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12 Strategies to Writing the Perfect College Essay
College admission committees sift through thousands of college essays each year. Here’s how to make yours stand out.
When it comes to deciding who they will admit into their programs, colleges consider many criteria, including high school grades, extracurricular activities, and ACT and SAT scores. But in recent years, more colleges are no longer considering test scores.
Instead, many (including Harvard through 2026) are opting for “test-blind” admission policies that give more weight to other elements in a college application. This policy change is seen as fairer to students who don’t have the means or access to testing, or who suffer from test anxiety.
So, what does this mean for you?
Simply that your college essay, traditionally a requirement of any college application, is more important than ever.
A college essay is your unique opportunity to introduce yourself to admissions committees who must comb through thousands of applications each year. It is your chance to stand out as someone worthy of a seat in that classroom.
A well-written and thoughtful essay—reflecting who you are and what you believe—can go a long way to separating your application from the slew of forgettable ones that admissions officers read. Indeed, officers may rely on them even more now that many colleges are not considering test scores.
Below we’ll discuss a few strategies you can use to help your essay stand out from the pack. We’ll touch on how to start your essay, what you should write for your college essay, and elements that make for a great college essay.
More than any other consideration, you should choose a topic or point of view that is consistent with who you truly are.
Readers can sense when writers are inauthentic.
Inauthenticity could mean the use of overly flowery language that no one would ever use in conversation, or it could mean choosing an inconsequential topic that reveals very little about who you are.
Use your own voice, sense of humor, and a natural way of speaking.
Whatever subject you choose, make sure it’s something that’s genuinely important to you and not a subject you’ve chosen just to impress. You can write about a specific experience, hobby, or personality quirk that illustrates your strengths, but also feel free to write about your weaknesses.
Honesty about traits, situations, or a childhood background that you are working to improve may resonate with the reader more strongly than a glib victory speech.
Grab the Reader From the Start
You’ll be competing with so many other applicants for an admission officer’s attention.
Therefore, start your essay with an opening sentence or paragraph that immediately seizes the imagination. This might be a bold statement, a thoughtful quote, a question you pose, or a descriptive scene.
Starting your essay in a powerful way with a clear thesis statement can often help you along in the writing process. If your task is to tell a good story, a bold beginning can be a natural prelude to getting there, serving as a roadmap, engaging the reader from the start, and presenting the purpose of your writing.
Focus on Deeper Themes
Some essay writers think they will impress committees by loading an essay with facts, figures, and descriptions of activities, like wins in sports or descriptions of volunteer work. But that’s not the point.
College admissions officers are interested in learning more about who you are as a person and what makes you tick.
They want to know what has brought you to this stage in life. They want to read about realizations you may have come to through adversity as well as your successes, not just about how many games you won while on the soccer team or how many people you served at a soup kitchen.
Let the reader know how winning the soccer game helped you develop as a person, friend, family member, or leader. Make a connection with your soup kitchen volunteerism and how it may have inspired your educational journey and future aspirations. What did you discover about yourself?
Show Don’t Tell
As you expand on whatever theme you’ve decided to explore in your essay, remember to show, don’t tell.
The most engaging writing “shows” by setting scenes and providing anecdotes, rather than just providing a list of accomplishments and activities.
Reciting a list of activities is also boring. An admissions officer will want to know about the arc of your emotional journey too.
Try Doing Something Different
If you want your essay to stand out, think about approaching your subject from an entirely new perspective. While many students might choose to write about their wins, for instance, what if you wrote an essay about what you learned from all your losses?
If you are an especially talented writer, you might play with the element of surprise by crafting an essay that leaves the response to a question to the very last sentence.
You may want to stay away from well-worn themes entirely, like a sports-related obstacle or success, volunteer stories, immigration stories, moving, a summary of personal achievements or overcoming obstacles.
However, such themes are popular for a reason. They represent the totality of most people’s lives coming out of high school. Therefore, it may be less important to stay away from these topics than to take a fresh approach.
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Write With the Reader in Mind
Writing for the reader means building a clear and logical argument in which one thought flows naturally from another.
Use transitions between paragraphs.
Think about any information you may have left out that the reader may need to know. Are there ideas you have included that do not help illustrate your theme?
Be sure you can answer questions such as: Does what you have written make sense? Is the essay organized? Does the opening grab the reader? Is there a strong ending? Have you given enough background information? Is it wordy?
Write Several Drafts
Set your essay aside for a few days and come back to it after you’ve had some time to forget what you’ve written. Often, you’ll discover you have a whole new perspective that enhances your ability to make revisions.
Start writing months before your essay is due to give yourself enough time to write multiple drafts. A good time to start could be as early as the summer before your senior year when homework and extracurricular activities take up less time.
Read It Aloud
Writer’s tip : Reading your essay aloud can instantly uncover passages that sound clumsy, long-winded, or false.
If you’ve mentioned an activity, story, or anecdote in some other part of your application, don’t repeat it again in your essay.
Your essay should tell college admissions officers something new. Whatever you write in your essay should be in philosophical alignment with the rest of your application.
Also, be sure you’ve answered whatever question or prompt may have been posed to you at the outset.
Ask Others to Read Your Essay
Be sure the people you ask to read your essay represent different demographic groups—a teacher, a parent, even a younger sister or brother.
Ask each reader what they took from the essay and listen closely to what they have to say. If anyone expresses confusion, revise until the confusion is cleared up.
Pay Attention to Form
Although there are often no strict word limits for college essays, most essays are shorter rather than longer. Common App, which students can use to submit to multiple colleges, suggests that essays stay at about 650 words.
“While we won’t as a rule stop reading after 650 words, we cannot promise that an overly wordy essay will hold our attention for as long as you’d hoped it would,” the Common App website states.
In reviewing other technical aspects of your essay, be sure that the font is readable, that the margins are properly spaced, that any dialogue is set off properly, and that there is enough spacing at the top. Your essay should look clean and inviting to readers.
End Your Essay With a “Kicker”
In journalism, a kicker is the last punchy line, paragraph, or section that brings everything together.
It provides a lasting impression that leaves the reader satisfied and impressed by the points you have artfully woven throughout your piece.
So, here’s our kicker: Be concise and coherent, engage in honest self-reflection, and include vivid details and anecdotes that deftly illustrate your point.
While writing a fantastic essay may not guarantee you get selected, it can tip the balance in your favor if admissions officers are considering a candidate with a similar GPA and background.
Write, revise, revise again, and good luck!
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About the Author
Pamela Reynolds is a Boston-area feature writer and editor whose work appears in numerous publications. She is the author of “Revamp: A Memoir of Travel and Obsessive Renovation.”
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Most selective colleges require you to submit an essay or personal statement as part of your application.
It may sound like a chore, and it will certainly take a substantial amount of work. But it's also a unique opportunity that can make a difference at decision time. Admissions committees put the most weight on your high school grades and your test scores . However, selective colleges receive applications from many worthy students with similar scores and grades—too many to admit. So they use your essay, along with your letters of recommendation and extracurricular activities , to find out what sets you apart from the other talented candidates.
Telling Your Story to Colleges
So what does set you apart?
You have a unique background, interests and personality. This is your chance to tell your story (or at least part of it). The best way to tell your story is to write a personal, thoughtful essay about something that has meaning for you. Be honest and genuine, and your unique qualities will shine through.
Admissions officers have to read an unbelievable number of college essays, most of which are forgettable. Many students try to sound smart rather than sounding like themselves. Others write about a subject that they don't care about, but that they think will impress admissions officers.
You don't need to have started your own business or have spent the summer hiking the Appalachian Trail. Colleges are simply looking for thoughtful, motivated students who will add something to the first-year class.
Tips for a Stellar College Application Essay
1. write about something that's important to you..
It could be an experience, a person, a book—anything that has had an impact on your life.
2. Don't just recount—reflect!
Anyone can write about how they won the big game or the summer they spent in Rome. When recalling these events, you need to give more than the play-by-play or itinerary. Describe what you learned from the experience and how it changed you.
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3. Being funny is tough.
A student who can make an admissions officer laugh never gets lost in the shuffle. But beware. What you think is funny and what an adult working in a college thinks is funny are probably different. We caution against one-liners, limericks and anything off–color.
4. Start early and write several drafts.
Set it aside for a few days and read it again. Put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer: Is the essay interesting? Do the ideas flow logically? Does it reveal something about the applicant? Is it written in the applicant’s own voice?
5. No repeats.
What you write in your application essay or personal statement should not contradict any other part of your application–nor should it repeat it. This isn't the place to list your awards or discuss your grades or test scores.
6. Answer the question being asked.
Don't reuse an answer to a similar question from another application.
7. Have at least one other person edit your essay.
A teacher or college counselor is your best resource. And before you send it off, check, check again, and then triple check to make sure your essay is free of spelling or grammar errors.
Read More: 2018-2019 Common Application Essay Prompts (and How to Answer Them)
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35+ Best College Essay Tips from College Application Experts
This blog has several hundred posts.
Know what that means?
It means we’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about college essays.
But guess what?
A lot of other people have too.
So we reached out to some of our favorite college admissions experts—some current and former admissions officers—and ask one simple question:
WHAT’S your favorite piece of advice about writing a college essay?
Below are the results.
TABLE OF CONTENTS University Admissions Administrators College Application Experts College Essay Guy's College Essay Tips
College essay tips from university admission administrators.
1. know that the best ideas for your essay—the perfect opener, a great twist, a brilliant insight—often come when you least expect them.
That’s why it’s a good practice to keep a reliable collection system with you at all times as you’re preparing to write your essay. It could be your phone. It could be index cards. It could be a Moleskine notebook (if you really want to do it with panache). Just don’t store it in your own brain thinking that you’ll remember it later. Your mind may be a magnificently wonderful idea-making machine, but it’s a lousy filing cabinet. Store those ideas in one place outside your brain so that when inspiration hits you in the bathroom, in the car, on a hike—wherever—you’ll have a place to capture it and come back to it later when you need it.
This college essay tip is by Ken Anselment, Marquette University graduate and Vice President for Enrollment & Communication at Lawrence University .
2. Do not feel pressure to share every detail of challenging experiences, but also do not feel that you need to have a happy ending or solution .
Your writing should provide a context within which the reader learns about who you are and what has brought you to this stage in your life. Try to tie your account into how this has made you develop as a person, friend, family member or leader (or any role in your life that is important to you). You may also want to make a connection to how this has inspired some part of your educational journey or your future aspirations.
This college essay tip is by Jaclyn Robins, Assistant Director of admissions at the University of Southern California. The tip below is paraphrased from a post on the USC admissions blog .
3. Read it aloud.
There is something magical about reading out loud. As adults we don’t do this enough. In reading aloud to kids, colleagues, or friends we hear things differently, and find room for improvement when the writing is flat. So start by voice recording your essay.
This college essay tip is by Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admissions at Georgia Tech. The tip below is paraphrased from a post on the Georgia Tech Admission blog .
4. We want to learn about growth.
Some students spend a lot of time summarizing plot or describing their work and the "in what way" part of the essay winds up being one sentence. The part that is about you is the most important part. If you feel you need to include a description, make it one or two lines. Remember that admission offices have Google, too, so if we feel we need to hear the song or see the work of art, we'll look it up. The majority of the essay should be about your response and reaction to the work. How did it affect or change you?
This college essay tip is by Dean J, admissions officer and blogger from University of Virginia. The tip below is paraphrased from a post on the University of Virginia Admission blog .
5. Be specific.
Consider these two hypothetical introductory paragraphs for a master's program in library science.
“I am honored to apply for the Master of Library Science program at the University of Okoboji because as long as I can remember I have had a love affair with books. Since I was eleven I have known I wanted to be a librarian.”
“When I was eleven, my great-aunt Gretchen passed away and left me something that changed my life: a library of about five thousand books. Some of my best days were spent arranging and reading her books. Since then, I have wanted to be a librarian.”
Each graf was 45 words long and contained substantively the same information (applicant has wanted to be a librarian since she was a young girl). But they are extraordinarily different essays, most strikingly because the former is generic where the latter is specific. It was a real thing, which happened to a real person, told simply. There is nothing better than that.
This college essay tip is by Chris Peterson, Assistant Director at MIT Admissions. The tip below is paraphrased from the post “How To Write A College Essay” on the MIT blog .
6. Tell a good story.
Most people prefer reading a good story over anything else. So... tell a great story in your essay. Worry less about providing as many details about you as possible and more about captivating the reader's attention inside of a great narrative. I read a great essay this year where an applicant walked me through the steps of meditation and how your body responds to it. Loved it. (Yes, I'll admit I'm a predisposed meditation fan .)
This college essay tip is by Jeff Schiffman, Director of Admissions at Tulane University and health and fitness nut.
7. Write like you speak.
Here’s my favorite trick when I’ve got writer’s block: turn on the recording device on my phone, and just start talking. I actually use voice memos in my car when I have a really profound thought (or a to do list I need to record), so find your happy place and start recording. Maybe inspiration always seems to strike when you’re walking your dog, or on the bus to school. Make notes where and when you can so that you can capture those organic thoughts for later. This also means you should use words and phrases that you would actually use in everyday conversation. If you are someone who uses the word indubitably all the time, then by all means, go for it. But if not, then maybe you should steer clear. The most meaningful essays are those where I feel like the student is sitting next to me, just talking to me.
This college essay tip is by Kim Struglinski, admissions counselor from Vanderbilt University. The tip below is paraphrased from the excellent post “Tips for Writing Your College Essay ” on the Vanderbilt blog .
8. Verb you, Dude!
Verbs jump, dance, fall, fail us. Nouns ground us, name me, define you. “We are the limits of our language.” Love your words, feed them, let them grow. Teach them well and they will teach you too. Let them play, sing, or sob outside of yourself. Give them as a gift to others. Try the imperative, think about your future tense, when you would have looked back to the imperfect that defines us and awaits us. Define, Describe, Dare. Have fun.
This college essay tip is by Parke Muth , former associate dean of Admissions at the University of Virginia (28 years in the office) and member of the Jefferson Scholars selection committee.
9. Keep the story focused on a discrete moment in time.
By zeroing in on one particular aspect of what is, invariably, a long story, you may be better able to extract meaning from the story. So instead of talking generally about playing percussion in the orchestra, hone in on a huge cymbal crash marking the climax of the piece. Or instead of trying to condense that two-week backpacking trip into a couple of paragraphs, tell your reader about waking up in a cold tent with a skiff of snow on it. The specificity of the story not only helps focus the reader’s attention, but also opens the door to deeper reflection on what the story means to you.
This college essay tip is by Mark Montgomery, former Associate Dean at the University of Denver, admissions counselor for Fort Lewis College, founder of Great College Advice , and professor of international affairs at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Kansas.
10. Start preparing now.
Yes, I know it’s still summer break. However, the essay is already posted on our website here and isn’t going to change before the application opens on September 1. Take a look, and start to formulate your plan. Brainstorm what you are going to tell us — focus on why you are interested in the major you chose. If you are choosing the Division of General Studies, tells us about your passions, your career goals, or the different paths you are interested in exploring.
This college essay tip is by Hanah Teske, admissions counselor at the University of Illinois. This tip was paraphrased form Hanah’s blog post on the University of Illinois blog .
11. Imagine how the person reading your essay will feel.
No one's idea of a good time is writing a college essay, I know. But if sitting down to write your essay feels like a chore, and you're bored by what you're saying, you can imagine how the person reading your essay will feel . On the other hand, if you're writing about something you love, something that excites you, something that you've thought deeply about, chances are I'm going to set down your application feeling excited, too—and feeling like I've gotten to know you.
This college essay tip is by Abigail McFee, Admissions Counselor for Tufts University and Tufts ‘17 graduate.
College Essay Tips from College Admissions Experts
12. Think outside the text box!
Put a little pizazz in your essays by using different fonts, adding color, including foreign characters or by embedding media—links, pictures or illustrations. And how does this happen? Look for opportunities to upload essays onto applications as PDFs. It’s not always possible, but when it is, you will not only have complete control over the ‘look’ of your essay but you will also potentially enrich the content of your work.
This college essay tip is by Nancy Griesemer, University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University graduate and founder of College Explorations who has decades of experiencing counseling high schoolers on getting into college.
13. Write like a journalist.
"Don't bury the lede!" The first few sentences must capture the reader's attention, provide a gist of the story, and give a sense of where the essay is heading. Think about any article you've read—how do you decide to read it? You read the first few sentences and then decide. The same goes for college essays. A strong lede (journalist parlance for "lead") will place your reader in the "accept" mindset from the beginning of the essay. A weak lede will have your reader thinking "reject"—a mindset from which it's nearly impossible to recover.
This college essay tip is by Brad Schiller, MIT graduate and CEO of Prompt , which provides individualized feedback on thousands of students’ essays each year.
14. I promote an approach called “into, through, and beyond.”
(This approach) pushes kids to use examples to push their amazing qualities, provide some context, and end with hopes and dreams. Colleges are seeking students who will thrive on their campuses, contribute in numerous ways, especially “bridge” building, and develop into citizens who make their worlds and our worlds a better place. So application essays are a unique way for applicants to share, reflect, and connect their values and goals with colleges. Admissions officers want students to share their power, their leadership, their initiative, their grit, their kindness—all through relatively recent stories. I ask students: “Can the admissions officers picture you and help advocate for you by reading your essays?” Often kids don’t see their power, and we can help them by realizing what they offer colleges through their activities and life experiences. Ultimately I tell them, “Give the colleges specific reasons to accept you—and yes you will have to ‘brag.’ But aren’t you worth it? Use your essays to empower your chances of acceptance, merit money, and scholarships.”
This college essay tip is by Dr. Rebecca Joseph, professor at California State University and founder of All College Application Essays , develops tools for making the college essay process faster and easier.
15. Get personal.
Important note: “Getting personal” doesn’t necessarily mean sharing your deepest, darkest secrets, or describing traumatic experiences. It could mean sharing something you care about a lot, or details about one (or more) of the ways you identify.
For even more ideas on how to reveal your skills, qualities, and values without focusing on trauma, check out Why You Don’t Have to Write about Trauma in Your College Essay to Stand Out—and What You Can Do Instead .
16. Just make sure that the story you’re telling is uniquely YOURS .
I believe everyone has a story worth telling. Don’t feel like you have to have had a huge, life-changing, drama-filled experience. Sometimes the seemingly smallest moments lead us to the biggest breakthroughs.
This college essay tip is by Maggie Schuh, a member of the Testive Parent Success team and a high school English teacher in St. Louis.
17. Keep it simple!
No one is expecting you to solve the issue of world peace with your essay. Oftentimes, we find students getting hung up with “big ideas”. Remember, this essay is about YOU. What makes you different from the thousands of other applicants and their essays? Be specific. Use vivid imagery. If you’re having trouble, start small and go from there. P. S. make sure the first sentence of your essay is the most interesting one.
This college essay tip is by Myles Hunter, CEO of TutorMe , an online education platform that provides on-demand tutoring and online courses for thousands of students.
18. Honor your inspiration.
My parents would have much preferred that I write about sports or youth group, and I probably could have said something interesting about those, but I insisted on writing about a particular fish in the pet store I worked at—one that took much longer than the others to succumb when the whole tank system in the store became diseased. It was a macabre little composition, but it was about exactly what was on my mind at the time I was writing it. I think it gave whoever read it a pretty good view of my 17 year-old self. I'll never know if I got in because of that weird essay or in spite of it, but it remains a point of pride that I did it my way.
This college essay tip is by Mike McClenathan, founder of PwnTestPrep , which has a funny name but serious resources for helping high school students excel on the standardized tests.
19. Revise often and early.
Your admissions essay should go through several stages of revision. And by revisions, we don’t mean quick proofreads. Ask your parents, teachers, high school counselors or friends for their eyes and edits. It should be people who know you best and want you to succeed. Take their constructive criticism in the spirit for which they intend—your benefit.
This college essay tip is by Dhivya Arumugham, Kaplan Test Prep's director of SAT and ACT programs.
20. Write about things you care about .
The most obvious things make great topics. What do I mean? Colleges want to learn about who you are, what you value and how you will contribute to their community. I had two students write about their vehicles—one wrote about the experience of purchasing their used truck and one wrote about how her car is an extension of who she is. We learned about their responsibility, creative thinking, teamwork and resilience in a fun and entertaining way.
This college essay tip is by Mira “ Coach Mira ” Simon, Independent Educational Consultant and professionally trained coach from the Institute of Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC), who combines her expertise to help high school students find their pathway to college .
21. Don't tell them a story you think they want, tell them what YOU want.
Of course you want it to be a good read and stay on topic, but this is about showing admissions who you are. You don't want to get caught up in thinking too much about what they are expecting. Focus your thoughts on yourself and what you want to share.
This college essay tip is by Ashley McNaughton, Bucknell University graduate and founder of ACM College Consulting , consults on applicants internationally and volunteers with high achieving, low income students through ScholarMatch.
22. Be yourself.
A sneaky thing can happen as you set about writing your essay: you may find yourself guessing what a college admissions committee is looking for and writing to meet that made up criteria rather than standing firm in who you are and sharing your truest self. While you want to share your thoughts in the best possible light (edit please!), avoid the temptation minimize the things that make you who you are. Show your depth. Be honest about what matters to you. Be thoughtful about the experiences you've had that have shaped who you've become. Be your brilliant self. And trust that your perfect-fit college will see you for who truly you are and say "Yes! This is exactly who we've been looking for.”
This college essay tip is by Lauren Gaggioli, NYU graduate, host of The College Checklist podcast, and founder of Higher Scores Test Prep provides affordable test prep help to college applicants.
23. Parents should NEVER write a student's essay.
Admission officers can spot parent content immediately. The quickest way for a student to be denied admission is to allow a parent to write or edit with their own words. Parents can advise, encourage, and offer a second set of eyes, but they should never add their own words to a student's essay.
This college essay tip is by Suzanne Shaffer is a college prep expert, blogger, and author who manages the website Parenting for College .
24. Don't just write about your resume, recommendations, and high school transcripts.
Admissions officers want to know about you, your personality and emotions . For example, let them know what hobbies, interests, or passions you have. Do you excel in athletics or art? Let them know why you excel in those areas. It's so important to just be yourself and write in a manner that lets your personality shine through.
This college essay tip is by College Basic Team. College Basics offers free, comprehensive resources for both parents and students to help them navigate through the college application process and has been featured on some of the web’s top educational resource websites as well as linked to from well over 100+ different colleges, schools, and universities.
25. Find a way to showcase yourself without bragging.
Being confident is key, but you don't want to come across as boasting. Next, let them know how college will help you achieve your long-term goals. Help them connect the dots and let them know you are there for a reason. Finally (here’s an extra pro tip), learn how to answer common college interview questions within your essay. This will not only help you stand out from other applicants, but it will also prepare you for the college interview ahead of time as well.
26. Be real.
As a former college admissions officer, I read thousands of essays—good and bad. The essays that made the best impressions on me were the essays that were real. The students did not use fluff, big words, or try to write an essay they thought admission decisions makers wanted to read. The essays that impressed me the most were not academic essays, but personal statements that allowed me to get to know the reader. I was always more likely to admit or advocate for a student who was real and allowed me to get to know them in their essay.
This college essay tip is by Jessica Velasco, former director of admissions at Northwest University and founder of JLV College Counseling .
27. Don’t begin with “throat clearing.”
Dive right in.
“As I consider all the challenges I have faced in my life, I find myself most affected by the experiences I have had working at a high-end coffee shop, where I learned some important lessons about myself.”
That’s a major throat clear ... and definitely not a shot of espresso for your readers. They’re snoozing already! So start instead with:
I know her name is Amy but when she orders the vanilla macchiato she instructs me to write “Anastasia,” on the cardboard cup, deliberately pronouncing each letter as if it weren’t the hundredth time I’ve heard it.
Skip the moral-of-the-story conclusions, too. Don’t tell the admission folks, “ Now I know I can reach whatever goals I set. ” If your essay says what it’s supposed to, they’ll figure it out.
Warm-up strategy: Read the first two sentences and last two sentences in a few of your favorite novels. Did you spot any throat-clearing or moral-of-the-story endings? Probably not!
This college essay tip is by Sally Rubenstone, senior contributor to College Confidential , author of the “Ask the Dean” column, co-author of several books on college admissions, 15-year Smith College admission counselor, and teacher.
28. Don't read the Common Application prompts.
If you already have, erase them from memory and write the story you want colleges to hear. The truth is, admission reviewers rarely know—or care—which prompt you are responding to. They are curious to discover what you choose to show them about who you are, what you value, and why. Even the most fluid writers are often stifled by fitting their narrative neatly into a category and the essay quickly loses authentic voice. Write freely and choose a prompt later. Spoiler alert...one prompt is "Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. " So have at it.
This college essay tip is by Brennan Barnard, director of college counseling at the Derryfield School in Manchester, N.H. and contributor to the NYT, HuffPost, and Forbes on intentionally approaching college admissions .
29. Proofread, proofread, proofread.
Nothing’s perfect, of course, but the grammar, spelling, and punctuation in your admission essay should be as close to perfect as possible. After you're done writing, read your essay, re-read it a little later, and have someone else read it too, like a teacher or friend—they may find typos that your eyes were just too tired to see.
Colleges are looking for students who can express their thoughts clearly and accurately, and polishing your essay shows that you care about producing high-quality, college-level work. Plus, multiple errors could lower your chances of admission. So take the extra time and edit !
This college essay tip is by Claire Carter, University of Maine graduate and editor of CollegeXpress , one of the internet’s largest college and scholarship search engines.
30. Take the pressure off and try free-writing to limber up.
If you are having trouble coming up with what it is you want to convey or finding the perfect story to convey who you are, use prompts such as:
Share one thing that you wish people knew about you.
My biggest dream is ___________.
What have you enjoyed about high school?
Use three adjectives to describe yourself:____________, ___________, ________.
I suggest handwriting (versus typing on a keyboard) for 20 minutes. Don't worry about making it perfect, and don't worry about what you are going to write about. Think about getting yourself into a meditative state for 20 minutes and just write from the heart.
To get myself in a meditative state, I spend 60 seconds (set an alarm) drawing a spiral. Never let the pen come off the page, and just keep drawing around and around until the alarm goes off. Then, start writing.
It might feel you didn't write anything worthwhile, but my experience is that there is usually a diamond in the rough in there... perhaps more than one.
Do this exercise for 3-4 days straight, then read out loud what you have written to a trusted source (a parent? teacher? valued friend?).
Don't expect a masterpiece from this exercise (though stranger things have happened).
The goal is to discover the kernel of any idea that can blossom into your college essay—a story that will convey your message, or clarity about what message you want to convey.
Here is a picture of the spiral, in case you have trouble visualizing:
This college essay tip is by Debbie Stier, publisher, author of the same-title book The Perfect Score Project , featured on NBC’s Today Show, Bloomberg TV, CBS This Morning; in The New Yorker, The New York Post, USA Today, and more.
31. Show your emotions.
Adding feelings to your essays can be much more powerful than just listing your achievements. It allows reviewers to connect with you and understand your personality and what drives you. In particular, be open to showing vulnerability. Nobody expects you to be perfect and acknowledging times in which you have felt nervous or scared shows maturity and self-awareness.
This college essay tip is by Charles Maynard, Oxford and Stanford University Graduate and founder of Going Merry , which is a one-stop shop for applying to college scholarships
32. Be genuine and authentic. Make sure at least one “qualified” person edits your essay.
Your essay should be a true representation of who you are as a person—admissions officers want to read essays that are meaningful, thoughtful, and consistent with the rest of the application. Essays that come from the heart are the easiest to write and the best written. Have a teacher or counselor, not just your smartest friend, review and edit your essays. Don’t let mistakes and grammatical errors detract from your application.
This college essay tip is by Jonathan April, University of Chicago graduate, general manager of College Greenlight , which offers free tools to low-income and first-generation students developing their college lists.
COLLEGE ESSAY GUY’S COLLEGE ESSAY TIPS
The following essay, written by a former student, is so good that it illustrates at least five essential tips of good essay writing. It’s also one way to turn the objects exercise into an essay. Note how the writer incorporates a wide range of details and images through one particular lens: a scrapbook.
Prompt: Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.
The Scrapbook Essay I look at the ticking, white clock: it’s eleven at night, my primetime. I clear the carpet of the Sony camera charger, the faded Levi’s, and last week’s Statistics homework. Having prepared my work space, I pull out the big, blue box and select two 12 by 12 crème sheets of paper. The layouts of the pages are already imprinted in my mind, so I simply draw them on scratch paper. Now I can really begin. Cutting the first photograph, I make sure to leave a quarter inch border. I then paste it onto a polka-dotted green paper with a glue stick. For a sophisticated touch, I use needle and thread to sew the papers together. Loads of snipping and pasting later, the clock reads three in the morning. I look down at the final product, a full spread of photographs and cut-out shapes. As usual, I feel an overwhelming sense of pride as I brush my fingers over the crisp papers and the glossy photographs. For me, the act of taking pieces of my life and putting them together on a page is my way of organizing remnants of my past to make something whole and complete. This particular project is the most valuable scrapbook I have ever made: the scrapbook of my life. In the center of the first page are the words MY WORLD in periwinkle letters. The entire left side I have dedicated to the people in my life. All four of my Korean grandparents sit in the top corner; they are side by side on a sofa for my first birthday –my ddol. Underneath them are my seven cousins from my mom’s side. They freeze, trying not to let go of their overwhelming laughter while they play “red light, green light” at O’ Melveney Park, three miles up the hill behind my house. Meanwhile, my Texas cousins watch Daniel, the youngest, throw autumn leaves into the air that someone had spent hours raking up. To the right, my school peers and I miserably pose for our history teacher who could not resist taking a picture when he saw our droopy faces the morning of our first AP exam. The biggest photograph, of course, is that of my family, huddled in front of the fireplace while drinking my brother’s hot cocoa and listening to the pitter patter of rain outside our window. I move over to the right side of the page. At the top, I have neatly sewn on three items. The first is a page of a Cambodian Bible that was given to each of the soldiers at a military base where I taught English. Beneath it is the picture of my Guatemalan girls and me sitting on the dirt ground while we devour arroz con pollo, red sauce slobbered all over our lips. I reread the third item, a short note that a student at a rural elementary school in Korea had struggled to write in her broken English. I lightly touch the little chain with a dangling letter E included with the note. Moving to the lower portion of the page, I see the photo of the shelf with all my ceramic projects glazed in vibrant hues. With great pride, I have added a clipping of my page from the Mirror, our school newspaper, next to the ticket stubs for Wicked from my date with Dad. I make sure to include a photo of my first scrapbook page of the visit to Hearst Castle in fifth grade. After proudly looking at each detail, I turn to the next page, which I’ve labeled: AND BEYOND. Unlike the previous one, this page is not cluttered or crowded. There is my college diploma with the major listed as International Relations; however, the name of the school is obscure. A miniature map covers nearly half of the paper with numerous red stickers pinpointing locations all over the world, but I cannot recognize the countries’ names. The remainder of the page is a series of frames and borders with simple captions underneath. Without the photographs, the descriptions are cryptic. For now, that second page is incomplete because I have no precise itinerary for my future. The red flags on the map represent the places I will travel to, possibly to teach English like I did in Cambodia or to do charity work with children like I did in Guatemala. As for the empty frames, I hope to fill them with the people I will meet: a family of my own and the families I desire to help, through a career I have yet to decide. Until I am able to do all that, I can prepare. I am in the process of making the layout and gathering the materials so that I can start piecing together the next part, the next page of my life’s scrapbook.
Analysis of The Scrapbook Essay (or) Five Things We Can Steal from This Essay
A great thinker once said “Good artists borrow; great artists steal.” I’m not even going to tell you who said it; I’m stealing it.
#33 Use objects and images instead of adjectives
Check out the opening paragraph of the Scrapbook essay again. It reads like the opening to a movie. Can you visualize what’s happening? That’s good. Take a look at the particular objects the writer chose:
I look at the ticking, white clock: it’s eleven at night, my primetime. I clear the carpet of the Sony camera charger, the faded Levi’s, and last week’s Statistics homework. Having prepared my work space, I pull out the big, blue box and select two 12 by 12 crème sheets of paper. The layouts of the pages are already imprinted in my mind, so I simply draw them on scratch paper. Now I can really begin.
Let’s zoom in on the “faded Levi’s.” What does "faded" suggest? (She keeps clothes for a long time; she likes to be comfortable.) What does "Levi's" suggest? (She's casual; she’s not fussy.) And why does she point out that they’re on the floor? (She's not obsessed with neatness.)
Every. Word. Counts.
Now re-read the sentence about her family:
The biggest photograph, of course, is that of my family, huddled in front of the fireplace while drinking my brother’s hot cocoa and listening to the pitter patter of rain outside our window.
What do these details tell us?
The biggest photograph: Why “biggest"? (Family is really important to her.)
Fireplace: What does a fireplace connote? (Warmth, closeness.)
My brother's hot cocoa: Why hot cocoa? (Again, warmth.) And why “my brother’s” hot cocoa? Why not “mom’s lemonade”? How is the fact that her brother made it change the image? (It implies that her brother is engaged in the family activity.) Do you think she likes her brother? Would your brother make hot cocoa for you? And finally:
Listening to rain: Why not watching TV? What does it tell you about this family that they sit and listen to rain together?
Notice how each of these objects are objective correlatives for the writer’s family. Taken together, they create an essence image.
Quick: What essence image describes your family? Even if you have a non-traditional family–in fact, especially if you have a non-traditional family!–what image or objects represents your relationship?
Based on the image the writer uses, how would you describe her relationship with her family? Close? Warm? Intimate? Loving? Quiet? But think how much worse her essay would have been if she’d written: “I have a close, warm, intimate, loving, quiet relationship with my family.”
Instead, she describes an image of her family "huddled in front of the fireplace while drinking my brother’s hot cocoa and listening to the pitter patter of rain outside our window.” Three objects--fireplace, brother’s hot cocoa, sound of rain--and we get the whole picture of their relationship. We know all we need to know.
There’s another lesson here:
#34 Engage the reader’s imagination using all five senses
This writer did. Did you notice?
Brother’s hot cocoa (taste, smell)
Pitter patter of rain (sound)
Biggest photograph (sight)
And there’s something else she did that’s really smart. Did you notice how clearly she set up the idea of the scrapbook at the beginning of the essay? Look at the last sentence of the second paragraph (bolded below):
Cutting the first photograph, I make sure to leave a quarter inch border. I then paste it onto a polka-dotted green paper with a glue stick. For a sophisticated touch, I use needle and thread to sew the papers together. Loads of snipping and pasting later, the clock reads three in the morning. I look down at the final product, a full spread of photographs and cut-out shapes. As usual, I feel an overwhelming sense of pride as I brush my fingers over the crisp papers and the glossy photographs. For me, the act of taking pieces of my life and putting them together on a page is my way of organizing remnants of my past to make something whole and complete.
The sentence in bold above is essentially her thesis. It explains the framework for the whole essay. She follows this sentence with:
This particular project is the most valuable scrapbook I have ever made: the scrapbook of my life.
Boom. Super clear. And we’re set-up for the rest of the essay. So here’s the third thing we can learn:
#35 The set-up should be super clear
Even a personal statement can have a thesis. It’s important to remember that, though your ending can be somewhat ambiguous—something we’ll discuss more later—your set-up should give the reader a clear sense of where we’re headed. It doesn’t have to be obvious, and you can delay the thesis for a paragraph or two (as this writer does), but at some point in the first 100 words or so, we need to know we’re in good hands. We need to trust that this is going to be worth our time.
#36 Show THEN Tell
Has your English teacher ever told you “Show, don’t tell?” That’s good advice, but for a college essay I believe it’s actually better to show THEN tell.
Why? Two reasons:
1.) Showing before telling gives your reader a chance to interpret the meaning of your images before you do. Why is this good? It provides a little suspense. Also, it engages the reader’s imagination. Take another look at the images in the second to last paragraph: my college diploma... a miniature map with numerous red stickers pinpointing locations all over the world... frames and borders without photographs... (Note that it's all "show.")
As we read, we wonder: what do all these objects mean? We have an idea, but we’re not certain. Then she TELLS us:
That second page is incomplete because I have no precise itinerary for my future. The red flags on the map represent the places I will travel to, possibly to teach English like I did in Cambodia or to do charity work with children like I did in Guatemala. As for the empty frames, I hope to fill them with the people I will meet: a family of my own and the families I desire to help, through a career I have yet to decide.
Ah. Now we get it. She’s connected the dots.
2.) Showing then telling gives you an opportunity to set-up your essay for what I believe to be the single most important element to any personal statement: insight.
#37 Provide insight
What is insight? In simple terms, it’s a deeper intuitive understanding of a person or thing.
But here’s a more useful definition for your college essay: Insight is something that you’ve noticed about the world that others may have missed. Insight answers the question: So what? It's proof that you’re a close observer of the world. That you’re sensitive to details. That you’re smart.
And the author of this essay doesn’t just give insight at the end of her essay, she does it at the beginning too : she begins with a description of herself creating a scrapbook (show), then follows this with a clear explanation for why she has just described this (tell).
Final note: it’s important to use insight judiciously. Not throughout your whole essay; a couple times will do.
#38 Trim the fat.
Here’s a 40-word sentence. Can you cut it in half without changing the meaning?
Over the course of the six weeks, I became very familiar with playing the cello, the flute, the trumpet, and the marimba in the morning session while I continually learned how to play the acoustic guitar in the afternoon sessions.
Wait, actually try cutting this (in your mind) before scrolling down. See how concise you can get it.
Okay, here’s one way to revise it:
In six weeks, I learned the cello, flute, trumpet, and marimba in the mornings and acoustic guitar in the afternoons.
There. Half the words and retains the meaning.
#39 Split long sentences with complex ideas into two.
This may sound contrary to the first point but it ain’t. Why? Sometimes we’re just trying to pack too much into the same sentence.
Check this one out:
For an inquisitive student like me, Brown’s liberal program provides a diverse and intellectually stimulating environment, giving me great freedom to tailor my education by pursuing a double concentration in both public health and business, while also being able to tap into other, more unconventional, academic interests, such as ancient history and etymology through the first year seminars.
That’s a lot for one sentence, eh?
This sentence is what I’d call “top heavy.” It has a lot of important information in the first half–so much, in fact, that I need a break before I can take in the bits at the end about “ancient history” and “etymology.” Two options for revising this:
Option 1. If you find yourself trying to pack a lot into one sentence, just use two.
Two sentences work just as well, and require no extra words. In the example above, the author could write:
For an inquisitive student like me, Brown’s liberal program provides a diverse and intellectually stimulating environment, giving me great freedom to tailor my education by pursuing a double concentration in both public health and business. I also look forward to pursuing other , more unconventional, academic interests, such as ancient history and etymology through the first year seminars.
Option 2: Just trim the first half of the sentence to its essence, or cut most of it.
That might look like this:
At Brown I look forward to pursuing a double concentration in both public health and business, while also tapping into other, more unconventional academic interests, such as ancient history and etymology.
And just for the record (for all the counselors who might be wondering), I don’t actually write out these revisions for my students; I ask questions and let them figure it out. In this example, for instance, I highlighted the first half of the sentence and wrote, “Can you make this more concise?”
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ANOTHER GREAT READ: HOW TO START A COLLEGE ESSAY: 9 SUREFIRE TECHNIQUES (2019)
What’s your best college essay tip post it as a comment below..
- How to Write a College Essay
College admissions experts offer tips on selecting a topic as well as writing and editing the essay.
Students can go online to review essay requirements for the colleges they want to apply to, such as word limits and essay topics. Many students may start with the Common App, an application platform accepted by more than 1,000 schools. Getty Images
For college applicants, the essay is the place to showcase their writing skills and let their unique voice shine through.
"The essays are important in part because this is a student's chance to really speak directly to the admissions office," says Adam Sapp, assistant vice president and director of admissions at Pomona College in California.
Prospective college students want their essay, sometimes called a personal statement, to make a good impression and boost their chances of being accepted, but they have only several hundred words to make that happen.
This can feel like a lot of pressure.
"I think this is the part of the application process that students are sometimes most challenged by," says Niki Barron, associate dean of admission at Hamilton College in New York, "because they're looking at a blank piece of paper and they don't know where to get started."
That pressure may be amplified as many colleges have gone test optional in recent years, meaning that ACT and SAT scores will be considered if submitted but are not required. Other schools have gone test-blind and don't consider such scores at all. In the absence of test scores, some admissions experts have suggested that more attention will be paid to other parts of an application, such as the essay.
But just as each applicant is unique, so are college admissions policies and priorities.
"Being test optional hasn't changed how we use essays in our selection process, and I wouldn't say that the essay serves as a substitute for standardized test scores," Barron wrote in an email. "A student's academic preparation for our classroom experience is always front and center in our application review process."
On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court ruled against college admissions policies that consider an applicant's race. The ruling, though, does not prohibit students from writing essays on how their race has affected them, which experts say could significantly affect how students approach this portion of their applications.
Essay-writing tips offered by experts emphasize the importance of being concise, coherent, congenial, unique, honest and accurate. An applicant should also flex some intellectual muscle and include vivid details or anecdotes.
From brainstorming essay topics to editing the final draft, here's what students need to know about crafting a strong college application essay.
Getting Started on the College Essay
How long should a college essay be, how to pick a college essay topic, writing the college essay, how the affirmative action ruling could change college essays, editing and submitting the college essay.
A good time for students to begin working on their essays is the summer before senior year, experts say, when homework and extracurricular activities aren't taking up time and mental energy.
Starting early will also give students plenty of time to work through multiple drafts of an essay before college application deadlines, which can be as early as November for students applying for early decision or early action .
Students can go online to review essay requirements for the colleges they want to apply to, such as word limits and essay topics. Many students may start with the Common App , an application platform accepted by more than 1,000 schools. Students can submit that application to multiple schools.
Another option is the Coalition Application, an application platform accepted by more than 130 schools. Students applying through this application choose from one of six essay prompts to complete and include with their application.
In addition to the main essay, some colleges ask applicants to submit one or more additional writing samples. Students are often asked to explain why they are interested in a particular school or academic field in these supplemental essays , which tend to be shorter than the main essay.
Students should budget more time for the writing process if the schools they're applying to ask for supplemental essays.
"Most selective colleges will ask for more than one piece of writing. Don't spend all your time working on one long essay and then forget to devote energy to other parts of the application," Sapp says.
Though the Common App notes that "there are no strict word limits" for its main essay, it suggests a cap of about 650 words. The Coalition Application website says its essays should be between 500 and 650 words.
"While we won't, as a rule, stop reading after 650 words, we cannot promise that an overly wordy essay will hold our attention for as long as you'd hoped it would," the Common App website states.
The word count is much shorter for institution-specific supplemental essays, which are typically around 250 words.
The first and sometimes most daunting step in the essay writing process is figuring out what to write about.
There are usually several essay prompts to choose from on a college application. They tend to be broad, open-ended questions, giving students the freedom to write about a wide array of topics, Barron says.
The essay isn't a complete autobiography, notes Mimi Doe, co-founder of Top Tier Admissions, a Massachusetts-based advising company. "It's overwhelming to think of putting your whole life in one essay," she says.
Rather, experts say students should narrow their focus and write about a specific experience, hobby or quirk that reveals something personal, like how they think, what they value or what their strengths are. Students can also write about something that illustrates an aspect of their background. These are the types of essays that typically stand out to admissions officers, experts say. Even an essay on a common topic can be compelling if done right.
Students don't have to discuss a major achievement in their essay – a common misconception. Admissions officers who spoke with U.S. News cited memorable essays that focused on more ordinary topics, including fly-fishing, a student's commute to and from school and a family's dining room table.
What's most important, experts say, is that a college essay is thoughtful and tells a story that offers insight into who a student is as a person.
"Think of the college essay as a meaningful glimpse of who you are beyond your other application materials," Pierre Huguet, CEO and founder of admissions consulting firm H&C Education, wrote in an email. "After reading your essay, the reader won't fully know you – at least not entirely. Your objective is to evoke the reader's curiosity and make them eager to get to know you."
If students are having trouble brainstorming potential topics, they can ask friends or family members for help, says Stephanie Klein Wassink, founder of Winning Applications and AdmissionsCheckup, Connecticut-based college admissions advising companies. Klein Wassink says students can ask peers or family members questions such as, "What are the things you think I do well?" Or, "What are my quirks?"
The essay should tell college admissions officers something they don't already know, experts say.
Some experts encourage students to outline their essay before jumping into the actual writing, though of course everyone's writing process differs.
The first draft of an essay doesn't need to be perfect. "Just do a brain dump," Doe says. "Don't edit yourself, just lay it all out on the page."
If students are having a hard time getting started, they should focus on their opening sentence, Doe suggests. She says an essay's opening sentence, or hook, should grab the reader's attention.
Doe offered an example of a strong hook from the essay of a student she worked with:
"I first got into politics the day the cafeteria outlawed creamed corn."
"I want to know about this kid," she says. "I’m interested."
The key to a good college essay is striking a balance between being creative and not overdoing it, Huguet says. He advises students to keep it simple.
"The college essay is not a fiction writing contest," Huguet says. "Admissions committees are not evaluating you on your potential as the next writer of the Great American Novel."
He adds that students should write in the voice they use to discuss meaningful topics with someone they trust. It's also wise to avoid hyperbole, as that can lose the readers' trust, as well as extraneous adverbs and adjectives, Huguet says.
"Thinking small, when done right, means paying close attention to the little things in your life that give it meaning in unique ways," he says. "It means, on the one hand, that you don’t have to come up with a plan for world peace, but it also means thinking small enough to identify details in your life that belong only to you."
The Supreme Court's ruling on affirmative action has left some students feeling in limbo with how to approach their essays. Some are unsure whether to include racial identifiers while others feel pressure to exclude it, says Christopher Rim, CEO and founder of Command Education, an admissions consulting company.
"For instance, some of our Asian students have been concerned that referencing their culture or race in their essay could negatively impact them (even moreso than before)," Rim wrote in an email. He noted that many students he works with had already begun crafting their essays before the ruling came. "Some of our other students have felt pressure to disclose their race or share a story of discrimination or struggle because they expect those stories to be received better by admissions officers."
Some of the uneasiness stems from what feels like a contradictory message from the court, Rim says. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., said the ruling shouldn't be construed "as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise." But he added that colleges may consider race only if it's tied to an applicant’s individual experiences or qualities, such as demonstrating courage against discrimination.
Personal essays shouldn't serve as a way for universities to ask students about their race as a means to admit them on such basis, Roberts added.
Rim says he expects there to be a lot of confusion from parents and students as they navigate that line when writing their essay. He says his guidance will vary with each student depending on their specific situation.
"For a student from an immigrant family, sharing their racial and cultural background may be integral to understanding their identity and values and therefore should be included in the essay," he says. "On the other hand, a student who has never meaningfully considered ways in which their race has shaped their life experience and worldview should not push themselves to do so in their essay simply because they believe it will better their chances."
While admissions officers try to learn about students via the essay, they are also gauging writing skills, so students want to make sure they submit top-notch work.
"The best writing is rewriting," Sapp says. "You should never be giving me your first draft."
When reviewing a first essay draft, students should make sure their writing is showing, not telling, Huguet says. This means students should show their readers examples that prove they embody certain traits or beliefs, as opposed to just stating that they do. Doing so is like explaining a joke to someone who's already laughed at it, he says.
"Let’s say, for example, that the whole point of a certain applicant’s essay is to let admissions officers know that she thinks outside the box. If she feels the need to end her essay with a sentence like, 'And so, this anecdote shows that I think outside the box,' she’s either underestimating the power of her story (or the ability of her reader to understand it), or she hasn’t done a good enough job in telling it yet," Huguet says. "Let your readers come to their own conclusions. If your story is effective, they’ll come to the conclusions you want them to."
After editing their essay, students should seek outside editing help, experts recommend. While there are individuals and companies that offer paid essay help – from editing services to essay-writing boot camps – students and families may not be able to afford the associated fees. Some providers may offer scholarships or other financial aid for their services.
The availability and level of feedback from free essay advising services vary. Some college prep companies offer brief consultations at no charge. Free essay workshops may also be available through local high schools, public libraries or community organizations. Khan Academy, a free online education platform, also offers a series of videos and other content to guide students through the essay writing process.
Colleges themselves may also have resources, Barron notes, pointing to pages on Hamilton's website that offer writing tips as well as examples of successful admissions essays. Likewise, Hamilton also holds virtual panel discussions on writing admissions essays.
Students have other options when it comes to essay help. They can ask peers, teachers, school counselors and family members for help polishing an essay. Huguet says it's typically wise to prioritize quality over quantity when it comes to seeking feedback on essays. Too many perspectives can become counterproductive, he says.
"While it can be valuable to have different perspectives, it's best to seek out individuals who are experts in the writing process," he says. "Instructors or professors can be helpful, particularly if they possess subject expertise and can provide guidance on refining arguments, structure and overall coherence."
Proofreaders should not change the tone of the essay. "Don't let anyone edit out your voice," Doe cautions.
And while proofreading is fair game, having someone else write your essay is not.
When an essay is ready to go, students will generally submit it online along with the rest of their application. On the Common App, for example, students copy and paste their essay into a text box.
Sapp says even though students often stress about the essay in particular, it's not the only thing college admissions officers look at. "The essay is the window, but the application is the house," he says. "So let's not forget that an application is built of many pieces."
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- College Application Essay Grammar Tips
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Tips for a Good College Essay
Hamilton: words matter.
As a college with a long tradition of emphasizing writing and speaking as cornerstone values, we like to say that students come to Hamilton to find their voice. In our admission process, we seek students who embody that aspiration and demonstrate that potential in their application essays and short-answers, and their communication with us.
But don’t let that intimidate you. Really good writing is hard, and takes lots of practice (and you will get plenty of that in college!). We do not expect perfection, but we do hope to get to know you a little bit better through your writing. Think of it as your chance to have a voice, and a seat at the table with the admission committee who is reading your application. What do you want them to know about you?
The Hamilton Admission Team offers these tips for you to consider when sitting down to write your college application essays.
College Essay Tips
- It goes without saying that your essay needs to be written by you. Believe it or not, the voice of a teenager is very different from a parent’s, and we’ve gotten pretty good at spotting the differences.
- Choose a topic that’s right for YOU – something about which you’re passionate. If you’re not interested in what you’re writing about, chances are no one will be interested in reading it. The best ideas for topics come when you least expect them...write them down as soon as you are inspired, and keep a running list on your phone.
- Share something that’s unique to your experience, or information that we’re unlikely to learn about you elsewhere in your application. Most important is for you to be real and be yourself; unless you want to be a theatre major, it is way too hard to try to be what you think we want you to be. (And, truly, we just want you to be you.)
- In sharing something about yourself, you don’t need to share everything about yourself. It is ok to be personal, and writing about growth and mistakes is good (perhaps even welcomed); but resist the urge to be too casual or to over-share.
- If you are passionate about an issue, don’t avoid it because it may be controversial. At the same time, your essay topic does not have to be world-changing and does not have to demonstrate you are perfect. Sometimes the simplest topic leads to the best essay.
- Be a good storyteller. Use a strong opener – catch our attention right from the start. Poignant moments in time, with a little bit of reflection, often make great essays.
- Show rather than tell. Use anecdotes, examples, and descriptions. Make it your best, most engaging writing. Trim the fat. (And resist the urge to use the thesaurus!)
- Revise often and early, proofread carefully, read it aloud, and don’t be afraid to start over. It is ok to have someone else look over the essay to help you catch things you missed, but don’t over-edit and make it sound like a research paper.
- Remember, substance and voice are better than perfection.
- You’ve got a great essay in you!
Essays that Worked
We have collected just a few of the exceptional essays written by newly enrolled Hamilton students (with their permission, of course). They offer a glimpse into the diverse backgrounds and experiences, as well as the writing talents, of our newest Hamiltonians. Enjoy!
Seven Sins of Writing
Professors at Hamilton work closely with students to improve their writing. It’s a process that combines instruction, collaboration, and practice. And while accuracy in style and grammar is just one element of what makes good writing, the Writing Center offers these handy tips.
Office of Admission
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Course: college admissions > unit 4.
- Writing a strong college admissions essay
- Avoiding common admissions essay mistakes
- Brainstorming tips for your college essay
- How formal should the tone of your college essay be?
- Taking your college essay to the next level
- Sample essay 1 with admissions feedback
- Sample essay 2 with admissions feedback
- Student story: Admissions essay about a formative experience
- Student story: Admissions essay about personal identity
- Student story: Admissions essay about community impact
- Student story: Admissions essay about a past mistake
- Student story: Admissions essay about a meaningful poem
Writing tips and techniques for your college essay
Pose a question the reader wants answered, don't focus exclusively on the past, experiment with the unexpected, don't summarize, want to join the conversation.
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Tips for Writing an Effective Application Essay
How to Write an Effective Essay
Writing an essay for college admission gives you a chance to use your authentic voice and show your personality. It's an excellent opportunity to personalize your application beyond your academic credentials, and a well-written essay can have a positive influence come decision time.
Want to know how to draft an essay for your college application ? Here are some tips to keep in mind when writing.
Tips for Essay Writing
A typical college application essay, also known as a personal statement, is 400-600 words. Although that may seem short, writing about yourself can be challenging. It's not something you want to rush or put off at the last moment. Think of it as a critical piece of the application process. Follow these tips to write an impactful essay that can work in your favor.
1. Start Early.
Few people write well under pressure. Try to complete your first draft a few weeks before you have to turn it in. Many advisers recommend starting as early as the summer before your senior year in high school. That way, you have ample time to think about the prompt and craft the best personal statement possible.
You don't have to work on your essay every day, but you'll want to give yourself time to revise and edit. You may discover that you want to change your topic or think of a better way to frame it. Either way, the sooner you start, the better.
2. Understand the Prompt and Instructions.
Before you begin the writing process, take time to understand what the college wants from you. The worst thing you can do is skim through the instructions and submit a piece that doesn't even fit the bare minimum requirements or address the essay topic. Look at the prompt, consider the required word count, and note any unique details each school wants.
3. Create a Strong Opener.
Students seeking help for their application essays often have trouble getting things started. It's a challenging writing process. Finding the right words to start can be the hardest part.
Spending more time working on your opener is always a good idea. The opening sentence sets the stage for the rest of your piece. The introductory paragraph is what piques the interest of the reader, and it can immediately set your essay apart from the others.
4. Stay on Topic.
One of the most important things to remember is to keep to the essay topic. If you're applying to 10 or more colleges, it's easy to veer off course with so many application essays.
A common mistake many students make is trying to fit previously written essays into the mold of another college's requirements. This seems like a time-saving way to avoid writing new pieces entirely, but it often backfires. The result is usually a final piece that's generic, unfocused, or confusing. Always write a new essay for every application, no matter how long it takes.
5. Think About Your Response.
Don't try to guess what the admissions officials want to read. Your essay will be easier to write─and more exciting to read─if you’re genuinely enthusiastic about your subject. Here’s an example: If all your friends are writing application essays about covid-19, it may be a good idea to avoid that topic, unless during the pandemic you had a vivid, life-changing experience you're burning to share. Whatever topic you choose, avoid canned responses. Be creative.
6. Focus on You.
Essay prompts typically give you plenty of latitude, but panel members expect you to focus on a subject that is personal (although not overly intimate) and particular to you. Admissions counselors say the best essays help them learn something about the candidate that they would never know from reading the rest of the application.
7. Stay True to Your Voice.
Use your usual vocabulary. Avoid fancy language you wouldn't use in real life. Imagine yourself reading this essay aloud to a classroom full of people who have never met you. Keep a confident tone. Be wary of words and phrases that undercut that tone.
8. Be Specific and Factual.
Capitalize on real-life experiences. Your essay may give you the time and space to explain why a particular achievement meant so much to you. But resist the urge to exaggerate and embellish. Admissions counselors read thousands of essays each year. They can easily spot a fake.
9. Edit and Proofread.
When you finish the final draft, run it through the spell checker on your computer. Then don’t read your essay for a few days. You'll be more apt to spot typos and awkward grammar when you reread it. After that, ask a teacher, parent, or college student (preferably an English or communications major) to give it a quick read. While you're at it, double-check your word count.
Writing essays for college admission can be daunting, but it doesn't have to be. A well-crafted essay could be the deciding factor─in your favor. Keep these tips in mind, and you'll have no problem creating memorable pieces for every application.
What is the format of a college application essay?
Generally, essays for college admission follow a simple format that includes an opening paragraph, a lengthier body section, and a closing paragraph. You don't need to include a title, which will only take up extra space. Keep in mind that the exact format can vary from one college application to the next. Read the instructions and prompt for more guidance.
Most online applications will include a text box for your essay. If you're attaching it as a document, however, be sure to use a standard, 12-point font and use 1.5-spaced or double-spaced lines, unless the application specifies different font and spacing.
How do you start an essay?
The goal here is to use an attention grabber. Think of it as a way to reel the reader in and interest an admissions officer in what you have to say. There's no trick on how to start a college application essay. The best way you can approach this task is to flex your creative muscles and think outside the box.
You can start with openers such as relevant quotes, exciting anecdotes, or questions. Either way, the first sentence should be unique and intrigue the reader.
What should an essay include?
Every application essay you write should include details about yourself and past experiences. It's another opportunity to make yourself look like a fantastic applicant. Leverage your experiences. Tell a riveting story that fulfills the prompt.
What shouldn’t be included in an essay?
When writing a college application essay, it's usually best to avoid overly personal details and controversial topics. Although these topics might make for an intriguing essay, they can be tricky to express well. If you’re unsure if a topic is appropriate for your essay, check with your school counselor. An essay for college admission shouldn't include a list of achievements or academic accolades either. Your essay isn’t meant to be a rehashing of information the admissions panel can find elsewhere in your application.
How can you make your essay personal and interesting?
The best way to make your essay interesting is to write about something genuinely important to you. That could be an experience that changed your life or a valuable lesson that had an enormous impact on you. Whatever the case, speak from the heart, and be honest.
Is it OK to discuss mental health in an essay?
Mental health struggles can create challenges you must overcome during your education and could be an opportunity for you to show how you’ve handled challenges and overcome obstacles. If you’re considering writing your essay for college admission on this topic, consider talking to your school counselor or with an English teacher on how to frame the essay.
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College Essay Tips for Admission in 2023-2024
Why is the college application essay important?
With colleges refocusing their admissions priorities , the admissions essay has increased in importance. Furthermore, many applications, such as the Common Application and Coalition Application, have announced new prompts specific to COVID-19 for fall applicants.
Here are five college essay tips for increasing your chance of admission for the 2023-2024 school year.
1. Make the essay deeply personal.
The best-performing admissions essays show a trend of being intensely personal. When members of an admissions committee are comparing two prospective students that are similar in terms of academic and extracurricular achievements, they are more likely to choose the student they feel a personal connection to. Furthermore, with the de-prioritization of standardized test scores and academic records since COVID-19, colleges are emphasizing the personal aspects of an application .
Students should tell stories that they “own” – stories that only they can tell. They should also write about their feelings, their life priorities, how they approach problems, and how they make decisions.
2. Avoid writing about cliché topics.
Avoiding clichés is a basic rule for all writing, and admissions essays are no exception. Producing an essay with fresh content is more important than ever with the essay’s increased significance as part of a college application.
Understandably, many students struggle with figuring out which topics have been overworked. A good rule of thumb is to make sure that an essay answers the Four Core Questions that should be answered in a good college admissions essay:
(1) “Who am I?”
(2) “Why am I here?”
(3) “What is unique about me?”
(4) “What matters to me?”
In addition, it may help to look up various sources on admissions essay clichés. Some frequently mentioned ones are epiphanies (e.g., “suddenly I realized…”), short-term volunteer work/community service (e.g., blood drives, a one-time stint at a soup kitchen, etc.), immigration to America, sports, and travel experiences.
A stand-out essay describes an uncommon topic, makes uncommon connections, or uses uncommon language . Students who have chosen to write about a common experience can avoid cliché by connecting it to an unexpected value or telling the story in a surprising way.
3. Study successful admissions essays.
Reading successful admissions essays is a good way to develop a sense of the kinds of essays admissions committees gravitate towards. Some schools, such as Johns Hopkins University , post selects of admitted student essays on their websites. There are also many online resources that share previous admissions essays. On top of that, applications – including the most widely used Common App – rarely change their prompts. This makes it easy for students to access essays that are not only excellent but also relevant to the prompts they are seeking to answer.
4. Don’t put COVID-19 at the center of your story.
With COVID-19 having impacted the lives of so many worldwide, students may be tempted to write admissions essays about their pandemic experiences. However, college admissions consultants are generally advising students against writing about COVID-19 in their admissions essays . Many students have been affected by the pandemic in similar ways, and an essay about such a ubiquitous experience is unlikely to stand out. Not to mention that now that the pandemic is officially over, stories centered around COVID are likely to come off as somewhat out-of-date.
This does not mean students should avoid writing about COVID-19 altogether. Many applications, such as the Common Application and the Coalition Application, are providing coronavirus-specific prompts with the purpose of giving students the opportunity to share their pandemic experiences. Students should try to limit writing about COVID-19 to these prompts and use their main essays to elaborate upon their interests and perspectives beyond COVID-19 . Because the effects of the pandemic have lingered in many households around the world, you can of course include these effects in your paper if they have impacted your individual financial, emotional, or social situation.
5. Check out essay editing services to take your essay to the next level
Online admissions essay editing services are ideal for international students who struggle with English or simply want to take their essays to the next level. Students should take care to choose a company that’s reputable and employs highly qualified editors .
Wordvice employs professional editors who not only correct grammatical and mechanical errors but also improve the style and flow of an essay. Check out our English proofreading and editing services , including essay editing services , to learn how our editors can improve your essays and help you get into your dream school. And for instant essay proofreading, try the FREE AI Proofreading Tool and Paraphrasing Tool available with the Wordvice AI Writing Assistant .
In the meantime, check out some of our other resource articles on writing admissions essays.
Wordvice Admissions Resources
- How to Write the Common App Essay in 2021-2022
- How to Write an Admissions Essay to Get Into Top Schools
- 5 Tips for Writing Your Admissions Essay
- Wordvice Ranked Best Admissions Edit Service by Wired.com
- 3 Reasons to Get Editing for Your College Admissions Essays
Top Ten Tips for Writing a College Essay
1: Start early. More time = less stress. You’ll have plenty of time to give the essay your best effort.
2: Be yourself. One of the biggest mistakes students make is writing what they think others want to hear, rather than about an issue, event, or person they care about. An essay like that is not just boring to write. It’s boring to read. What interests you? What do you love to talk about? Write about that. Think of your essay as a creative way to help college officials get to know you as a person.
3: Be honest. College admission officers have read hundreds, even thousands of essays. They are masters at discovering any form of plagiarism. Don’t risk your college career by buying an essay off the internet or getting someone else to write your essay.
4: Stay focused. Read the essay question carefully. Jot down a few ideas, then choose the one that looks like the most fun to write about. Stick to that main theme throughout the essay. Essays can help you make your case to admission officials, but don’t go overboard. There will be opportunities elsewhere in the application to list all your achievements.
5: Put your best foot forward. Applying online may feel like you’re sending email, but you’re not. Incorrect capitalization or abbreviations like B4 or “thanx” are not appropriate for a formal document. Make sure your essay represents the best of you.
6: Write and rewrite. Don’t try to knock out a masterpiece on your first try. For your first draft, write anything that comes to mind about your topic. Let it “rest” for a few hours or a few days. When you come back to the draft, look for ways to make it more focused and better written. Are there details that don’t really relate to the topic? Cut them. Do you need another example? Put it in.
7: Get a second opinion. When you’ve rewritten the essay to your satisfaction, find someone who can give you advice on how to make it even better. Choose a person you respect and who knows something about writing. Ask them to tell you what they like best about your essay, and what you can do to improve it.
8: Keep an open mind. Criticism can be tough to hear, but try to listen with an open mind. You don’t have to make every change suggested. After all, it’s your essay and no one else’s. But you should seriously consider each suggestion.
9: Proofread, proofread, proofread. Little errors creep in throughout the writing and editing process. Before you submit your essay, make sure to proofread. Try reading your essay aloud or having someone else read it to you. Another strategy is to read the essay backward, from the last sentence to the first. Errors your eye may have previously skipped over will jump out at you.
10: Don’t expect too much from an essay. The application essay is important. But admission officers look at the whole package — your academics, extracurricular activities, standardized tests, and other factors. Make your essay as well-written as you can, but don’t put so much pressure on yourself that the rest of the application fades in importance.
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5 tips for writing a standout college admissions essay
The college admissions process is now more competitive than ever, and making your application stand out can feel like a daunting task — but your personal essay could be the key to helping you shine.
Most universities and colleges require you to submit a personal essay or statement as part of the first-year application process. Beyond looking at high school grades and test scores, admissions officers will review letters of recommendation and personal essays to get a sense of who you are — and where you want to go.
While all of this can sound difficult to navigate, writing memorable college essays will ultimately give you an opportunity to shine during the admissions process.
Here are five tips for writing impactful application essays that will set you apart from other candidates:
- Choose a prompt that works for you.
- Tell your story and share what you envision for your future.
- Have someone review your essay and make sure it flows.
- Take advantage of online resources.
- Keep track of admissions requirements and deadlines.
1. Choose a prompt that works in your favor.
Are you asking yourself, “What should I write my college essay about?” The Common Application, as well as some individual schools, will give you a list of prompts that are useful starting off points to help you tell your own story. While the Common Application prompts can change each year, some examples include:
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Discuss an accomplishment, event or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
- 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?
- Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
These prompts invite students to think about challenges they’ve overcome or experiences that have made them grateful. It’s an opportunity to write about growth, strength and what makes a candidate who they are.
The advice that I give to students is to think of this as your interview. We would love to meet and interview all of our applicants, but we are unable to do so. This is your opportunity to tell us about you — the person outside of your grades and GPA.
Paula LaMannaCincinnati Regional Admissions Coordinator
The University of Cincinnati also asks college-specific questions like, “Why did you apply to each of the academic programs listed on your application?”
2. Tell your story — and let them know where you’re going.
The college admissions essay is all about you. Before you start to write your essay, admissions experts advise that you do a reflection exercise with yourself. Ask yourself questions like, “What do I have to offer the world? What are my quirks? What makes me stand out? Who am I at my core? What do I want out of my college experience at this school?”
A couple specific points to remember:
- Don’t be repetitive. Your essay shouldn’t just repeat what’s listed in your resume. It should highlight what makes you a fantastic candidate beyond grades, extracurricular activities and test scores.
- Stay specific. You can’t fit your entire life story into a 650-word essay, so try not to be too broad. Hone your essay in on a specific topic, life story or lesson you’ve learned.
3. Edit. Then edit again.
Once you’ve written your essay, take a couple days to step away from it. Reread it with fresh eyes to see if it flows, makes sense and uses clear language. You should aim to write in your own voice — not in a formal academic tone. Ask a trusted teacher, tutor or counselor to review and edit your piece. While your essay should be written in your own style, an editor can help you expertly craft a final version free of spelling and grammar errors.
4. Take advantage of resources.
You don’t have to go through the application essay process alone. Universities and nonprofits offer a wide range of online admission resources, including:
- UC’s Frequently Asked Questions - High School Students
- U.S. News: How to write your story
- The Common App Solutions Center for First-Year Applicants
5. Confirm your requirements and deadlines.
Stay organized. Treat the application process like a test run for college courses — you’ll have plenty of deadlines to meet for assignments and tests in your first semesters during college. Admissions officers recommend keeping a spreadsheet or document detailing the universities you’re applying to, each university’s requirements and deadlines , and a checklist of what you’ve completed.
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