10 tips for writing a killer college essay

Photo by Robert Kinlaw, collegetownnc.com

It’s easy to identify essays that don’t work; ones that are unoriginal with cliché topics, ones that are boring and brag, or essays that are predictable. It’s much harder to help students identify the right topic for them, i.e., one that will allow them to express their thoughts, opinions and shed light on some slice of their personalities.

So what does work? Where, when and how do you begin to write a successful college essay?

  1. Spend some quality time with the essay prompts. The essay prompts on the Common Application and the Coalition Application are intentionally broad and can easily be interpreted in a variety of ways.
  2. Write honestly about yourself. The essay is the place in the application where colleges look for insights into who you really are and what makes you tick. It is your opportunity to set yourself apart from other applicants. Write something that nobody else could write. Try to connect with the reader. Remember, that doesn’t mean write a safe essay. But it does mean to be open, be likeable and above all, be yourself.
  3. Write about something that is important to you. It will be a much easier essay to write if you care about your topic.
  4. Think of the essay as a 3-dimensional snapshot of who you are. Focus on a brief event or conversation, much the way a photo captures a moment in time. Highlighting one event, activity or relationship allows you to provide interesting details and share your passion.
  5. Straddle the fine line of being boastful and subtle. The essay is your time to shine, but the best written essays do it subtly. It’s possible to be proud of what you’ve done without being arrogant and smug. Admissions officials aren’t impressed with self-impressed applicants. Don’t use the essay as an opportunity to detail a laundry list of your leadership roles and awards. Figure out a way to talk about your accomplishments within the realm of a story or an anecdote. Have you shared your knowledge or talent with other people?
  6. Don’t assume you know what they want to read. Many students feel that their lives would be boring to admissions officials, and then feel the need to pump themselves up in the course of the essay. Some exaggerate their commitments to community service because they believe that’s what colleges want to hear. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not.
  7. Avoid self-pity, self-loathing and above all don’t make excuses. Remember that essay readers ask themselves “would this person make a good roommate?” Your essay doesn’t need to be falsely cheery, but watch your tone.
  8. Share your thoughts on how you’ve changed or grown. Be introspective, but don’t equate going “deep” with sharing your most depressing stories about being lonely or left out or not       fitting in. You don’t want to present yourself as a mental health risk to a college admissions person.
  9. Make sure it sounds like you. Don’t get caught up with fancy words that you think “sound good.” Remember many colleges will have copies of the essays you’ve written on your ACT and SAT and will compare them for quality of critical thinking, vocabulary and organizational structure.
  10. Ask for feedback. Write your best essay and then have someone else review it to make sure your ideas are being conveyed in an organized fashion. It’s easy to fall in love with your own work and lose perspective.


Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to:lee@collegeadmissionsstrategies.comwww.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com