College Application Essay

Tips For Writing An Outstanding Essay

Every part of your college application is important. However, when faced with a sea of exceptional applicants, it is an outstanding essay that can tip the balance and solidify your place at the college you desire. Don’t let the anxiety over writing the essay make you procrastinate. Time is your friend, it gives you the opportunity to write multiple drafts, hone your language and ensure your essay is in your own voice.

According to Jeff Brenzel, who was Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale University, it is important to choose a topic that will highlight you. Tell a personal story that shows a creative approach. This is the time to shine a light on all the areas that are not covered in other parts of the application. Remember to keep the focus narrow and personal. If you try to cover too many topics, you risk turning the essay into a resume. Colleges want to see who you are and what you’re about. It is easier to do this if you write about something that is important to you and has had an impact on your life. They need a reason to believe you’ll be a contributing member of their student body and that you’ll take full advantage of higher education. This is your time to shine. You get to spend all 600 words talking about YOU. So, let’s get started! 

How to Write a Great College Essay

Storytime. Choose a story that showcases who you are. Think about a time when you were put to the test and you came out victorious or maybe a time when you failed—but you got back up again and kept trying. People remember stories, especially ones with plenty of heart. Just remember there needs to be a moral to this story. Be sure to include what you learned from this experience and how it has changed you. 

Show not tell. This means describe the scene and what you did. Tell about how you felt before, during, and after by describing your actions. Actions speak louder than words—especially in an essay. 

As you write, do not simply recount an event. Reflect on what you learned and how it changed you, then describe it to the reader. Be careful not to repeat yourself. The information in your essay should not contradict other parts of your application. Do not list awards or discuss test scores here.

Use your own voice. Sometimes, we want to impress people so much that we start using words and phrases that aren’t our own. College admissions committees want to see who YOU are. While we don’t recommend filling your essay with slang, it is important to keep your own voice. 

Choose something simple. You don’t have to have climbed Everest or participated in a protest to have done something impactful. As Martha C. Merrill, a dean of admission and financial aid at Connecticut College said, “Sometimes it’s the simple things in life that make the best essays. Some of my favorites have included essays that reflect on the daily subway ride to school, or what the family goldfish observed from the fishbowl perched on the family kitchen table. It doesn’t have to be a life-changing event to be interesting and informative.” 

Something new. Don’t rehash your application. If all of your extracurriculars are sports, choose something outside of sports that impacted you. Or, if you went to a performing arts school, write about a different aspect of your education. You want to present something new and show that you are well rounded.

Be honest. You don’t have to have done and won everything to be awesome. Don’t make up a story or give yourself credentials you don’t actually have. It is fine to be the treasurer of a club instead of the president. It is your experience that counts. Be you!

Read it out loud. Seriously! Most writers recommend doing this for any piece because you’ll spot mistakes or confusing sentences that you wouldn’t if you just read it quietly on from the screen.  One of the easiest ways to stand out is to have correct spelling and grammar. In your edit, ask yourself if the way the essay is organized makes sense. Can anything be clearer? Can anything be cut?

Have a parent or (better yet!) a teacher proofread. Just like reading your essay out loud, having someone else proofread will help you focus your essay, catch grammar and spelling mistakes, and ask questions when they don’t understand. Why do we say teachers are better? Because they’re less likely to try and write it for you and take away one of the key components of your essay: YOU.

Don’t wait. If you want to make every word count, you’re going to need to spend some time on your essay. Don’t put it off till the last minute. Make sure you give yourself time to think before you sit down and type it out.

Make sure you answer the question. It might seem easier to just use an essay from another application, but we strongly discourage this. You want to be sure you are focused on answering the question exactly. If you don’t, it’s an easy way for an admissions team to toss your application.

Create a feeling. How do you want the admissions dean to feel when they read your essay? When you choose a topic, you should think about what feelings are associated with it. What you write about will often be the feeling the reader gets, so make sure it’s a positive feeling!

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Example Essays for Guidance

We’ve pulled together a resource list of essays that we think are pretty great—and so did their admissions officers, since these essays were written by students who were accepted to their top choice of university. 

  • Johns Hopkins University Essays. This is actually a collection of essays that the office of undergraduate admissions put together that they really liked. We particularly liked the essay: On Potatoes.

Our Final Thoughts

Just in case you missed it, one of the biggest tips for writing college admissions essays is to be yourself. Don’t try to be someone you’re not, give yourself credentials you don’t have, or write with a voice that isn’t your own. 

Who you are is enough. 

By just being yourself, you’ll give admissions committees a glimpse into the incredible person and student that you are. By showing who you are in your essay, you could turn a “maybe” into a “yes.”

Hopefully, these tips will help you approach your application essay with more confidence. You can write an outstanding essay that showcases your personality and helps you stand out to admissions officers. We wish you the best of luck as you write your essay and begin your journey into continuing your education. You can do it!