With all the conflicting advice out there, it might seem impossible to work out what colleges are actually looking for. Students who don’t have help often vacillate all summer and fall. It’s a bad situation since the personal essay is just the first of many essays that students have to crank out. In fact, supplemental essays are often weighed more heavily by colleges since they’re used as a form of demonstrated interest. So that students can focus on these supplemental essays and their fall coursework—and take advantage of any Early Action or Early Decision deadlines—we aim for rising seniors to get their personal essay out of the way in June or July. So, what do we encourage HeyCollege students write about? Year after year, we’ve seen how much colleges love hearing about a challenging experience that has led to a student’s personal growth. It makes sense—in books and movies, audiences want to see the main character react to challenges. A classic example is Harry Potter—we can’t help but root for him as he faces problems, struggles, and grows by getting in touch with his values and capabilities. But students don’t have to have navigated Voldemort-level adversity or big “C” challenges—little “c” challenges make great essays, too! Maybe a student has dealt with disappointment in an activity or project that’s important to them, or maybe they’ve discovered an interest that’s helped them overcome a perceived weakness. We use brainstorming questions like these to help students quickly identify their most promising challenge, and then they write their essay using a “paint by numbers” outline that guides them through the details that will make up most of their essay: what they did and how they grew. We find this approach makes it easier to write an effective essay, but even better, we believe it can positively shape students’ lives beyond college, as it’s inspired by psychologist Dr. David Denborough’s research (“Retelling the Stories of Our Lives: Everyday Narrative Therapy to Draw Inspiration and Transform Experience”) and former writing professor Louise Desalvo (“Writing As a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives”).