College Application Essays: Early Starter Tips

College Application Essays: Early Starter Tips

Meet our College Essay Coach

College Essay Coach Dan Lee

Hello! I’m Dan Lee, an English instructor and college application essay coach at MEK. I studied philosophy and history in college and I recently went through the law school admissions process, so if you happen to have any legal aspirations I’d love to talk to you about them! In my free time, I like to hike, make music, and irritate my dog.

What draws me to MEK’s College Essay Coaching program is the fact that I believe that everyone has engaging stories to tell from their lives, and that everyone can be taught how to tell these stories with the polish and confidence they deserve. Let’s find out what your stories are and make them shine!

Tips for Early Starters

Below I’m sharing 3 essential tips for those students who want to start working on their college application essays early – a decision I strongly recommend.

Tip #1. Understand the Key Elements of a Strong Essay

I’ve noticed that there are two elements in common in more than 90% of the successful and compelling college essays that I’ve read. These two elements are:

1) an anecdote, or short story, from an applicant’s life

2) a meaningful reflection on the anecdote and/or the applicant’s personality or circumstances.

This makes sense. What we’re trying to do when we’re writing the Common App or supplemental essays is convince application committees that we’re a good fit for their student body because of some qualities or characteristics that we possess.

But we can’t just write to them saying, “Hi, I play hockey and I’m funny and I’m pretty neat! Please let me in.” 

What we can do is communicate these qualities about ourselves through a short story.

Stories are the most effective tool to connect us to the experiences of strangers, and a well-written story will communicate to a reader not only that you have certain appealing characteristics, but also that you have a sharp and discerning eye for the world around you.

But stories by themselves are not enough to show that you’re a strong applicant.

We also want to show that we’re capable of reflecting honestly on our experiences and using these reflections to grow, learn, and improve. This is why we need a portion of the essay dedicated to introspection where we can talk about what this experience meant to us, how it has changed us, and how we can use it to better our lives in the future.

Tip #2. Read or Listen to Successful Stories

So to write compelling college essays, we should be sharpening two broad skill sets: storytelling and introspection.

We should, however, be wary of thinking about these skills as two entirely separate abilities or portions of an essay. The best stories deftly interweave introspection and observant storytelling together, creating a tightly crafted narrative that relays the events of the story while simultaneously reflecting your personality and your capacity to think.

For those of you starting early in thinking about this process, you have a distinct leg up because you have extra time to look at and absorb successful stories. 

Below are some of my reading and listening suggestions for students who want to get a head start in preparing for college application essays:

The Math Radio Hour Icon

The Moth Radio Hour

For those of you who hate the physical act of reading, I highly recommend The Moth Radio Hour, a storytelling podcast that compiles some of the best live storytelling from across the country. 

Check out here.

The New Yorker – Flash FictionThe New Yorker - Flash Fiction Cover

I recommend reading stories from The New Yorker, even though they have a limit on the stories you can read (pro tip: try clearing your cache and cookies once you run out of articles). They are generally of very good quality, and the Flash Fiction section of the magazine has stories that are more or less how long your essays should be.

Check out here.

 And click here for a list of some of the most-read stories on The New Yorker, which are from as far back as 1946 and span a similarly wide range of topics and styles. 

What you’ll notice about well-crafted stories is that they have an eye for detail, use vocabulary deliberately, and express the narrator’s personality.

Tip #3. Start Writing!

Once you’ve read and experienced good literature, the next step is to try to write your own stories.

You’ll probably find that you’re writing in a style that copies that of your most recently read or your favorite short story. And that’s fine!

The more you write, the more you’ll discover your own voice and personality.

I cannot stress the importance of this idea of “the more you write” enough. The absolute best thing you can do for your writing skills is to write every day. It doesn’t have to be a journal or a diary or even about yourself (although it can). You can write little stories about what would happen if the government banned deodorant, or what might happen if aliens came to earth and thought penguins were our leaders (if you want ideas, check out this subreddit with tons of writing prompts)

Even if it doesn’t seem like it, everything that you write helps to develop your personal voice and style. The earlier and more consistently you read and write, the better you will be prepared for the essays come senior year.

Want More Expert Tips?

If you want expert guidance on crafting strong college application essays from start to finish, sign up to work one-on-one with me or one of my fellow expert essay coaches through our Application Essay Writing Program.

You can call 855-346-1410 or contact us here to get started!


Dan Lee

Daniel Lee is an English Instructor for College Test Prep, H.S. Test Prep, and College Application Essays. He teaches students about the ins and outs of test prep, and is a student-favorite with his kind yet firm approach to teaching.


Don’t miss the next insider event.