Top Tips for Writing Winning College Application Essays

For many high school seniors, college application season means a barrage of advice about application essays. It can feel like everyone you know — parents, guidance counselors, English teachers, even admissions officers themselves — is ready to weigh in with their two cents about your essay’s topic and structure.

With so many voices offering suggestions, it can be hard to figure out which pieces of advice to follow. It’s also often difficult to separate good advice from bad (and there’s lots of bad advice out there!), especially if you’re new to this particular genre.

EXPERIENCE COUNTS

For over 20 years, we’ve been working with students to produce effective college application essays that help them achieve their admissions goals. To accomplish this, we’ve spent lots of time weeding out the bad advice and winnowing our own suggestions down to a few simple principles that help students produce strong pieces of work.

MAXING OUT YOUR COLLEGE APPLICATION ESSAYS

In hopes of helping students navigate the college essay writing process, here are our top tips for mastering your application essays.

  1. Don’t just write a personal essay. Write an essay that shows what you’re passionate about and how you think.

Many well-meaning advisors will tell you that your college essay should tell us about you. This is true, but it’s not enough.

When it comes right down to it, your main college essay is a 650-word introduction to you as a scholar, a community member, and a potential alumnus/a. This means that the story you tell about yourself must depict you as someone with strong interests, an inventive mind, and a willingness to pursue your goals.

There are likely plenty of stories in your background that are personally meaningful to you, but that don’t represent you in this particular light. A story about watching reality television with your sister, for example, might capture a family tradition, but it won’t tell us much about your scholarly interests or goals. A narrative about your mother’s immigration to the U.S., too, might show us her ability to overcome difficulties, but it won’t highlight yours.

Rather than focusing on stories that are personally important to you, we recommend that you tell us about moments in your life that highlight your passions, goals, and interests. Tell us about how watching reality TV with your sister inspired your award-winning research project on modern celebrity culture. Tell us about how your mother’s experience coming to the U.S. informed your own passion for immigration reform, which has led you to spend your time campaigning and volunteering with organizations that support migrants.

The stories don’t just give us a window into your life. They give us insights into how you’ve developed and explored your interests in high school — and how you might continue to pursue them at college.

  1. Show, don’t tell.

The #1 suggestion in all creative writing classes holds true in your college essays, too. Show, don’t tell.That is, rather than telling us that something is true, show us evidence that makes us believe it. It’s especially important to follow this advice when making statements about yourself: I like chemistry. I am a strong baseball player. I am kind.

These assertions may be accurate, but your reader has no reason to believe them without any supporting evidence. You can make your position far more compelling by offering evidence that shows the truth behind each statement. Tell us about the three chemistry classes you’ve taken outside of school; about earning your spot as the top-ranked baseball player in your league; about the charities you help run, the non-profit you’ve started, and the time you spend tutoring your classmates in difficult courses.

By giving us examples that prove the truth of your assertions, your statements won’t come across as empty boasts, but as important insights into your interests and values.

college application essays

  1. Don’t be afraid to talk about failure.

At the end of the day, your essay is a narrative. Although it may not have the well-developed characters and complex plot of a lengthy novel or film, it does need to have enough tension to hold your reader’s interest.

One great way to develop this tension: talk about a time you’ve failed. Tell us about the ideas you held that were incorrect, the projects you developed that didn’t work properly, or the arguments you presented that were quickly dismissed on the debate floor. Once you’ve shown yourself at a low point, you can then explain how you climbed out of this hole. Tell us about the ways your project’s failure inspired you to rethink your approach and tackle the next year’s competition with a new perspective.

This structure doesn’t just draw in your reader. It also shows your ability to grow in your thinking and to learn from your mistakes — two great abilities for any college scholar.

  1. Make sure your essay supports your larger application profile.

As we’ve mentioned before, admissions officers generally don’t have much time to review students’ applications. As a result, they’ll often look for a quick way to sum up each applicant — an elevator pitch, if you will. They might describe Student A as a scientist who volunteers to help low-income families. Student B might be an artist with a passion for literacy education.

In order to sell yourself as a candidate, you’ll want to come up with a compelling angle for your application and write a college essay that supports your self-presentation. If, for example, you’re a budding politician, use your main essay to talk about your summer internships for a state congressman, not your enjoyment of the nature walks around your home. If you’re presenting yourself as someone with a passion for women’s rights, talk about your experience campaigning for equal pay and supporting women’s education, not about the fun experiences you’ve had learning how to cook with your dad.

This isn’t to say all of your essays should reiterate the same point or that you can’t tell original and compelling stories. You want to be conscious, though, of how your application presents you and make sure that you stand out as a thoughtful, focused applicant.

  1. Open with a hook that grabs your reader.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: your opening line matters!

Especially since admissions officers read countless essays every application season, you need to grab your reader early with a compelling opening that draws him or her into your essay. In a blog post over the summer, we reviewed some easy ways to use your introduction to grab your reader’s attention. Some quick suggestions:

  • Surprise your reader by opening with an unexpected statement or a situation
  • Present a thought-provoking question that drives your studies or your reader won’t be able to answer easily

If you want to see some of these approaches in action, take a look at this collection of opening lines for successful admissions essays to top colleges:

  • I change my name each time I place an order at Starbucks.
  • Some fathers might disapprove of their children handling noxious chemicals in the garage.
  • When I was in eighth grade, I couldn’t read. 
  • The spaghetti burbled and slushed around the pan, and as I stirred it, the noises it gave off began to sound increasingly like bodily functions.
  • I’ll never forget the day when my childhood nightmares about fighting gigantic trolls in the Lord of the Rings series became a reality.

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER

As the saying goes, knowledge is power. If you keep these suggestions in mind, you should be writing strong college application essays in no time. And if you need a little additional help? We can work with you to make sure you’re on the right track.

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