A Simple College Essay Writing Trick

By Maxine Seya

It’s college application season, which means it’s also essay writing season! I might add it’s also pumpkin spice latte season, which might sound a little more exciting to our teens.

I’ve seen a lot of online resources floating around on how to write college essays.

Some of them involve outlines, like the ones our middle schoolers were forced to do in English class.

Some ask for two weeks of brainstorming before any word is typed.

Others say the only way to write a good college essay is to attend an $85k summer essay bootcamp in a hotel lobby (not needed).

Others say it’s best to watch YouTube videos from successful college admits and do whatever they did.

Yes, the options for college essay writing prep are boundless. But among these endless options is one that I find simple and approachable.

It’s called the three-part college essay.

The three-part college essay involves — yup, you guessed it — three parts. Only three parts. We can do anything when it’s only three little parts, right?

Like the bedroom posters that inspire us to “Live, Laugh, Love,” or our pastor who reminds us to always thank “God, His son, and the Holy Spirit,” or our local spa brochures that guarantee rejuvenation of the “Mind, Body, and Soul,” my students and I like the three-part college essay because new concepts are easily digested in groups of three.

What is in the three-part college essay?

Before I explain this, let’s get on the same page. College essays all look very different. There is no one right way to do it. And there is no one correct prompt to choose.

This three-part essay technique helps to conceptualize, organize, and simplify the daunting task of the essay.

It does not guarantee you end up with a good or even complete essay.

Let’s say your student picked Common App prompt #2:

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

The three-part organization would ask them to break down the essay into three distinct parts:

Part I: The story of the setback (about 200 words)

This is the section where your student tells the story of what happened using vivid imagery, quotes, and colorful descriptors. Note that one section does not equate to one paragraph. One section can have more than one paragraph, but they all relate to the story of the failure or setback.

For example, it could be a story about losing a friend, being the last to finish in a 200-person cross-country race, losing a parent and having to be the primary caretaker, building a profitable online business that tanked when Google changed its search algorithm, etc.

One inappropriate topic here is how remote learning killed your grades and how Covid sucked. This is, sadly, not a unique story, so try something else.

Part II: How I overcame it (about 200 words)


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Maxine Seya
Maxine Seya is a former investigative journalist, college consultant, and admissions interviewer. She studied at Peking University (Beijing, China) and Université Paul-Valéry (Montpellier, France) and investigated for CNN and Huffington Post before graduating from Northwestern University. She founded SocratesPost to share the human stories behind the admission gates and offer parents clarity as they help their teens with college.