In 250-650 Words…

Every senior who applies to college experiences the joy of writing… a college essay. The Common Application along with almost every other college application requires a ‘Personal Essay’ aka ‘Tell us about yourself in 250-650 words and why we should admit you to our institution.’ If writing a page or two that encompasses who you are isn’t a challenge, I don’t know what is. Yes, the college essay is personal and shows colleges something that they may not see elsewhere in your application, but it’s not the same as having a conversation with someone or telling a story in person. With that said, everyone who goes to college or applies to college goes through the same process. I have to say, it wasn’t as painful as I thought it would be. Here’s why:

  1. I love to write. I journal almost every day (when time allows) and like to utilize words to express myself. Writing an essay about me combined my passion for journaling along with a very relevant assignment!
  2. The Common App essay questions aren’t all that terrible. There are five options that one can choose to write about, and the prompts are brief & broad. Therefore, there’s plenty of flexibility to mold an essay that fits into at least one of the categories.
  3. I wrote an initial draft of my college essay during my junior year in English class with Ms. Layden. Ms. Layden is an inspiration to me as a writer, so having her help me by editing and brainstorming made writing that much easier and more exciting.
  4. It’s an amazing feeling copying and pasting the final version of your college essay into the Common App text box. The writing section is at the end of the Common App too!
  5. Once you’re done with your college essay, you’re that much closer to applying to college! The rest of the application is a piece of cake 😉

At the end of the day, I was very proud of my college essay. It became a finished product of something that clearly shouted ‘Emma LeMay’ on paper for a college admission officer who read my application. Here are my tips for those writing their college essays.

  1. Free write before you officially start writing your first college essay draft. Write a story that makes you smile every time you think of it. Write about a lesson you learned. Write about what makes you happy. Write about what makes you sad. Brainstorming is a huge part of writing the college essay. Get something down on paper. Don’t just sit there at your desk thinking “I have no idea what to write” before scrolling through your Instagram & Twitter feeds.
  2. Look at the Common App prompts:
    1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
    2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
    3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
    4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
    5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.It’s a good idea to ponder these prompts and something you would want to write about that fits one of them.
  3. Write a college essay that has 650+ words. This allows plenty of room for editing. 700-800 words is a good target. I would honestly use as many words as you can. Longer doesn’t always necessarily mean better, but you want to make sure that you really get YOU across in less than 650 words.
  4. Have other people read/edit your essay! I know it’s hard letting other people see your work, whether you like to write or not, but it’s very helpful to receive feedback. If you let a parent or friend read it, they might help you add more “You” aspects to it or take some out.
  5. Try and make your essay unique. We’ve all experienced failure. Many of us have gotten our license by senior year. Most of us have gone on a trip that has somehow changed our lives. A lot of us love being on the sports field. These experiences are fine to write about, but make sure that you put your own spin on it. Think to yourself “How can I set myself apart from the other thousands of students who are also writing about these topics?”
  6. Start writing a draft over the summer of your junior year! That way when fall rolls around, you’ll already have something to work with. Fall of senior year is extremely busy. Back to school, college applications, soccer games, homecoming, apple picking, etc… Why not get a head start?
  7. Have fun with this! Yes, someone’s telling you what you SHOULD write about, but they’re not telling you HOW to write. Present yourself maturely and how you want to be presented, but have fun and be yourself. Creativity adds bonus points to any college essay! (Fayla included one of her original poems in her college essay, demonstrating her passion for poetry).
  8. Treat yourself to something when you finish your final draft (a burger at Five Guys, a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, a bowl at Chipotle)!This is a huge part of the college application process, and you’ve finished it. You’re happy with it. You can move on to the other parts of the Common App!

Here is the final draft of my college essay that I submitted to 9 out of 10 colleges. I wrote about prompt #1, and it amounted to 608 words.

Good luck and happy writing! xo ~e.


The familiar scent of sweat, perfume, and window cleaner fills my nostrils with a surprisingly comforting sensation. Children cry as their parents hurry them up the left side of an escalator. Starbucks baristas bustle around making too expensive, yet delicious drinks, and write names on their famous paper cups for their infinite line of customers. Intimidatingly beautiful women retouch their MAC lipstick, careful not to stain their Essie Fiji nail polish (that I so desperately want) in the crowded, dingy bathroom.

These sights are strangely soothing and solidify the fact that I am Emma Hua LeMay; sometimes I need to be in a crowded room where no one knows my name to be reminded of that. Waiting in Terminal C with sweaty palms at Newark International Airport on June 13, 2015 did just that. I felt like Emma Hua LeMay: confident, beyond excited, and ready to travel to China for the first time. I knew this plane ride would bring me one step closer to finding another aspect to the Emma Hua LeMay I’ve known for seventeen years.

I was adopted from Chongqing, China on December 14, 1998. I’ve always wished that I could remember something about my life in China. What kinds of vegetables I ate, how the language sounded, what it felt like to be carried around the city streets in the morning. Unfortunately, my hippocampus is not powerful enough to allow me to remember any of those experiences. However, I vividly remember my childhood in America. I viewed myself as white throughout most of my childhood; I grew up with a white family surrounded by white friends in a predominantly white, New England town. Therefore, I had rare opportunities to embrace my Chinese heritage, even though my peers often reminded me of it. When I got to the race section of the ERB standardized test in fourth grade, I checked off ‘White.’ My friend said, “Emma, that’s not the right box. You’re Asian.” In that moment, all I wanted to do was cry. I was uncomfortable with my Chinese identity because I was unable to associate myself with it. That changed before my plane had even left the New Jersey tarmac.

When we were waiting at our terminal, a teenage girl my age came up to me and started speaking rapid Chinese. I think she was asking me for directions, but I completely froze up. No one had ever just started speaking to me in Chinese before. In this moment, I realized, “Whoa. I really am Chinese! Chinese people can look at me and tell that I’m Chinese.” In the boarding line, I received several puzzled looks by Chinese people because I had a navy passport, not a maroon one. Boarding the plane, I realized that the ticket person only knew that my mom was my mom because of the same last names in our passport. My mom joked that people thought that I was her Chinese tour guide. I entered the plane before my mom and grandma, and the flight attendant said to me, “xianqián, ránhòu xiàng yòu” (forward then to the right) to direct me to my seat. That was simple enough for me to understand after taking three years of Chinese in high school.

These incidents made me feel confident and independent, as did several similar experiences in China. Just being in the presence of people of my own race in an anonymous airport hanger allowed me to take pride in my Chinese heritage. I learned that my roots are in China and that I am American. The best part of that statement? I will never have to second-guess my identity again.



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