you) lives his normal life. What do we need to know in order to understand why the inciting incident was hard for you?
  • Inciting Incident/Status Quo Change: One day something happens to change the status quo. What was the moment or event that launched the worst thing that could have happened?
  • Raise the Stakes: Things get dangerous and important. Events become more important inwardly or outwardly. What happened to make things more important?
  • Turning point/Moment of Truth – Characters must make a choice or fight ultimate battle. When did things shift? Often this is some choice you made.
  • Denouement/Final Act- What does the hero do about it? Fight, run, apologize, start a movement, or something else? What did you do about it?
  • Outcome/New Status Quo: The result which is different than status quo. How are things different now from the original status quo?

Learn more here. The video explains how not every story fits this structure and how the story should be told in the most compelling way, which is sometimes not in the order listed above.

Type A: The Steps for Type A essay include:

Before you start writing essay A, you will likely find it helpful to do some brain storming beforehand.  One easy way to structure your ideas is to put it into a table (see below).

  • You experienced challenges– Write below the difficulties you face or currently facing?
  • Those challenges had a certain effect on you- What negative effects did you experience as a result of your challenge? Note: You don’t have to match one effect per challenge as one challenge may have several repercussions.
  • To get through the challenges you took action- What actions did you take to improve your situation?
  • As a result, you developed certain resources, skills, or values – What skills, values, or resources did you develop? Try to come up with unpredictable values that map to you career, or you may find your essay feeling a bit boring to read.
  • And the resource, skills, and values you developed as a result of your challenge will serve you in (insert career)- The author suggests that when you write about your values that you don’t necessarily talk about the values directly. Learning how to cook taught me the value of cooking. Instead of talking directly of your values, Ethan suggests telling us how you developed the value and what insight you got from the experience and why it was meaningful.
Challenges Effects What did you do Values Amazing career
Father lost her job Drinking


Joined wrestling Discipline




Essay Examples: Narrative

Example: This shows how you would translate these concepts into writing using the above table.

I noticed that after my father lost his job (challenge) that’s when he started drinking (effect) and becoming verbally abusive and my grades went down and I started to become angry (feelings).  Deep down all I really wanted was a mentor and someone I could talk to. It wasn’t until 9th grade when I joined wrestling (what did you do) that I found a way to channel my frustration and anger.  That’s when things shifted for me, my grades went up, and though we were never able to fully connect, my father quit drinking. Wrestling really turned things around for me: it taught me to channel my emotions in more productive ways, manage my time (skills), and even inspired me to work with other young men to help them learn the value of healthy competition (values), potentially as a coach(amazing career).  I hope to one day be there for other young men to listen to them and provide the positive role model I never had.

When it comes to writing this type of essay plan out 1/3 of the essay for the challenges and effects, 1/3 for what you did, and 1/3 for what you learned.  Note: Get Ethan’s book to get a bunch of sample essays using Essay A, B, C, and D format.

How do you write emotional depth using this format?

This is another format that will help you add emotional depth to your essay.  It is similar to the format above, but it looks at feelings, which the emotions you have felt as a result of the effects.

Challenges Effects Feelings Needs What I did? Values I gained
Father lost her job No sense of security


Lonely, Anxious Connection Joined wrestling Discipline



Mom worked more No security Depressed Stability


Taught  myself to cook Health


Montage Structure

A montage is sort of like a patchwork quilt taking separate fragments (pictures, words, music) and then piecing them together to create a new whole.  The montage is based on theme and can be told chronologically or not.  In film making a montage is used to condense space and time so that information can be delivered in a more efficient way.  An essay montage uses the same idea and it is about finding the best highlights to features. Ethan offers the following tips for finding your theme:

  • Make it visual and come up with an image.
  • Consider using something you know a lot about (e.g.- cooking, our use an essence object, etc)
  • Find a focusing lens that allows you to go wide. Use a metaphor that will allow you to discuss several different aspects of who you are.

Find out more about writing montage on Ethan’s website.

Type B: The Steps for Type B essay include:

Ethan suggests writing the essay backwards, which involves reverse engineering the essay using a montage style.  Using a similar process to above, Ethan offers another table which will help you do some planning beforehand on what content you want to write.

  • Make a list of the qualities necessary to excel in whichever field you’ve chosen. For example, a doctor would have a desire to help others, detail focused, and be curious. As above, you are looking not for the most logical values, but for values that help draw out your personal narrative and how that experience gave you purpose and meaning.
  • For each quality in the center column, write a specific moment from your lists that shows that you’ve developed this quality.
  • An insight is something you know or see that another person may not. For each example, write down a lesson or skill you learned that is beyond what the average person knows. How do you do this? Think about your example, and simply ask yourself “So what?” and then write your insights.
 How I’ve developed These Values Essential Values of a Great (Career) Insights
After school math tutoring Desire to help others
Designing my own shoes Detail-focused
Always asked a lot of questions Curiosity

Essay Examples- Montage: College Essay Ideas

This shows how you would translate these concepts into writing using the above table. This is an excerpt from a full essay. In a montage essay, the author describes a variety of values all of which connect under the lens of a career as a dentist. Notice how there is one major example/value/insight per paragraph.  You can have multiple example, values, or insights as long as they are short.

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“As a kid I was always curious (value), I was unafraid to ask questions and didn’t worry how dumb they would make me sound.  I enrolled in a summer science program and built a solar-powered oven that baked real cookies. I remember obsessing over the smallest details: Should I paint the oven black to absorb more heat? What about its shape? A spherical shape would allow for more volume, but would it trap heat as well as conventional ovens?  Even then I was obsessions with the details of the design (value).

My love of details also applies to my schoolwork too.  I’m the math geek who marvels at the fundamental theorems of Calculus, or who sees beauty in A=(s(s-a)(s-b)(s-c))^(1/2).  Again, it’s in the details (value): one bracket off and one digit missing and the whole equation collapses. And details are more than details, they can mean the difference between negative and positive infinity, an impossible range of solutions. “ 

When it comes to writing this type of essay think about adding information about your career two-thirds or three-fourth of the way through the essay.  With the montage you may want to tell the story chronologically in the order that you learned these values.  Think about the last one-third or one-fourth of the essay as the “tell” in which you help the reader make connections between the values you’ve shown and what you’d like to study.

College Essay Tips on Editing

Editing is one of the roughest parts.  Ethan’s clients can draft between three and twenty-five rewrites of essays, with ten being typical. Here are some editing tips:

  • Ensure Flow: Go through your essay and highlight the first sentence of each paragraph in bold. Then read back the bolded lines and see if some parts make sense or not. If they don’t make sense write a new version which all the lines flow together like a min-version of your essay.  Rewrite your paragraph so that each paragraph fleshes out the topic sentence. Take a break from it, and come back the next day with a fresh pair of eyes.
  • Bring the story to life through story telling:
  • Get an essay buddy: Connect with a friend or ask for feedback. However, make sure to be clear with the kind of feedback you are looking for. Ethan offers tips on his website on getting feedback:

Get more information about the essay process and how much they count in college admissions from Christine VanDevelde, co-author of the number one book on College admissions here.