An Independent School • Grades 5-12
The role of writing in college admissions

by Ari Worthman, director of college counseling

During the last few years, student writing has been increasingly important in the college application process. With grade inflation nationwide and students’ increasing access to a range of activities, grades and extracurricular involvement rarely make students stand out; rather, they’re the basic criteria students must possess to put themselves into contention. Students' writing, demonstrated by the stories they craft in college essays, is what makes them rise to the top.

Lakeside is committed to teaching our students strong writing skills. They write extensively in all classes, including math and science, becoming versatile writers capable of harnessing different styles and approaches. This versatility is crucial when it comes to college essays. For example, when students apply to the University of Pennsylvania, they’re prompted to write a thank you note to someone they haven’t yet thanked and would like to acknowledge. This is a drastically different exercise from writing Occidental College’s essay, which asks students to describe a current event or social movement that is important to them. Or, when they apply to the University of Chicago, students are challenged to tap their creative juices: “You are on an expedition to found a colony on Mars, when from a nearby crater, a group of Martians suddenly emerges. They seem eager to communicate, but they’re the impatient kind and demand you represent the human race in one song, image, memory, proof, or other idea. What do you share with them to show that humanity is worth their time?” With the excellent guidance of Lakeside teachers, our students are prepared to write in a style and tone that is appropriate in each situation.

As the importance of college essays has grown, the college counseling office has evolved to ensure that students are receiving top-notch support. In 2018, we added a part-time essay specialist to our team (Catharine Jacobsen). This year, we’ve evolved again: our newest full-time college counselor, Bonnie Singh, is also a writing specialist. Bonnie joins us from the college counseling office at Westridge School in California, where she focused on providing students with essay support (read Singh’s full bio on the college counseling Meet the Team page). With Bonnie’s addition to our team, Lakeside seniors will have more support when it comes to this writing form.

Beyond all that we do at Lakeside, families still sometimes wonder if there are additional steps to make their students strong college applicants. There are.

ReadRead. And read some more.

The strongest writers are almost always avid readers who, over time, have exposed themselves to varying genres and writing styles. This includes scientific, historical, and fictional literature (genres that students read extensively in Lakeside classes). But it also includes romance novels, science fiction, graphic novels, personal essays, and popular science magazines. Neither reading Dostoevsky nor Victorian literature is a requirement for being a good writer. Because stories come in many forms, students can build their writing skills by reading any kind of literature that excites them.

So, to our students and families of all grade levels, I offer this one piece of advice universal to the best college applicants: Find a book or article you’re excited to read, of any genre. Crack it open and start reading. Finish it. And repeat.


Ari Worthman is Lakeside’s director of college counseling. Reach him and other members of the team at