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College Essays 101

Read Elijah’s First Version


Over the summer, Elijah wrote this first draft on his own, giving himself time to get feedback and do a rewrite.

For this version, we’ll show you just the first sentence and the first paragraph. Go through each tab before moving to the second version.

Click through each tab. Be sure to ponder and answer the questions as you go.
Read the first sentence.

For the past seven summers of my life I have spent a week or more at a summer camp in the San Juan Islands, YMCA Camp Orkila. 

What do you think? What are your first impressions of this sentence?

What do you think of the writing?

What kind of person might Elijah be?

If you were an admissions officer, what would you think?

Read the first paragraph.

For the past seven summers of my life I have spent a week or more at a summer camp in the San Juan Islands, YMCA Camp Orkila. Five of those summers were spent as a traditional camper, playing games in the forest, or other things one might expect from a summer camp. Looking back on my time spent there, I can say with certainty that I would not be the person I am today without that camp. Over the years my counselors taught me valuable life skills, most importantly how to be confident in my actions, a lesson I have always carried closely with me. It was because of these valuable lessons and their impact on my life, that I decided I would take the next step, and become a counselor at my summer camp. 

What you do think about this paragraph? What are your first impressions?

What do you notice about the writing quality?

What do you notice about the content?

What do you know about Elijah? What kind of person is he? What would it be like to be around him?

Read the common reactions.

Most people’s eyes glaze over reading this essay. It’s boring, full of uninteresting and unimportant details. One hundred and thirty-five words into his essay, all you know is that Elijah went to camp, was a counselor, and learned something about being confident.

Admissions officers have read this essay a hundred times before and can guess what will come next. By the time they get to the end of this first paragraph, they are skimming quickly.

Take the Roommate Test

If this were all you knew about Elijah, and learned that he (or she) would be your roommate, would you give a:

  • thumbs up, excited about your new roomie?
  • thumbs sideways, need to wait and see?
  • thumbs down, you do not want this person as your roommate?

In our live workshops, the average is a little less than thumbs sideways. Students and parents are either unsure or think that he’s just too boring.

Elijah didn't know his audience.

Admissions officers read at least 1.3 million words of college essays every year—that’s every Harry Potter book, plus the unabridged Moby Dick.

Admissions officers tell us that they spend too much of their time reading essays that don’t reveal much about students, tell the same story they’ve read a thousand times, or are poorly written.

Your audience is Sad Jacob, a bored and frustrated college admissions officer who just wants to get to know you. 


Jacob dreads essays like Elijah’s first version.

Don’t be like Elijah.

You're ready to move on when

  • You’ve read the first paragraph of Elijah’s first version.
  • You’ve asked and answered the questions.
  • You’ve read the common reactions to the essay and taken the roommate test.
  • You’ve read about his audience.