The college admissions essay is perhaps the most dreaded part of the college application process.
The essay creates frustration for students, stress for parents, and an overall feeling of dread as the deadline for submission approaches. The essay, however, doesn’t have to be an insurmountable project. With the right information, realistic time management and good proofing and editing, it should be easy to write the best college essay you can.
These FAQs about the college application essay should help you tell your story with an end goal of making a good impression on a college admissions officer.
What do admissions officers look for in the best college application essays?
Quite simply, the best college essays make a personal statement and give admissions officers a window into your soul. Many students write essays that are too clichéd or shallow, or too impersonal and uninformative. For some students, the essay itself will be cause for rejection.
So how do you make your college essay stand out?
Admissions officers look for these five things:
Can the applicant write?
What does the essay say about the applicant?
Are there authentic personal reflections?
What will the applicant bring to the college community?
Do the qualities represented in the essay resonate with the rest of the application?
What are the best essay topics?
Most students apply using the Common Application, which provides specific essay prompts. It’s up to the student to personalize the essay topics and make them unique and memorable. The 2016-2017 essay prompts are as follows:
Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community or family.
What Common App prompt should you choose?
Ethan Sawyer, a college essay advisor, says the first prompt is the best because it’s the basic “tell us your story.” He recommends this prompt because it’s the most open-ended and is easy to personalize. His second favorite is the fourth prompt: Describe a problem that must be solved. He gives an example of this type of essay on his website, “I Shot My Brother.”
But the best way to choose a topic is to brainstorm with a parent, teacher, advisor or friend what would make the most interesting story for you to tell and give an admissions officer the most insight. Brainstorming should be imaginative and free-wheeling. You don’t have to commit to anything yet; you can always rein it in later. Think about the moments in your life that had the most drama, conflict or humor. What moment would tell an admissions officer the most about how you would contribute to the college community?
You could “draw” your essay as an infographic or word map or even as a graphic novel. Do what you need to do to imagine the story in your own head. Then, you can start translating it into a more polished form.
Writer Anne Lamott refers to the (expletive) first draft, or the “child’s draft,” where “you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.” So play with your first few drafts. Not even famous writers get it right the first time.
What is the best way to start a college essay?
You want to grab readers from the first paragraph. You can do this by using some classic writing techniques:
Story hook. Jump into the story immediately. Use what might be a second paragraph as in introductory paragraph. Instead of starting with, “I want to study history because …,” use an imaginative hook ... “If I could have dinner with Napoleon….”
Originality. Start with an unconventional statement or event. “That day at the airport, I decided I never wanted to be a superhero.”
Visual description. Start with a vivid description of an image or event that pulls the reader in a scene. Don’t “tell” readers your room is plastered with posters of violinists. Show them. “In my room, Mark O’Connor hangs next to Itzhak Perlman…..
Solve a problem. Show how you used creativity and resolve to find a solution for yourself or someone else. “Serving dinner at the dorm, I realized how much food was going to waste. So I contacted the shelter.…”
Create mystery. Make your essay start with a puzzle and keep readers engaged to find out more. “Who had my father been in China? It was only standing in a small village I understood how his struggle had made me who I am.”
Whichever introduction you use, stay away from the conventional statement: “I want to go to this college because....” Any admissions officer will disregard what comes next and place your college application at the bottom of the pile.
What is the best format or structure for a college essay?
There all kinds of ways to write a college essay and there is no perfect form as long as your piece is engaging, logical, revealing … and answers the prompt.
The classic essay starts with an introductory statement that hooks the reader and continues with a strong topic sentence. It ends with a strong closing paragraph or summation. The body of the essay is where you make the sale that your thesis is true.
That might be a good form for you if, for example, you were trying to convince a school that your summer job working on a landscaping team taught you a lot about chemistry, your chosen major.
But you can also write about yourself in a short story style, with a beginning, end and dramatic arc. If you aren’t a natural story teller, imagine how you might film your story or draw it. What specific scenes would be needed to describe, for example, how you saved a friend from making a bad mistake?
If you’re having trouble organizing your piece, try talking it out with someone, writing it a few sentences, creating it as an infographic or even a graphic novel - whatever helps you see it. Then, try writing it in a more traditional format.
No matter the style, in the body of your piece you need to answer some important questions, such as, so what? Why should the reader care? What is the impact on you or on the greater good?
And pay close attention to your transitions from one section to the next. You don’t want your essay to read like a list. Transitions should give information, not just be links. Beware of words like “but” or “meanwhile” as transitions.
Ask someone to help you proofread for spelling and grammar. Don’t rely on spellcheck! And be you follow the essay guidelines as far as word count and topic are concerned. This is a test. The college wants to know if you can follow directions and how creative you can be within set limitations.
How do you make a college essay creative?
The best way to make your essay creative is to brainstorm with a friend, teacher or parents. You can also use this technique if you encounter writer’s block. Don’t just write down essay ideas, but make a list of everything about yourself. Think outside the box. Make a list of your likes, dislikes and/or achievements. You are searching for a unique topic that will catch your reader’s attention. Start with easy prompts, and see where they lead. Such as:
What is your favorite movie and why?
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
What class in school inspires you and why?
Where would you never go again and why?
How did you and your best friend meet?
What object/person is important to you and why?
What is your favorite/least favorite food and why?
You get the picture. You are creating a guideline of ideas and topics to choose from that are uniquely tied to your life.
It is important to think deeply about the meaning of things in your life. Determine what about your experience is unique to you. That’s what will make your story different from the next essay in the pile.
Where do I find examples of colleges essays that worked?
Some schools and some college advisors post good essays on the web.
Many colleges, including Johns Hopkins University and the University of Connecticut post “essays that worked” going back several years.
Big Future, run by the College Board, has sample essays and tips.
The New York Times college blog, The Choice, has essays that worked and some that didn’t. (this blog is old. Are you sure you want to use it as a resource?)
Some college advisors, such as The College Essay Guy and Essay Hell post winners.
Your college advisor or English teacher should have examples.
How do I avoid college essay plagiarism?
It’s acceptable to look at someone else’s essay as a sample and a creative tool. It is not OK to copy it or to excerpt anything without proper credit. That’s plagiarism. And don’t even think about having someone else - parent, friend, tutor or writing service – create your essay for you. This is your story, your statement. Admissions officers have seen it all. They will know.
The best way to avoid plagiarism is to make the essay personal. If it’s your story, your ideas, your thoughts and actions, you won’t be at risk of plagiarizing. Once your essay is complete, a plagiarism checker like this one from Grammarly just to make sure you were paying attention.
Are there tools that will help with college essay checking or editing?
There are numerous tools available to help with spelling and grammar along with editing. Of course, you can use a word processing program with spell check and grammar check. Also, find a proofreader: parent, teacher or mentor.
If you are looking for other online tools to help turn your rough draft into a polished essay free from spelling or grammar errors, here are a few:
How do I find a college essay writing workshop, college essay tutor or get help with a college essay?
Many high schools and libraries offer writing workshops for college applicants. Your counselor should be a good resource for these. Use social media when searching as well: type in #collegeessays on Twitter and search the results for coaches and workshops. You can find college advisors and tutors on the TeenLife website as well.
Are there good books/websites on college essays?
There are also books (both paperback and ebooks) that can guide you through the essay process. Here are my top picks:
College Essay Essentials by Ethan Sawyer
On Writing the College Application Essay by Harry Bauld
Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps by Alan Gelb
The best advice I can give when writing the successful college essay is: Be yourself.
Give the admissions officer a picture of who you are and the type of college student you would be if they offer admission. The essay should be more than words on paper or a glowing example of writing skills; it should be your story.
Here’s a tip: Choose a topic you really want to write about. If the subject doesn’t matter to you, it won’t matter to the reader. Write about whatever keeps you up at night. That might be cars, or coffee. It might be your favorite book or the Pythagorean theorem. It might be why you don’t believe in evolution or how you think kale must have hired a PR firm to get people to eat it.
A good topic will be complex. In school, you were probably encouraged to write papers that took a side. That’s fine in academic work when you’re being asked to argue in support of a position, but in a personal essay, you want to express more nuanced thinking and explore your own clashing emotions. In an essay, conflict is good.
For example, “I love my mom. She’s my best friend. We share clothes and watch ‘The Real Housewives’ of three different cities together” does not make for a good essay. “I love my mom even though she makes me clean my room, hates my guinea pig and is crazy about disgusting food like kale” could lead somewhere
While the personal essay has to be personal, a reader can learn a lot about you from whatever you choose to focus on and how you describe it. One of my favorites from when I worked in admissions at Duke University started out, “My car and I are a lot alike.” The writer then described a car that smelled like wet dog and went from 0 to 60 in, well, it never quite got to 60.
Another guy wrote about making kimchi with his mom. They would go into the garage and talk, really talk: “Once my mom said to me in a thick Korean accent, ‘Every time you have sex, I want you to make sure and use a condo.’ I instantly burst into laughter and said, ‘Mom, that could get kind of expensive!’ ” A girl wrote about her feminist mother’s decision to get breast implants.
A car, kimchi, Mom’s upsizing — the writers used these objects as vehicles to get at what they had come to say. They allowed the writer to explore the real subject: This is who I am.
Don’t brag about your achievements. Instead, look at times you’ve struggled or, even better, failed. Failure is essayistic gold. Figure out what you’ve learned. Write about that. Be honest and say the hardest things you can. And remember those exhausted admissions officers sitting around a table in the winter. Jolt them out of their sugar coma and give them something to be excited about.
10 Things Students Should Avoid
REPEATING THE PROMPT Admissions officers know what’s on their applications. Don’t begin, “A time that I failed was when I tried to beat up my little brother and I realized he was bigger than me.” You can start right in: “As I pulled my arm back to throw a punch, it struck me: My brother had gotten big. Bigger than me.”
LEAVE WEBSTER’S OUT OF IT Unless you’re using a word like “prink” (primp) or “demotic” (popular) or “couloir” (deep gorge), you can assume your reader knows the definition of the words you’ve written. You’re better off not starting your essay with “According to Webster’s Dictionary . . . .”
THE EPIGRAPH Many essays start with a quote from another writer. When you have a limited amount of space, you don’t want to give precious real estate to someone else’s words.
YOU ARE THERE! When writing about past events, the present tense doesn’t allow for reflection. All you can do is tell the story. This happens, then this happens, then this happens. Some beginning writers think the present tense makes for more exciting reading. You’ll see this is a fallacy if you pay attention to how many suspenseful novels are written in past tense.
SOUND EFFECTSOuch! Thwack! Whiz! Whooooosh! Pow! Are you thinking of comic books? Certainly, good writing can benefit from a little onomatopoeia. Clunk is a good one. Or fizz. But once you start adding exclamation points, you’re wading into troubled waters. Do not start your essay with a bang!
ACTIVE BODY PARTS One way to make your reader giggle is to give body parts their own agency. When you write a line like “His hands threw up,” the reader might get a visual image of hands barfing. “My eyes fell to the floor.” Ick.
CLICHÉS THINK YOUR THOUGHTS FOR YOU Here’s one: There is nothing new under the sun. We steal phrases and ideas all the time. George Orwell’s advice: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
TO BE OR NOT TO BE Get rid of “to be” verbs. Replace “was” in “The essay was written by a student; it was amazing and delightful” and you’ll get: “The student’s essay amazed and delighted me.” We’ve moved from a static description to a sprightlier one and cut the word count almost in half.
WORD PACKAGES Some phrases — free gift, personal beliefs, final outcome, very unique — come in a package we don’t bother to unpack. They’re redundant.
RULES TO IGNORE In English class, you may have to follow a list of rules your teacher says are necessary for good grammar: Don’t use contractions. No sentence fragments. It’s imperative to always avoid split infinitives. Ending on a preposition is the sort of English up with which teachers will not put. And don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction like “and” or “but” or “because.” Pick up a good book. You’ll see that the best authors ignore these fussy, fusty rules.Continue reading the main story