Sitting down to write your college application essays can be majorly intimidating—we get it. But in many ways, the essay is the easiest part. It’s your chance to tell the admissions committee who you are beyond your test scores. To make that task as simple as it sounds, we’ve compiled the best tips from admissions officers, school counselors, and students to help you totally slay your application essay.
Before you begin typing
1. Test out your ideas
Before you commit to an essay topic, do a little window shopping. “When I’m working with students, I tell them to write a paragraph for each prompt,” says Lisa Sohmer, director of college counseling at the Garden School in Jackson Heights, New York. “Something usually bubbles up and becomes the frontrunner.” Don’t stress about choosing the prompt—let the prompt choose you.
2. Be wary of hot button topics
It’s tempting to choose a hot-button topic like politics or religion—totally understandable when you want to tout your global citizenship. But according to college admissions counselors, you should tread carefully; you won’t know the political or religious background of the person reading your essay and it’s pretty safe to say offending them won’t bode well for your application. “The key here is connecting these issues to your own experiences rather than trying to write about them as a generic issue,” says Amy Baldwin, director of University College at the University of Central Arkansas. If your religious or political upbringing significantly shaped your worldview (and you can point to specific examples), go for it, but avoid writing a current events essay just to let the admissions officer know that you watch the news. As a general rule of thumb, “if you don’t normally express yourself in that way, then don’t try it in an essay,” says Baldwin.
3. Make sure the story is true to you
Admissions officers aren’t expecting to read thousands of heroic tales, but they are expecting to read something authentic, says Baldwin. “You don’t have to have climbed the highest mountain or saved hundreds of baby goats from flood waters to have a significant experience in your life,” she says. Think of it this way: If you were to meet someone for the first time and had one shot to tell them who you are and what you’re about, which story from your life would you choose? That’s your essay. Just make sure it’s really your life, says Shania, a senior in Brooklyn, New York, “not some picture-perfect, pristine version of your life.”
4. Know that there is no right or wrong answer
Pro tip: There is no “right” or “wrong” essay to write. You can let out a sigh of relief now. “Going into writing my essay, I definitely was like, ‘Okay, there exists somewhere out there the perfect essay for me and I am going to find it and I am going to write it,’” says Katharine, a college junior at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. “In retrospect, I realized that is not a thing that actually exists.” Rather than freak out about writing the perfect essay, just focus on telling an honest story about who you are.
Writing the essay
5. Have a hook
Once you’re ready to put fingers to keyboard, you want to start strong and get your reader engaged, says Aaron Zdawczyk, associate director of undergraduate admissions at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Aim to insert your reader right into your life, starting from the first sentence. There is no one “right” way to write a good hook, but stay away from gimmicks. Your hook should make sense in the context of the greater essay structure. For example, if your essay centers on a serious topic, don’t start with a joke or funny anecdote. If you want to start with a famous quote, make sure that you’re analyzing the meaning as part of your essay. “What grabs someone’s attention is honesty and truth in writing,” Zdawczyk says. “We like seeing how someone thinks and analyzes.”
Examples of essays that worked—with strong hooks—from Johns Hopkins University:
- Tell a short story that illustrates the main theme of your essay
- Start with an unexpected statement and use the essay to explain it
- Ask a question that your essay will answer
- Start with a quote and use your essay to explain its significance to you
6. Don’t be scared to shake up the structure
Raise your hand if you’re tired of the standard five-paragraph essay you’ve been writing for the past four years. Luckily, college admissions officers are too. “It’s imperative not to follow that high school format. It doesn’t work for college essays,” says Stephen Friedfeld, co-founder of AcceptU and former admissions officer at Cornell University and Princeton University. “A little bit of informality can be okay and, in fact, encouraged because we’re trying to hear you voice.”
7. Avoid the thesaurus
“I hate the thesaurus,” says Sohmer. “You can read a student’s essay and circle the word they’ve never used before.” Although it’s tempting to score a few SAT vocab points in your essay, college admissions experts advise students to simply write with the language they’re comfortable with. “There is an enormous pull to sound impressive, but what students don’t realize is that that can come off as awkward,” says Sohmer. Keep it natural.
8. Get detailed
Throughout your essay, details are your BFFs, says Baldwin. “It is not enough to write that you were happy or disappointed or that you were glad of the outcome of a situation. You will need to describe how that emotion felt or what you did to convey that emotion,” she says. Rather than writing you were disappointed when you lost out on leading your varsity team to victory, write how your shoulders sank when you saw the final score.
9. Show how you’ve grown
The overall aim of your essay is to be authentic, but the real key is communicating the ways you’ve grown as a person. “The best essays provide a unique perspective and demonstrate a change in a student’s thinking or way of life,” says Baldwin. It doesn’t have to be a seismic epiphany. Instead, it can be a subtle shift, like how a specific experience made you realize you were capable of more than you thought.
10. Demonstrate what you’ll contribute
While it’s not a popularity contest, admissions officers are trying to get a sense of what you will add to their community. How can they tell? Usually by taking a look at what you’ve added to your current community, whether that’s your high school, your drama club, or your city or town. Ultimately, they will choose students they want to get to know, says Friedfeld. “I remember one applicant from New Jersey who worked on a salmon fishing boat in Alaska during the summer after his junior year of high school,” Friedfeld says. “He had Googled the keywords ‘highest paying job without a high school diploma’ to learn about salmon fishing in the first place. That is someone who takes initiative and comes across as very appealing. In short, he was someone I wanted to meet!” If you can come across as likable and interesting in your essay, you’re ahead of the game.
Before you hit submit
11. Don’t trust spellcheck
“Spellcheck is the worst,” says Sohmer. It’s a helpful tool, but making it your only method of proofreading is a major mistake. “Spellcheck is evil because it doesn’t know the difference between ‘win’ and ‘won’ or ‘apply’ and ‘apple,’” Sohmer says. You also want to make sure to check your facts—that means spelling of names, dates, and places, and proper attribution for quotes. Nothing takes the wind out of your deep discussion of a quote quite like (yikes) attributing it to the wrong person. Being careful will take you a long way.
12. Make sure it’s read and reread
If you and your friends traded essays but left your names blank, would they be able to tell which one you wrote? If not, you’ve got an issue. A total stranger needs to get a sense of who you are, so someone who knows you well should definitely be able to hear your voice in the writing. With that in mind, ask a lot of people to read your essay. “Have someone you don’t know read it and tell you what they think,” suggests Kelly, a senior in Indianapolis, Indiana. “That way the person is more like the admissions officers who have never met you.” You wouldn’t post a photo to Instagram without first giving it a filter, so don’t send out your essay without giving it a few editors’ eyes.
Amy Baldwin, director of University College, University of Central Arkansas, in Conway.
Aaron Zdawczyk, associate director, Office of Undergraduate Admission, Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
Lisa Sohmer, former National Association for College Admission Counseling board member and director of college counseling at the Garden School in Jackson Heights, New York.
Stephen Friedfeld, co-founder, AcceptU, Boston, Massachusetts.
Brenzel, J. (n.d.). Tips for writing an effective application essay. [Video blog post]. The College Board. Retrieved from https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/get-in/essays/tips-for-writing-an-effective-application-essay-college-admissions
Jacobs, L., & Hyman, J. (2010, September 15). 10 tips for writing the college application essay. US News & World Report. Retrieved from http://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/professors-guide/2010/09/15/10-tips-for-writing-the-college-application-essay
Johns Hopkins University. (n.d.). Essays that worked (class of 2020). Retrieved from https://apply.jhu.edu/apply/essays-that-worked#essay
National Association for College Admission Counseling. (n.d.). Top 10 tips for writing a college essay. Retrieved from http://www.nacacnet.org/studentinfo/articles/pages/top-ten-tips-for-writing-a-college-essay-.aspx
The College Board. (n.d.). Students speak: How I conquered the application essay. Retrieved from https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/get-in/essays/students-speak-how-i-conquered-the-application-essay
Tufts University Office of Undergraduate Admissions. (n.d.). Past essays that mattered. Retrieved from http://admissions.tufts.edu/apply/advice/past-essays/