I’ve been reaching out to essay writers, college counselors and a wide range of people who have successfully written an application essay that got them into a top-tier college to ask them what their main tips and advice is for writing a college application essay. This article is a compilation of all the best responses.
It’s barely an exaggeration to say that your college application essay can change the course of your whole life, so I strongly recommend reading through these comments!
Here’s a summary of what people have recommended so far. I’ve also included links to the full comment(s) for each point:
- Be yourself, and be as unique and authentic as possible (link, link) (this is the main piece of advice most experts have written about)
- To be unique, consider writing about a hobby of yours that most people don’t have or wouldn’t have even heard of before (link, link)
- Quantify your accomplishments, and put your achievements into numbers (similar to what you should do when writing a resume) (link)
- Also, talk about how your experiences have shaped how you see the world (link)
- To get yourself thinking outside the box, consider imagining you’re walking into a room full of strangers and have 2 minutes to introduce yourself – but you can’t talk about any of the activities on your application activity list (link)
- Think about non-ordinary, deeply reflective topics (link)
- Consider telling a real story or narrative that includes ethos, pathos, and logos (link, link, link)
- Sit down with your mentor, if you have one, and reflect with them about what you’ve done (link)
- Edit and proofread relentlessly (link)
- For ideas about what to write about, go through your social media and pick out some moments of your life that are particularly memorable. Then pick up a pen and paper and brainstorm about why this moment matters to you and how it shaped you (link)
- Don’t be afraid to write from the heart and show emotion (link)
- Consider trying to leave the reader wanting more – try to end with something that’ll make you stand out a bit more than “and that’s why I believe ABC University is a fit for me.” (link)
- Write in your “blog post” voice (link)
- Talk about what value you’ll bring to the table (link)
Finally, if you are qualified to speak on this topic and have a tip to add that hasn’t been discussed, you’re welcome to make a contribution here.
I've spent years teaching English and tutoring students on how to write the best college essays. My number one tip always boils down to one thing: be yourself. You bring something unique to the table that no other applicant can. So, find your secret sauce and share it. Make sure your essay is structured correctly and error-free, of course, but don't edit out that personality that makes the essay sound unique to you. If they read that essay and feel like they just got the chance to sit in the room with you and have a great conversation about who you are, you'll get more positive responses!
--Erica Jabali, I Spy Fabulous
I advise kids to make their applications as unique as possible by focusing on a hobby of theirs that most people might not have, one student wrote about how he got into "pickling" because his grandmother taught him. He pickled cucumbers, watermelon, lemons. This student wrote his essay exclusively on this hobby and it got him noticed by top universities, he was accepted into one Ivy League and waitlisted at another.
--Seth Nadler, Facebook profile
One of our best tips for writing a college application essay is to quantify your accomplishments! Numbers say a lot, and putting your accomplishments into numbers that recruiters can understand like the number of people in a team you managed or hours you've spent volunteering will do a better job of impressing the person reading your essay. This tip goes double for writing a resume.
--Grant Cooper, College Raptor
When working with students, I like to tell to think of the essay as a prism. When white light passes through a prism, it is separated into the different components, through dispersion.
A college application should do that for a student. Many students like to use the essay as a recap of what they have done versus using it as an opportunity to shed light on how their experiences have shaped their understanding of their surroundings. So rather than saying I volunteered at a homeless shelter and I enjoyed helping people, can they talk about how that experience helped them understand or atleast attempt to understand the social construct/dynamics that leads to people becoming homeless.
--Imran Vaghoo, studyinamerica.ke
My #1 tip for writing a college application essay is to pretend that you are walking into a room full of strangers and you have two minutes to tell them about yourself. The only catch is that you can't talk about any of the activities on your application activity list. Then tell us three qualities that the strangers have learned about you.
This gets students to think about something outside of the box and beyond what they do but rather who they are. It also focuses students on their special qualities or values that the reader will understand after reading the essay.
--Terry Mady-Grove, uscollegeconsulting.com
Suggestions for Admissions Essays
1. Authenticity — readers can tell if a parent or paid admissions counselor wrote essay.
2. Write about something that matters to you or that happened to you and how you responded. Consider then someone teased you or someone berated you. Talk about parental jobless and how it affected family. Talk about a pet dying or a beloved teacher or role model.
3. Express how you processed thought and feelings — not mere descriptions. Descriptions aren’t enough ... Share how your mind works.
Consider topics like these — non ordinary and deeply reflective.
A. Why I will miss my cat when I go to college?
B. Street Art: I do it. Here’s why.
C. Why I don’t celebrate my birthday
Note these are not common topics nor earth shattering but insightful. They differ from how we lost the state championship in X or how I won X or why I like Y book.
--Karen Gross, karengrosseducation.com
Make Your Essay Personal:
Your college application essay should tell the admission committee about your history and relevant experiences. Tell the reader how each life experience influenced your decision to study the course you intend to pursue.
Resist the temptation to include extraneous information. Include only the relevant facts, especially facts that portray you as a scholar who is passionate about the field you intend to study.
Have you read books in your field of interest? Talk about these books. Explain how they sparked the fire of interest that set you on this journey. Talk about how they influenced your decision to study the course you'd like to study in college.
Whatever you do, make your application as personal to you as possible. Write it from your heart. The admission committee member want to have a clear picture of the writer as they read.
--Chioma Iwunze, Creative Writing News
From my experience in writing college app essays, the most valuable tip I can give is to get someone to go over them. It can be a friend or, better yet, one of your parents.
A second pair of eyes helps remove personal bias and makes it easier to proofread your essay before submitting it. It is easier to spot mistakes and find points of improvement when your work is being checked by someone else. So you should have at least one other person to go over your work.
--Aaron Simmons, Test Prep Genie
If given the chance to mention one tip for writing a college application essay, it is to be authentic. By this I mean, do not go off of what sits in the college application essay books, or the hot topic of the year, or what has trended for those who had success in the past like a young woman who framed her essay around the synonym of her experiences being like a supermarket which got her into some of her top choices, so that became other students using that as a template. When college counselors, admission counselors, or others see that type of redundancy it can be exhausting--so be authentic. Each applicant has unique experiences to themselves and colleges and universities encourage them to see and use that perspective rather than your perspective of someone else's lived experience. Certainly you can use those as examples to better understand how you might want to structure your essay but moreover it should be how those essays can inform your own not BE your own.
So now that you know what an inauthentic college application essay is, I want to note what an authentic college application essay might look like. Recently, I was afforded the opportunity to read an essay from a prospective Applied Computer & Mathematical Sciences major about how he was able to create a program that allowed him to measure the diameter of Spongebob Squarepants pores. That is authentic! I want to break this down as to why this stands out. First, this demonstrates his outside of the box and curiosity-driven thinking, which he extrapolates on in the essay itself as why he is drawn to his field of study AND how he can contribute to it. Second, it is unique, how many of us are watching cartoons and think--how big are Spongebob's pores? that is how he showcases himself through his interests and personality. Finally, he reveals strengths about how he uses education/curiosity/intellect, he isn't dormant, he is actionable on the things that inspire or capture his attention. He took the time to use his resources, build something from his curiosity, and act on what he learned to learn more and implement it in a project, which all of that is to say authentic.
I gathered all of that from his college application essay as I reviewed it for an admission decision. So, before you begin to write your college application essay, ask yourself: what is an authentic experience or what is authentic or unique to me or how I think or how I move or how I do things in, of, or for the world? And write about that.
--Sean Whitten, @MrWhtn2U on Twitter
Tell a short story where you are the protagonist. Your college application essay doesn't need to be an essay so much as a narrative. As with any good story, it should show character development--how the protagonist (that's you!) changes and what lessons he/she learns between the beginning and end of the story. Don't tell your life story; you'll stretch yourself too thin. Instead, tell one story about one event that changed you, and tell it well.
--Anna Moss, Mind the Test
It's been 2 years since I spent my entire summer working on the college essay that would determine the next four years of my life. In my experience, a stellar college application essay should be brutally honest, with grappling emotions and a heartfelt lesson.
You want your college essay to include ethos, pathos, and logos, but in the form of a narrative.
As you recount an important life story, you want to establish your merit, or ethos, through subtle hints towards your successes and accomplishments. Don't focus on too many -- one or two is enough, but you want to come across as capable and confident. Next, you want your narrative to have a logical flow, although how that outline may be is up to you. Your reader wants to get a sense of what is unique about you, and how has that mindset or character trait been shaped by your life. How has your life story made you into someone who can utilize a college education for greatness? Throughout your essay, you have to maintain the reader's attention, and you need to remind the admissions officer that you are more than a piece of paper; you are a human, a person, and you have the potential to make a difference in the community. The more emotion you can add to your story, the more empathy you can bring out in your reader, forcing them to imagine the person you are beyond the words on your paper. Incorporating ethos, pathos, and logos into a personalized narrative is difficult, but with numerous rewrites, you can get there. It took me 4 months of writing before I finished the essay that helped me get into multiple Ivy Leagues and competitive BS/MD programs.
--Shvetali Thatte, @ShvetaliThatte on Twitter
This may sound a bit strange because your college application essay is often about you and who knows more about you than you. However, when I was applying to graduate school this is something I did.
As individuals, it is often hard to identify our true strengths and weakness. In fact, my mentor remembered relevant things I had done that even I had forgotten about or did not consider discussing in my essay.
Prior to writing my statements, her and I sat down and recapped my four years in school (e.g., student organizations, internships, etc.). On the outside looking in, she was able to see growth, skill development, leadership skills, and other strengths I could not see.
Set-up a meeting with a mentor and use that time to learn more about yourself through the eyes of someone else. This will help students craft a more honest, personal, and skill-based narrative to reflect what they have to offer to the program they're applying for.
--Precious Hardy, Graduate Student @ University of Missouri - Columbia
Include all of your interests and hobbies somewhere.
Young people often think that a university will only look at their grades and academic performance. However, what universities value a lot (especially Ivy League schools) is people how are versatile and open-minded. They don’t want someone who will sit straight for hours and study like crazy. Instead, they want people who like to volunteer for the community, play sports, have different hobbies or aspirations.
Although extracurricular activities are definitely not the key factor for getting in, you shouldn’t take them for granted and completely leave them out of your college application. You don’t have to go into a lot of detail, but make sure to find a place to mention all of your interests. Don’t worry if they’re not ordinary - the more unique as an individual you are, the higher chance you have of standing out.
--Tom Winter, DevSkiller
1 - Edit and proofread
This might sound dead obvious, but it's unbelievable how many students don't take the time to carefully edit and proofread their admissions essays. The result is that there's almost always a typo or grammar issue in the final version. This is tremendously off-putting to admissions officers, as it suggests that the student simply didn't care enough about the application to take the time to do it right. So, I always suggest that students ask friends or family (ideally more than one person) to review their writing. Free tools like Grammarly are also useful, but never perfect.
2 - Show how you are different - highlight your uniqueness and explain how that will benefit the college
Applications officers receive hundreds, sometimes thousands of applications regularly. For the most part, they all are very similar, and students get lost in a sea of average-ness. Therefore, it is really important to highlight what you believe are your unique skills, experience, attributes and traits that will help you succeed at the specific college (i.e. that makes you a good fit). However, you can also take it a level further and discuss how your unique skills and experience may benefit the college itself. For example, perhaps your experience in fundraising could contribute towards helping the college's fundraising initiatives. In other words, don't just think about how you're the right fit for the college - also think about how you can contribute to the college and their goals.
3 - Show that you have a vision and goals, and how college fits into that
Linked to the above, it's important to show that you have some sort of vision, mission and goals - however small or seemingly insignificant they might be. Admissions officers want to see that applicants are self-driven and motivated - discussing your tangible, realistic goals (SMART goals) is a good way to demonstrate this. Even better, try to show how there's a link between those goals and your college application, as well as the college's mission, vision and goals. In other words, show how there's a good alignment between the ambitions of yourself and the institution.
--Derek Jansen, Grad Coach
For students who are applying to colleges, telling a story that exemplifies the best parts of themselves is incredibly helpful when writing college essays.
When applying for colleges as a high school senior in 2012, I aimed to tell a story that would show off some of my best characteristics academically and as a person. In the essay I submitted to my first choice school and the school from which I graduated (James Madison University), I told the story of becoming the editor-and-chief of my school’s newspaper. Sharing how I went from a shy freshman whose voice shook when I interviewed a classmate to a senior who could feel at ease interviewing anyone and covering any subject allowed admissions officers to get a feel for my passions and my standards for myself academically.
Whether a college requires students to follow a prompt or allows students to write about anything, telling a memorable story about yourself gives colleges an example of your character—which can provide a tangible example of how you might fit in at a particular college—and also helps you stand out from others.
--Emily Deaton, Women's Health Interactive
If there's an option to use your own topic, pick that one! I did that and was told by admissions counselors that because the topic was intriguing, it made them want to interview me. For each application, I submitted a CV so for my essay I picked an experience that was on my CV and expanded on it to three pages. I chose to talk about my summer internship at a museum where I was a historical interpreter. The essay began with exposition about what I could see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. This gave it a creative writing bent and thus allowed it to sound unique. Throughout the essay, I wove information about how I discovered the internship and how it changed me as a person, allowing me to discover my passions and what courses I planned to take in college. Writing it as a short story with information and imagery was the perfect balance to help me score college interviews and later acceptances to 95% of schools to which I applied.
--Kate Tudoreanu, LinkedIn profile
Showing > Telling. Yes, we all know it and agree with it, but it is quite difficult to implement in action. Alas, your college application essay is a big deal, so now is the time to flex your Proust’ian creative muscle. Therefore, you’ll want to teleport the reader to the place of your story. Try to be vivid about key details and nuisances.
So instead of saying - “Since I was a little child, I’ve always enjoyed swimming” get specific about the memory, association, senses, and your inner state when you first began this activity. Why does it bring you so much joy? How do you get lost in it? What does it teach you about life or yourself?
Ultimately, you want to invite the reader to join you for an adventure (however short) versus just a retelling of past events. Big difference and can truly pay off in spades.
--Peter Bryla, ResumeLab
One tip students may hear more than once as they begin their college essay writing process is to keep a notebook (yes! If that works for you, please, write on!). But to those students who don't feel like they are writers, I have news for you- you've actually been keeping notebooks this entire time.... maybe without even knowing it.
Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Pinterest, Twitter, etc. have been a space for you to record your dreams, struggles, observations, feelings, realizations, and experiences, well before the Common App prompted you to reflect on your daily life. So, my tip: students-scroll through the platform you use when you really want people to see you and your world (or if you're not into social media, look through your camera roll, texts, or Notes app-gasp! What- a digital notebook?!) and select a few moments that stand out to you as meaningful, transformative, or important.
Then, answer the following: What did you caption/write/think about this moment at the time, when you documented this moment or shared it online with your friends and followers? Now, take this offline, with (I know, I know) paper and a pen or pencil, and answer: what do you think about this moment, now, as you look back? Why does this moment stand out or matter to you? How has it shaped you as a student, a person?
One student used this brainstorm to talk about her journey as a solo rock climber. How looking at the photo of the first mountain she climbed (and the many since) reminded her of how strong and independent she felt when she first started, and how excited and moved she's felt by experiences along the way. She takes those same feelings off-mountain, to her other goals and achievements- both academic and personal.
What moment you selected from the deep dive into your phone is the jumping-off point for your essay, but looking back and making meaning about why the moment matters is what your essay will really be about. If you make these connections, your college essay can be about anything... from rock climbing photos to K-Pop stan accounts, your favorite song lyrics to shoefies. Right now, more than ever, your social media accounts have the potential for power and meaning- as many are using their digital notebooks to stand up to racism and systemic injustice and reflect on their place in the world. What matters to you? Why? Find connections, make meaning, write!
--Anabel Graff, Creative Connections Essays
Write from the heart and show emotion with the intention of getting to the reader’s emotions and tugging at their heartstrings. Think to yourself – how does this essay make me feel? How will it make the reader feel? Writing authentically about an experience, concept, or something you are absolutely passionate about will make a reader genuinely interested and excited. And writing with this in mind is a win-win: you’ll give the school a great bit of insight into a part of what makes you tick, and you’ll have a much easier time writing it!
--Chad Dorman, Leonard Andrew Consulting
Be a rainbow. Or a unicorn. But whatever you do, be memorable in your college application essay! According to the the collegeboard.com website nearly one million (yes, that’s right, one million) students submit over four million applications every year on the Common Application website. That is a lot of applications and essays to read, even when you divvy it out to the approximately 5,300 institutions of higher education in the USA. Some admissions officers admit, they don’t even read the application essays, but for those who do, every word counts.
The college application essay is your opportunity to tell the story of who you are and how you would fit the campus culture and add value to its community. Engaging the reader with your essay is a key to them actually reading your essay. The art of storytelling, even about yourself, means providing the reader with a compelling reason to get past the eye strain of reading another 500 words and distinguishing yourself and your story from the masses of other applicants.
But it’s not just about engaging the reader, its about connecting with them. Stories are powerful tools that create chemical reactions in the brain, sparking memories, activating emotions, and connecting the reader to the storyteller. The art of writing a good essay isn’t about listing out one’s accomplishments, or creating a chronological timeline of one’s life, its about creating the kind of connection with the reader that establishes an authentic connection, setting you apart from thousands of other candidates with the same GPA, SAT/ACT scores, and high school activities.
Here is what I recommend to students as they think about what they want to write about:
Reflect: think back of the course of your life. Is there a defining moment, person, or activity that was most influential in your life? Something that when you think about it, it evokes emotion. That is a great starting point for telling your story. Engage: From the very first words of your application you have to catch the reader’s attention. Don’t save the best for last or even the middle of the essay. Capture me from the get go. Don’t use a boring and bland intro. Catch me off guard, provoke me to want to read. Use something that immediately draws me in and makes me want to know more about you. Starting with “I was born in . . ..” or “I’ve always loved . . .” Zzzzzz, hit the snooze button! Think about your favorite movie; how did it start? With an action packed scene? At the end of the story and then flashed back? Use the same storytelling technique to set your essay apart.
Show not tell: provide details not vague generalities. Describe the context. Help the reader feel like they are there in the story with you experiencing it also. This may include adding dialog or adding details that show the nuances of your story. Again just like in the movies, you know it is a scary scene because the music in the background is foreboding, the lighting is dim, and the actors face shows fear. Use the same tactics.
Leave me wanting more. Leave me hanging or so intrigued by you that I want to know more about you. Wrap up the essay by tying it to the beginning, but just like a great movie—make me want to see the sequel. You might leave out some information that causes the reader to wonder what the outcome was, or how the story might end. This makes you stand out from other who simply end with . . .”and that’s why I believe ABC University is a fit for me.”
Being memorable means telling a good story. Sound too hard? Try pretending like you are having a conversation with someone and write it as if you were talking to them. The goal is to be authentically you and to connect. Sometimes recording yourself tell the story helps to get it out. Your story is worth sharing.
--Jennifer Fonseca, jenniferfonseca.com
My number 1 tip – write in your “blog post” voice – how you would express yourself if you were to write about a topic of choice with the audience being your friends or peers with similar interests. College admissions officers read thousands of essays that are in an “academic writing” voice – meant for teachers to grade - which gets the point across, but gets old and boring for them. You want to stand out. By telling your story in your own words as you would authentically express them, you offer them more insight into your character, personality, mindset, and so much more that can’t be gathered straight from the facts. Be your quirky, humorous, tastefully sarcastic self!
--Nikki Bruno, Student Coaching Services
When it comes to writing the best college essay, it all boils down to being authentic. Many experts in essay writing including myself will give any applicant this as the dominant advice. However, there is something that is rarely mentioned and that makes the difference when it comes to having a superior application essay.
As an individual, you should be specific on what you are bringing to the table. Let it not be just about what the institution will do for you, but also what you will do and contribute towards the betterment of the institution you have selected. Hence, it is paramount that you understand the college essay topic in question and instead of using a begging tone in the application, it is prudent to use a marketing tone. I have been an academic advisor and most successful essays are based on the students’ ability to not only be authentic, but also convincing and straight to the point.
--Shane Adams, Authentic Essays
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