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14 College Essay Examples From Top-25 Universities (2024–2025)

College essay examples from students accepted to harvard, stanford, and other elite schools.

A student with glasses and a gray sweater reads example Common App essays on a laptop

REVIEWING SUCCESSFUL COLLEGE ESSAY EXAMPLES CAN HELP YOU UNDERSTAND HOW TO MAXIMIZE YOUR ODDS OF ACCEPTANCE

Responding effectively to college essay prompts is quite different from other essay writing. The combined challenge of addressing a question in an interesting way while avoiding clichés and making yourself stand out, all within a limited number of words, is something that students struggle with every year. With a wide variety of prompts used by each school, alongside the Common App essays , it can be overwhelming to write strong, memorable essays.

However, there are some standard practices that will help elevate your essay:

Directly address any questions the prompt asks. Many essay prompts will ask you to write about extracurricular experiences in your life or to list interests such as your favorite movies or music. Be sure to include the answer to any questions and don't get distracted while providing context or other extra information.

Use specific information. Make sure to mention the specific volunteer program you worked at or the name of your favorite instructor from your summer STEM camp. While it's important not to overburden your essay with small details, peppering in a few specifics will highlight what's important to you both academically and personally—in addition to giving admissions committees (adcoms) memorable details to file away about you as they sort through hundreds of other applicants’ essays.

Create a narrative. Just like with any story or news article, you want to start your essays with a good hook. Setting the stage for your experiences, including anecdotes to drive home a point, or carrying a thematic element throughout your essay will help keep the reader interested and will show off your creativity.

Reuse material. There’s no reason to write completely new supplemental essays for every school you’re applying to. Many schools ask the same questions with slightly different wording, like the commonly used “diversity essay,” which essentially asks how you contribute to and benefit from diversity. With some editing, a single essay could answer multiple prompts — and cut down on your stress! Just be sure that you’re still directly answering the prompt, and you’re still demonstrating fit (more on that below).

Demonstrate fit. Many supplemental essay prompts will ask you explicitly to tell them why you chose to apply to their school, or why you’re interested in pursuing your intended major at their school. In other words, they want you to demonstrate why you’re a good fit for their school—and why their school is a good fit for you. The best way to do this is by providing evidence to back up your claims about why their school is your “dream school,” or why their Biology major is “the perfect place” for you to prepare for a career in medicine. The strongest applicants may even demonstrate fit in response to prompts that don’t explicitly ask them to do so. For example, if you know that the school you’re applying to offers a unique elective course that closely aligns with your interests, you should find a way to mention it in one of your essays.

Put yourself in your reader’s shoes. College admissions officers read hundreds of essays from hopeful applicants, each of whom think their personal experiences and reasons for applying to a particular school are unique. This contributes to the difficulty in standing out in your essays, since almost anything you write about will likely have been encountered by your reader before.

Putting yourself in your reader’s shoes can help strengthen your writing. Remember, it’s not necessarily about what you say, but how you say it. If you read your essay back to yourself and some of the descriptions sound trite or typical, these are spots that are ripe for improvement.

For example, if you describe a trip abroad to help build homes in a developing country with words like “life-changing” and “eye-opening,” you may run the risk of boring your reader. That experience could have been truly life-changing for you, but the simple act of thinking of more creative ways to express an idea not only makes your writing more interesting to read, it signals to your reader the amount of effort you’ve put into your essay.

Describing an experience as transformative can sound less cliché and exaggerated. Moreover, allowing your experiences to speak for themselves (showing instead of telling) will display your imagination and grant you space to emphasize what you learned–something always popular with adcoms.

Go through multiple drafts–and do so early. We can’t stress enough the importance of revision. While your initial ideas may be good, the first couple of drafts will never express them as well as they would after a few edits.

Writing takes place in the mind. It’s a thought process that involves reflecting on your experiences and then translating that reflection into words and—most importantly—time. Make sure you start writing your essays as early as possible to grant yourself as much space as possible to revise.

Be vulnerable and show emotion. Remember that college adcoms are people, not robots reading an essay to make sure you’ve ticked all the boxes for a particular university. Showing some vulnerability or emotion in your writing can make your story come alive for the reader.

Keep in mind there is a fine line between “showing emotion” and exaggerating your experiences just for the sake of a dramatic narrative. It’s a good thing to display your vulnerability in an essay, but adcoms can usually tell if you’re embellishing or exaggerating just for the shock value. And remember, emotion encompasses everything from feelings of triumph to feelings of despair — not all emotions are expressed with tears. Letting these shine through in your essay demonstrates your passion, which engages your reader.

Here are some example essays from some of the thousands of students we've helped get accepted to their dream school.

Note: Some personally identifying details have been changed.

College essay example #1

This is a college essay that worked for Harvard University .

(Suggested reading: How to Get Into Harvard Undergrad )

This past summer, I had the privilege of participating in the University of Notre Dame’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program . Under the mentorship of Professor Wendy Bozeman and Professor Georgia Lebedev from the department of Biological Sciences, my goal this summer was to research the effects of cobalt iron oxide cored (CoFe2O3) titanium dioxide (TiO2) nanoparticles as a scaffold for drug delivery, specifically in the delivery of a compound known as curcumin, a flavonoid known for its anti-inflammatory effects. As a high school student trying to find a research opportunity, it was very difficult to find a place that was willing to take me in, but after many months of trying, I sought the help of my high school biology teacher, who used his resources to help me obtain a position in the program.

Using equipment that a high school student could only dream of using, I was able to map apoptosis (programmed cell death) versus necrosis (cell death due to damage) in HeLa cells, a cervical cancer line, after treating them with curcumin-bound nanoparticles. Using flow cytometry to excite each individually suspended cell with a laser, the scattered light from the cells helped to determine which cells were living, had died from apoptosis or had died from necrosis. Using this collected data, it was possible to determine if the curcumin and/or the nanoparticles had played any significant role on the cervical cancer cells. Later, I was able to image cells in 4D through con-focal microscopy. From growing HeLa cells to trying to kill them with different compounds, I was able to gain the hands-on experience necessary for me to realize once again why I love science.

Living on the Notre Dame campus with other REU students, UND athletes, and other summer school students was a whole other experience that prepared me for the world beyond high school. For 9 weeks, I worked, played and bonded with the other students, and had the opportunity to live the life of an independent college student.

Along with the individually tailored research projects and the housing opportunity, there were seminars on public speaking, trips to the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and one-on-one writing seminars for the end of the summer research papers we were each required to write. By the end of the summer, I wasn’t ready to leave the research that I was doing. While my research didn’t yield definitive results for the effects of curcumin on cervical cancer cells, my research on curcumin-functionalized CoFe2O4/TiO2 core-shell nanoconjugates indicated that there were many unknown factors affecting the HeLa cells, and spurred the lab to expand their research into determining whether or not the timing of the drug delivery mattered and whether or not the position of the binding site of the drugs would alter the results. Through this summer experience, I realized my ambition to pursue a career in research. I always knew that I would want to pursue a future in science, but the exciting world of research where the discoveries are limitless has captured my heart. This school year, the REU program has offered me a year-long job, and despite my obligations as a high school senior preparing for college, I couldn’t give up this offer, and so during this school year, I will be able to further both my research and interest in nanotechnology. 

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College essay example #2

This student was admitted to Harvard University.

I believe that humans will always have the ability to rise above any situation, because life is what you make of it. We don’t know what life is or why we are in this world; all we know, all we feel, is that we must protect it anyway we can. Buddha said it clearly: “Life is suffering.” Life is meant to be challenging, and really living requires consistent work and review. By default, life is difficult because we must strive to earn happiness and success.

Yet I've realized that life is fickler than I had imagined; it can disappear or change at any time. Several of my family members left this world in one last beating symphony; heart attacks seem to be a trend in my family. They left like birds; laughing one minute and in a better place the next.

Steve Jobs inspired me, when in his commencement address to Stanford University in 2005, he said "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma--which is living with the results of other people's thinking." I want to make mistakes, because that is how I learn; I want to follow the beat of my own drum even if it is "out of tune." The important thing is to live without regrets, so when my heart ceases to beat, it will make one last happy note and move on.

I want to live my life daily. Every day I want to live. Every morning when I wake up, I want to be excited by the gift of a new day. I know I am being idealistic and young, and that my philosophy on life is comparable to a calculus limit; I will never reach it. But I won't give up on it because, I can still get infinitely close and that is amazing.

Every day is an apology to my humanity; because I am not perfect, I get to try again and again to "get it right." I breathe the peace of eternity, knowing that this stage is temporary; real existence is continuous. The hourglass of life incessantly trickles on and we are powerless to stop it.

So, I will forgive and forget, love and inspire, experience and satire, laugh and cry, accomplish and fail, live and die. This is how I want to live my life, with this optimistic attitude that every day is a second chance. All the time, we have the opportunity to renew our perspective on life, to correct our mistakes, and to simply move on. Like the phoenix I will continue to rise from the ashes, experienced and renewed. I will not waste time for my life is already in flux.

In all its splendor The Phoenix rises In a burst of orange and yellow It soars in the baby blue sky Heading to that Great Light Baptized in the dance of time Fearless, eternal, beautiful It releases a breathtaking aurora And I gasp at the enormity

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College essay example #3

This is a college essay that worked for Duke University .

(Suggested reading: How to Get Into Duke )

As soon as the patient room door opened, the worst stench I have ever encountered hit me square in the face. Though I had never smelled it before, I knew instinctively what it was: rotting flesh. A small, elderly woman sat in a wheelchair, dressed in a hospital gown and draped in blankets from the neck down with only her gauze-wrapped right leg peering out from under the green material. Dr. Q began unwrapping the leg, and there was no way to be prepared for what I saw next: gangrene-rotted tissue and blackened, dead toes.

Never before had I seen anything this gruesome–as even open surgery paled in comparison. These past two years of shadowing doctors in the operating room have been important for me in solidifying my commitment to pursue medicine, but this situation proved that time in the operating room alone did not quite provide a complete, accurate perspective of a surgeon’s occupation. Doctors in the operating room are calm, cool, and collected, making textbook incisions with machine-like, detached precision. It is a profession founded solely on skill and technique–or so I thought. This grisly experience exposed an entirely different side of this profession I hope to pursue.

Feeling the tug of nausea in my stomach, I forced my gaze from the terrifying wound onto the hopeful face of the ailing woman, seeking to objectively analyze the situation as Dr. Q was struggling to do himself. Slowly and with obvious difficulty, Dr. Q explained that an infection this severe calls for an AKA: Above the Knee Amputation. In the slow, grave silence that ensued, I reflected on how this desperate patient’s very life rests in the hands of a man who has dedicated his entire life to making such difficult decisions as these. I marveled at the compassion in Dr. Q’s promise that this aggressive approach would save the woman’s life. The patient wiped her watery eyes and smiled a long, sad smile. “I trust you, Doc. I trust you.” She shook Dr. Q’s hand, and the doctor and I left the room.

Back in his office, Dr. Q addressed my obvious state of contemplation: “This is the hardest part about what we do as surgeons,” he said, sincerely. “We hurt to heal, and often times people cannot understand that. However, knowing that I’m saving lives every time I operate makes the stress completely worth it.”

Suddenly, everything fell into place for me. This completely different perspective broadened my understanding of the surgical field and changed my initial perception of who and what a surgeon was. I not only want to help those who are ill and injured, but also to be entrusted with difficult decisions the occupation entails. Discovering that surgery is also a moral vocation beyond the generic application of a trained skill set encouraged me. I now understand surgeons to be much more complex practitioners of medicine, and I am certain that this is the field for me.

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College essay example #4

This is a supplemental essay that worked for Stanford University .

(Suggested reading: How to Get Into Stanford Undergrad and How to Ace the Stanford Roommate Essay )

In most conventional classrooms, we are taught to memorize material. We study information to regurgitate it on a test and forget it the following day. I thought this was learning. But this past summer, I realized I was wrong.

 I attended the SPK Program, a five-week enrichment program with New Jersey’s best and brightest students. I lived on a college campus with 200 students and studied a topic. I selected Physical Science. On the first day of class, our teacher set a box on the table and poured water into the top, and nothing came out. Then, he poured more water in, and everything slowly came out. We were told to figure out what had happened with no phones or textbooks, just our brains. We worked together to discover in the box was a siphon, similar to what is used to pump gas. We spent the next weeks building solar ovens, studying the dynamic of paper planes, diving into the content of the speed of light and space vacuums, among other things. We did this with no textbooks, flashcards, or information to memorize.

During those five weeks, we were not taught impressive terminology or how to ace the AP Physics exam. We were taught how to think. More importantly, we were taught how to think together. Learning is not memorization or a competition. Learning is working together to solve the problems around us and better our community. To me, learning is the means to a better future, and that’s exciting.

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College essay example #5 

This is a college essay that worked for University of Pennsylvania (UPenn).

(Suggested reading: How to Get Into UPenn)

When I was thirteen and visiting Liberia, I contracted what turned out to be yellow fever. I met with the local doctor, but he couldn’t make a diagnosis simply because he didn't have access to blood tests and because symptoms such as “My skin feels like it’s on fire” matched many tropical diseases. Luckily, my family managed to drive me several hours away to an urban hospital, where I was treated. Yellow fever shouldn’t be fatal, but in Africa it often is. I couldn’t believe that such a solvable issue could be so severe at the time—so I began to explore.

The exploration led me to the African Disease Prevention Project (ADPP), a non-profit organization associated with several universities. I decided to create the first high school branch of the organization; I liked its unique way of approaching health and social issues. Rather than just raising money and channeling it through third parties, each branch “adopts” one village and travels there to provide for its basic needs. As branch president, I organize events from small stands at public gatherings to 60-person dinner fundraisers in order to raise both money and awareness. I’ve learned how to encourage my peers to meet deadlines, to work around 30 different schedules at once, and to give presentations convincing people why my organization is worth their donation. But overall, ADPP has taught me that small changes can have immense impacts. My branch has helped raise almost $3,000 to build water sanitation plants, construct medical clinics, and develop health education programs in the small village of Zwedru. And the effect doesn’t stop there—by improving one area, our efforts permeate into neighboring villages as they mimic the lifestyle changes that they observe nearby—simple things, like making soap available—can have a big effect. The difference between ADPP and most other organizations is its emphasis on the basics and making changes that last. Working towards those changes to solve real life problems is what excites me.

I found that the same idea of change through simple solutions also rang true during my recent summer internship at Dr. Martin Warner’s lab at UCLA. Dr. Martin’s vision involves using already available digital technologies to improve the individualization of healthcare. By using a person’s genome to tailor a treatment for them or using someone’s personal smartphone as a mobile-monitor to remotely diagnose symptoms, everyday technology is harnessed to make significant strides forward. At the lab, I focused on parsing through medical databases and writing programs that analyze cancerous genomes to find relationships between certain cancers and drugs. My analysis resulted in a database of information that physicians can use to prescribe treatments for their patients’ unique cancerous mutations. Now, a pancreatic cancer patient does not need to be the “guinea-pig” for a prototype drug to have a shot at survival: a doctor can choose the best treatment by examining the patient individually instead of relying on population-wide trends. For the first time in my science career, my passion was going to have an immediate effect on other people, and to me, that was enthralling. Dr. Martin’s lab and his book, Digital Healthcare: A New Age of Medicine, have shown me that changing something as simple as how we treat a disease can have a huge impact. I have found that the search for the holy grail of a “cure for cancer” is problematic as nobody knows exactly what it is or where to look—but we can still move forward without it.

Working with Project ADPP and participating in medical research have taught me to approach problems in a new way. Whether it’s a complex genetic disease or a tropical fever, I’ve found that taking small steps often is the best approach. Finding those steps and achieving them is what gets me excited and hungry to explore new solutions in the future.

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College essay example #6

This student was admitted to UC Berkeley.

(Suggested reading: How to Get Into UC Berkeley and How to Write Great UC Essays )

The phenomenon of interdependency, man depending on man for survival, has shaped centuries of human civilization. However, I feel, the youth of today are slowly disconnecting from their community. For the past few years, human connection has intrigued me and witnessing the apathy of my peers has prompted me to engage in various leadership positions in order to motivate them to complete community service and become active members of society.

Less than a year before ninth grade began, my cousin and close friend passed away from cancer, and in the hodge-podge of feelings, I did not emotionally deal with either death. However, a simple tale helped me deal with these deaths and take action. 

I was never fully aware of how closely humans rely upon each other until I read The Fall of Freddy the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia in freshman year. The allegory is about a leaf that changes with the seasons, finally dying in the winter, realizing that his purpose was to help the tree thrive. After reading it, I was enlightened on the cycle of life and realized the tremendous impact my actions had on others. 

Last year, I joined the American Cancer Society‘s Relay for Life, a twenty-four-hour relay walk-a-thon designed to raise funds for cancer research and create awareness about its early detection. I started a team at school, gathered thirty students and chaperones, and raised $800 for the cause. I watched as each student created friendships with other students on our team and members of the Phoenix community. This year, I led a team in the relay for life again with the schoolwide team of 95 members, and we raised $2,900 for the cure for cancer. At first the group leader ship consisted of only my advisor in me; however, I gained the support of the administrators. I spent well over an hour a day preparing for the event, and it was all worth it! 

The Sonora Eagles were students of different grade levels, ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, and educational ability. We joked and played football while volunteering. The most important moment occurred during the night’s luminaria ceremony, during which cancer patients of the past and present were commemorated. Our whole team gathered around, and I asked people to share how they have been affected by cancer. As I went through the crowd, their faces illuminated by candlelight, their cheeks were wet with cleansing tears, I realize the impact I had on them, the purpose I was fulfilling; but most importantly, I realized the impact they had had on me. The Sonora Eagles were my means for dealing with the death of my loved ones to cancer. 

The theme for relay for life is a hope for a cure. Through this experience as a leader, I have come to realize, as a community, we hope together, we dream together, we work together, and we succeed together. This is the phenomenon of interdependency, the interconnectedness of life, the pivotal reason for human existence. I have continued this momentum by starting a Sonora High School chapter of American Cancer Society Youth, a club dedicated to youth involvement and several aspects of the American Cancer Society, including the recent Arizona Proposition 45. 

Each one of us leaves behind a legacy as we fulfill our purpose in life. I believe my purpose as a student is to encourage others to become active community members and motivate them to reach new heights. As a student of the University of California, I will contribute my understanding of the human condition and student motivation to help strengthen student relationships within the campus and throughout the community.

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College essay example #7

This is a college essay that worked for Cornell University .

(Suggested reading: How to Get Into Cornell )

My fingers know instinctively, without a thought.  They turn the dial, just as they have hundreds of times before, until a soft, metallic click echoes into my eardrum and triggers their unconscious stop.  I exultantly thrust open my locker door, exposing its deepest bowels candidly to the wide halls of the high school. The bright lights shine back, brashly revealing every crevice, nook, and cranny, gleaming across its scintillating, bare surfaces.  On this first day of senior year, I set out upon my task. I procure an ordinary plastic grocery bag from my backpack. The contents inside collectively represent everything about me in high school – they tell a story, one all about me.

I reach in and let my fingers trail around the surfaces of each object.  I select my first prey arbitrarily, and as I raise my hand up to eye level, I closely examine this chosen one.  A miniature Flamenco dancer stares back at me from the confines of the 3-D rectangular magnet, half popping out as if willing herself to come to life.  Instantly, my mind transports me back a few summers before, when I tapped my own heels to traditional music in Spain. I am reminded of my thirst to travel, to explore new cultures utterly different from my familiar home in Modesto, California.  I have experienced study abroad in Spain, visited my father’s hometown in China five times, and traveled to many other places such as Paris. As a result, I have developed a restlessness inside me, a need to move on from four years in the same high school, to take advantage of diverse opportunities whenever possible, and to meet interesting people.

I take out the next magnet from my plastic bag.  This one shows a panoramic view of the city of Santa Barbara, California.  Here, I recall spending six weeks in my glory, not only studying and learning, but actually pursuing new knowledge to add to the repertoire of mankind.  I could have easily chosen to spend my summer lazing about; in fact, my parents tried to persuade me into taking a break. Instead, I chose to do advanced molecular biology research at Stanford University.  I wanted to immerse myself in my passion for biology and dip into the infinitely rich possibilities of my mind. This challenge was so rewarding to me, while at the same time I had the most fun of my life, because I was able to live with people who shared the same kind of drive and passion as I did.

After sticking up my magnets on the locker door, I ran my fingers across the bottom of the bag, and I realized that one remained.  It was a bold, black square, with white block letters proclaiming my motto, “Live the Life You Imagine.” In my four years at Cornell University, I will certainly continue to live life as I imagine, adding my own flavor to the Cornell community, while taking away invaluable experiences of my own. 

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College essay example #8

This student was admitted to Northwestern University .

As I sip a mug of hot chocolate on a dreary winter’s day, I am already planning in my mind what I will do the next summer.  I briefly ponder the traditional routes, such as taking a job or spending most of the summer at the beach. However, I know that I want to do something unique.  I am determined to even surpass my last summer, in which I spent one month with a host family in Egypt and twelve days at a leadership conference in New York City. The college courses I have taken at Oregon State University since the summer after 7th grade will no longer provide the kind of challenge I seek.

Six months later, I step off the airplane to find myself surrounded by palm trees, with a view of the open-air airport.  I chuckle to myself about the added bonus of good weather, but I know I have come to Palo Alto, California, with a much higher purpose in mind.  I will spend six weeks here in my glory, not only studying and learning, but actually pursuing new knowledge to add to the repertoire of mankind.  Through the Stanford Institutes of Medicine Summer Research Program, I will earn college credit by conducting original molecular biology research, writing my own research paper, and presenting my findings in a research symposium.

I decided to spend my summer doing research because I knew that I liked scientific thought, and that I would passionately throw myself into any new challenge.  I always want to know more – to probe deeper into the laws of the universe, to explore the power and beauty of nature, to solve the most complicated problems. I have an insatiable curiosity and a desire to delve deeper down in the recesses of my intellect.  At the Summer Research Program, I found out how much I enjoy thinking critically, solving problems, and applying my knowledge to the real world. 

While pursuing research in California, I was also able to meet many similarly motivated, interesting people from across the United States and abroad.  As I learned about their unique lifestyles, I also shared with them the diverse perspectives I have gained from my travel abroad and my Chinese cultural heritage.  I will never forget the invaluable opportunity I had to explore California along with these bright people.

I could have easily chosen to spend that summer the traditional way; in fact, my parents even tried to persuade me into taking a break.  Instead, I chose to do molecular biology research at Stanford University. I wanted to immerse myself in my passion for biology and dip into the infinitely rich possibilities of my mind.  This challenge was so rewarding to me, while at the same time I had the most fun of my life, because I was able to live with people who share the same kind of drive and passion as I do.

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College essay example #9

When I turned twelve, my stepdad turned violent. He became a different person overnight, frequently getting into fights with my mom. I didn’t deal with it well, often crying to my mom’s disappointment, afraid that my life would undo itself in a matter of seconds. You might say that my upbringing was characterized by my parents morphing everyday objects into weapons and me trying to morph into the perfect white walls that stood unmoving while my family fell apart.

This period in my life is not a sob story, but rather, the origin story of my love of writing. During a fight once, my stepdad left the house to retrieve a baseball bat from his truck. He didn’t use it, but I’ll never forget the fear that he would, how close he’d gotten. And in that moment, I did not cry as I was prone to do, but I pulled out a book, and experienced a profound disappearance, one that would always make me associate reading with escapism and healing.

Soon I came to write, filling up loose ruled paper with words, writing in the dark when we didn’t have money to pay for electricity. And as I got older, I began to think that there must be others who were going through this, too. I tried to find them. I created an anonymous blog that centered what it meant for a teenager to find joy even as her life was in shambles. In this blog I kept readers updated with what I was learning, nightly yoga to release tension from the day and affirmations in the morning to counter the shame that was mounting as a result of witnessing weekly my inability to make things better at home.

At that time, I felt uncertain about who I was because I was different online than I was at home or even at school where I was editor of my high school literary journal. It took me a while to understand that I was not the girl who hid in the corner making herself small; I was the one who sought to connect with others who were dealing with the same challenges at home, thinking that maybe in our isolation we could come together. I was able to make enough from my blog to pay some bills in the house and give my mom the courage to kick my stepfather out. When he exited our home, I felt a wind go through it, the house exhaling a giant sigh of relief.

I know this is not the typical background of most students. Sharing my story with like-minded teens helped me understand what I have to offer: my perspective, my unrelenting optimism. Because even as I’ve seen the dark side of what people are capable of, I have also been a star witness to joy and love. I do not experience despair for long because I know that this is just one chapter in a long novel, one that will change the hearts of those who come across it. And I can’t wait to see how it will end.

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College essay example #10

This student was accepted at Yale University .

(Suggested reading: How to Get Into Yale )

I was a straight A student until I got to high school, where my calm evenings cooking dinner for my siblings turned into hours watching videos, followed by the frantic attempt to finish homework around 4 am. When I got an F on a chemistry pop quiz my mom sat me down to ask me what was happening. I told her I couldn’t focus or keep track of all my materials for classes. I thought she would call me lazy, accuse me of wasting the gift of being an American that she and my father gave me. Instead, she looked around at the walls covered in sticky notes, the index cards scattered on the computer desk, the couch, the table, and she said, “How are your friends managing it?” 

It turned out while my peers were struggling to juggle the demands of high school it didn’t seem like they were working as hard to complete simple tasks. They only had to put things in a planner, not make sure the deadlines were placed in multiple locations, physical and digital. At my next doctor’s appointment my mom mentioned that I had a learning problem, but the doctor shook his head and said that I didn’t seem to have ADHD. I was just procrastinating, it’s natural.

My mom took off from her grocery store job to take me to two more appointments to ask about ADHD, the term the doctor had used, but other doctors were not willing to listen. I had As in every class except for World Literature. But I knew something was wrong. After our third doctor visit, I worked with the librarian after school to sift through research on ADHD and other learning disabilities until we came across the term executive functioning. Armed with knowledge, we went to a new doctor, and before my mom could insist that we get testing or get referred to a specialist, the doctor handed us a signed referral. She asked me about the folder in my hand. I told her it was full of my research. My mom mentioned that some doctors had refused to refer us to a specialist because my grades were too high. “It’s because we’re Asian,” she added. 

I was shocked at this revelation. The last three doctors had mumbled something about grades but had never said a thing about race. Before I could deny it fervently, the doctor, who was from Taiwan, nodded sympathetically. She said it’s common to miss learning disabilities among different races due to biases. And some adolescents learn to mask symptoms by building systems. “You don’t have to prove anything to me. I believe you should get tested.” My mom thanked her fervently and the doctor said to her, “She’s going to be a great lawyer.”

The semester following the confirmation of my learning disability diagnosis was challenging to say the least. My school switched me out of all of my IB courses to “accommodate my special needs,” and I went back to the library, working with the librarian with numerous index cards and stacks of books to make a case for discrimination. The librarian, who had become my close confidante, introduced me to an academic tutor who specialized in learning disabilities and taught me skills like using redundancy and time management to make it easier for me to grapple with moving parts. He noted that with ADHD, the problem wasn’t always the inability to focus but rather the difficulty focusing without adequate perceived reward. It wasn’t that I was not capable but that I had to make myself sufficiently interested or reiterate why something mattered. This reframe changed my life, and when I came back to the library with my new schedule in hand, the most advanced courses my school had to offer, the librarian said, “You’re going to make a great lawyer.”

I smiled and said, “I’ve heard that before.”

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College essay example #11

This student was accepted at the University of Pennsylvania.

My brother and I are exactly one year and one day apart. We look like twins — people confuse us — but we couldn’t be any more different. As children we wore the same clothes, received the same haircut. By the time we got to middle school it was clear that my older brother preferred quiet, indoor activities, while I was a born performer who preferred the theatrical, even when off stage. I took his relative silence to be disinterest and found it offensive. To the chagrin of my parents, we simply didn’t get along. 

I didn’t mind having a tense relationship with my brother because I was involved at school. In particular I delved into the world of musical theater in addition to regularly singing solos at our high school choir concerts. I spent hours after school preparing for shows. And when I came home, I practiced as well, falling into a rigorous routine I thought I needed to remain at my best and be competitive for parts. 

My bedroom was far enough from my parents so as not to disturb them, but space to practice became an issue with my brother because, well, we shared a room. Imagine him meditating on a window seat while I am belting, trying to sustain a high note. Needless to say, this created tension between us. From my point of view he could have meditated in the living room or while I was at practice, but he wasn’t willing to budge. From his point of view, high school was hard enough without the constant sound of Glee arrangements.

At the start of the semester, I practiced “Circle of Life” for a concert audition. While I could sing it fine in its original key, I had a hard time singing it along with the music because the arrangement of the song we were working on had a key change that was out of my range. I couldn’t change key without my voice cracking as I switched to a head voice. This was the first time I struggled to learn a song, and I was a week from the audition. I was irritable in that period and stopped practicing, declaring I had reached the height of my singing career. My brother experiencing quiet when I got home for the first time in years. 

After a couple days of this, when I got home, he asked me to join him in meditation. And feeling my anger at my inability to navigate this song gracefully, I did. It was difficult at first. I was trying to clear my head. Later my brother told me that wasn’t the point. When your mind drifts away, you simply come back, no judgment. I liked the sound of that, and it became my new philosophy. I kept trying at the song, no longer getting angry at myself, and just in time for the audition I was able to maintain power in my voice despite the key change. It was important for me to learn you don’t have to always get everything right the first time and that good things come with continual effort. As for my brother, we no longer argue. I now understand why he prefers the quiet. 

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College essay example #12

This student was admitted to Brown University .

(Suggested reading: How to Get Into Brown )

My parents are aerospace engineers, humble even as their work helps our society explore new frontiers. They believe that you make a stand through the work that you do, not what you say. This is what they taught me. This is what I believed until my sophomore year when I was confronted with a moment where I could not stay quiet. 

I live outside of a major city in a small, rural town that’s majority white but for a small South Asian population. My high school wasn’t diverse by any standards. Some students were openly the children of skinheads. After a racist exchange with a student who insulted her and refused to sit at the same lunch table, my best friend, who was Muslim, did not stand for the pledge of allegiance in homeroom the next day.

I hadn’t heard about the encounter that sparked this move on her part and was surprised when she didn’t stand up beside me, hand against her heart, mouth chanting an oath. She hadn’t mentioned any mounting discomfort to me, nor had I noticed anything. Unlike my “patriotic” peers, I was less upset by her refusal to stand up for the pledge of allegiance and more upset that she didn’t share with me that she was hurting and what she was going to do to protest how she was treated because of her beliefs and the color of her skin. 

She was suspended for insubordination and when I called her, she said that surely in this situation I might find a way to think of more than my own feelings. I felt ashamed. It didn’t even occur to me to seek to understand what was behind her decision in the first place. I apologized, asking how to best support her. She said it was just important that I listen and understand that she could not thrive in an environment that promoted sameness. She spoke to me with a vulnerability I had never heard before. At the end of our conversation, I apologized profusely. She said she did not need my words and what she needed from me was to take a stand.

This was the opposite of the belief my parents drilled in me. I felt conflicted at first, as if by speaking about the situation I was doing something wrong. However, my friend had to deal with a reality that I did not. And perhaps taking a stand would allow my institution and everyone in it to learn to be a more inclusive space for everyone. Maybe there was a way to take a stand and to do the necessary work to change things.

I started a petition with my friend’s permission to end her suspension and to take disciplinary action instead on the student who had taken racist actions in the first place. Of the 1000 students at my high school, over 200 signed, a number that far exceeded my expectation. When I shared the results with my friend, she said to me, “Because of who you are, you will always have supporters. Use your power to do good.”

Since then, I have tried to be more aware that not everyone experiences comfort in the same environments that I do. Rather than assume everyone feels safe and supported, it’s best to create space to listen and to ask how you can be supportive. My friend and I created a club to foster cross-cultural dialogue. In the past year two other clubs of its kind began at other local schools. More than anything I am proud that I have learned to be a better friend and a more thoughtful community member in a way that honors who I am and what I value.

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College essay example #13

This is a college essay that worked for Washington University in St. Louis (WashU).

I held my breath as my steady hands gently nestled the crumbly roots of the lettuce plant into the soil trench that I shoveled moments before. Rainwater and sweat dripped from my brow as I meticulously patted and pressed the surrounding earth, stamping the leafy green creature into its new home. After rubbing the gritty soil off of my hands, I looked at Brian, a co-volunteer and nonverbal 20-year-old with autism, who extended his arm for a high-five. In the year that I’ve been working with him, I’ve watched him revel in planting, nurturing, and eventually harvesting his veggies, especially the grape tomatoes, which we enjoy eating fresh off the vine! Upon walking to the next row of hollowed cavities, we were not contemplating the lengthy work that lay ahead, but rather, we sought to liberate the helpless lettuces, imprisoned in produce cartons that were too small for them to grow in. Finally, after taking a step back to admire the day’s last plant, my chest swelled as a wave of contentment flushed through my body. 

My love for gardening began when I moved to Georgia during my sophomore year. In the time I’ve spent learning how to garden, I’ve developed an affinity for watching my vegetables grow to maturity, eager to be harvested and sold at the Saturday market. Though many see gardening as tedious busywork, I find it meditative, as I lose track of time while combining peat moss and soil in the garden’s compost mixer. Saturday morning garden work has become a weekend ritual, ridding me of all extraneous responsibilities. My body goes into autopilot as I let my mind wander. I don’t actively focus on focusing, but rather I observe myself internally digest the week’s events. I’m a bystander to fireworks of thought that explode in my mind as my perception of important matters becomes trivial. Sometimes, it’s the physics midterm that suddenly seems less daunting or the deadlines I need to meet for my Spanish project that push back farther. Other times, I contemplate alternative endings to conversations or make perfect sense of the calculus answer that was at the tip of my tongue in class. 

I met Brian, a close friend of mine who also basks in the tranquility of nature, through my gardening endeavors. While we aren’t able to communicate verbally, we speak the language of earth, water, peat, and seedlings. He doesn’t speak with words, but his face tells stories of newly found purpose and acceptance, a pleasant contrast to the typical condescension and babying he feels by those who don’t think he’s capable of independent thought. 

Throughout my time in the garden with Brian, I began to understand that he, like everyone, has a particular method of communicating. There are the obvious spoken languages, body languages, facial expressions, and interactions we share on a day-to-day basis that reflect who we are and communicate what we represent. Brian expresses himself through various manifestations of unspoken language that he uses to signal how he feels or what he wants. But the nuanced combinations of different methods of communicating are oftentimes overlooked, raising a barrier to mutual understanding that prevents one from being capable of truly connecting with others. I began to understand that in order to reach people, I have to speak in their language, be it verbally or otherwise. Working with Brian over the past year has made me more aware that people can have difficulty expressing themselves. I found that I can positively lead people if I can communicate with them, whether on the track or in my Jewish youth group discussions. As I move into the next phases of my life, I hope to bring these skills with me because, in order to effectuate positive change in my community, I learned that I must speak in the language of those around me. Those are the words Brian taught me.

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College essay example #14

This student was accepted at Brown University.

It felt like I threw myself out of a plane without a parachute. My eyes firmly shut, I feared for my life as I plummeted towards the ground. In hindsight, perhaps half coming out at a public restaurant wasn’t the brightest idea. Then again, living as the half-closeted queer kid meant that I was all too familiar with intimidating situations.

I asked my mom: “What would you do if I had a girlfriend?” She instantly replied that she couldn’t understand. Immediately, my heart dropped and the emotional free fall began. She explained that Americans choose to be gay for personal enjoyment, which in my Korean culture is an attitude that is severely frowned upon. I sat there like a statue, motionless and afraid to speak, blindly hurtling towards a hard reality I hadn’t expected. Rejection cut me deeply and I started to feel the itch of tears welling in my eyes, yet I had to contain myself. I couldn’t let the pain seep through my facade or else she would question why I cared. All I could do was keep looking down and shoveling food into my mouth, silently wishing I could just disappear. That night, I realized it would be a long time before I could fully come out to my mom. My eyes tightened as I continued to fall.

In the following weeks, I started noticing how discomfort played a natural part in my life. I recognized the anxious reactions of my classmates as I argued with my Christian friends when they said my queerness is a sin. I observed the judgmental glances my mentors gave me as I passionately disagreed with my conservative lab mates over my sister’s abortion. Eventually, my friends decided to censor certain topics of discussion, trying to avoid these situations altogether. I felt like vulnerability was the new taboo. People’s expressions and actions seemed to confine me, telling me to stop caring so much, to keep my eyes closed as I fall, so they didn’t have to watch.

Had others felt uncomfortable with me in the same way I had felt uncomfortable with my mom? Do they feel that our passions might uncover a chasm into which we all fall, unsure of the outcome?

Perhaps it was too raw , too emotional .

There was something about pure, uncensored passion during conflict that became too real. It made me, and the people around me, vulnerable, which was frightening. It made us think about things we didn’t want to consider, things branded too political, too dangerous. Shielding ourselves in discomfort was simply an easier way of living.

However, I’ve come to realize that it wasn’t my comfort, but rather, my discomfort that defined my life. My memories aren’t filled with times where life was simple, but moments where I was conflicted. It is filled with unexpected dinners and unusual conversations where I was uncertain. It is filled with the uncensored versions of my beliefs and the beliefs of others. It is filled with a purity that I shouldn’t have detained.

Now, I look forward to tough conversations with a newfound willingness to learn and listen, with an appreciation for uncertainty. I urge others to explore our discomfort together and embrace the messy emotions that accompany it. I try to make our collective discomfort more navigable. Since that dinner, my relationship with my mother is still in free fall. It’s dangerous and frightening. Thankfully, the potentially perilous conversations I’ve had with my friends has given me a newfound appreciation for my own fear. I’ll admit, part of me still seeks to close my eyes, to hide in the safety I’ll find in silence. Yet, a larger part of me yearns to embrace the dangers around me as I fall through the sky. I may still be falling, but this time, I will open my eyes, and hopefully steer towards a better landing for both my mom and me.

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THERE'S NO REASON TO STRUGGLE THROUGH THE COLLEGE ADMISSIONS PROCESS ALONE, ESPECIALLY WITH SO MUCH ON THE LINE. SCHEDULE YOUR COMPLIMENTARY CONSULTATION TO ENSURE YOU LEAVE NOTHING TO CHANCE.

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what five things do excellent college essays have in common

Successful Common App Essays

Common app essays →, harvard essays →, mit essays →, princeton essays →, stanford essays →, yale essays →, common app essay | katie.

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Common App Essay: A meaningful background, identity, interest, or talent | Grace

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you,…...

Common App Essay: Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure | Jessica

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure…....

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Common App Essay | A meaningful background, identity, interest, or talent | Joseph

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How to Write Better Essays

9 college essay tips on how to write better essays.

Want to learn how to write better essays? We’re here to help. In this guide, we have collected the best college essay tips from our experienced team, who have guided hundreds of students through the college admissions process. Our experts have taught many students how to write better essays, helping them gain admission to some of the most competitive schools in the country. 

This guide will teach you how to write better essays and provide you with 9 college essay tips to keep in mind as you write your supplemental essays and personal statements. Our admissions experts have extensive experience with college essay prompts and the college application essay format. They’ve guided hundreds of students through how to write better essays. 

In addition to our college essay tips, this guide will provide insight into college essay prompts, supplemental essays, and other tips on how to write better essays overall. We’ll go over the different essay prompts you may encounter and offer some tips on tackling common essays. This guide will also detail how to use essay examples to help with your writing process. We’ll also offer tips on how to help your essays stand out. If you’re looking for college essay help, continue reading below. 

College Application Requirements

While the college essay is a major part of the college admissions process, it’s not the only element to consider. Many college application requirements include transcripts, extracurriculars, recommendations, as well as supplemental essays. You may also need to submit a college resume and a separate personal statement in addition to your Common App essay . It’s important to pay attention to the college application deadlines as well. Different schools will have different college application requirements, including different college essay prompts. 

Your grades and extracurricular activities can provide colleges with a great overview of your school performance. However, the best college admissions essays give schools a deeper understanding of your identity and goals. College essay prompts are designed to help admissions officers decide who may be a good fit for their campus. Many college essay tips will focus on showcasing your personality and highlighting aspects of your high school career that colleges may not know about. If you’re looking to learn how to write better essays, we’ve detailed the kinds of college essay prompts you may encounter below. 

Common App essay vs. supplemental essays

Through the college admissions process, you will encounter both the Common App essay and supplemental essays. The Common App essay , sometimes known as a personal statement, has a 650-word limit. Students have a choice between seven college essay prompts, and they can send the Common App essay to multiple schools. The college application essay format allows students to highlight a personal interest, accomplishment, or important story. The best college admission essays leave a great impression on the reader and make them feel as if they know the author in a personal way. Researching college essay tips and college essay ideas can help you learn how to write better essays. 

In addition to the Common App essay, you will also encounter supplemental essays. Supplemental essays are typically shorter than the Common App essay, often between 150-300 words. Supplemental essays are school specific, and are designed to see how much you know about the school you’re applying to. In the next section, we’ll detail the different kinds of supplemental essays you may encounter. We’ll also give you some college essay tips to help you learn how to write better essays. 

What is a supplemental essay?

Supplemental essays are essays assigned specifically by a school. While the college application essay prompts may be similar, it’s important to make sure each essay is unique for each school. The supplemental essay allows schools to get more information about you and your interests outside of your Common App essay and overall college application. Not all schools will have supplemental essays, but it’s important to allot time to write these additional essays. Some schools will have 2-3 additional essay prompts, which could mean a lot of extra writing if you aren’t prepared. 

There are many different kinds of supplemental essays. Some schools have very short essay prompts, such as Columbia . These may ask students to list influential books, movies, and ways they explore their interests.  Other schools ask for additional personal statements in addition to the Common App essay, such as Harvard. Some schools will list the supplemental essays as optional, such as the Fordham supplemental essays. CollegeAdvisor recommends students complete every supplemental essay for each school on their college list . This includes all “optional” college essay prompts. 

Here are some college essay tips for some of the most common supplemental college essay prompts. These college essay topics are found at many colleges, and it’s likely that you will encounter them at some point through the admissions process. Reading these tips can help you when pondering what to write your college essays about .  These tips can help you learn how to write better essays and help brainstorm some college essay ideas:

Tips to Write Better Essays

1. why school essay .

The Why School essay is one of the most common college essay prompts. This essay asks you to explain why you’re interested in that specific school. As you tackle these college essay prompts, make sure to pinpoint your exact reasons for applying. 

2. Why Major Essay

The Why Major Essay is designed to help schools understand why you’re interested in your intended major. Try to explain your interest, and how that school will help you with your goals—see the UPenn supplemental essays for an example. 

3. Cultural Diversity Essay 

Many schools use the Cultural Diversity Essay to get to know your background better or allow you to highlight important aspects of your identity. The Tufts supplemental essays include a Cultural Diversity Essay. This prompt asks students to explain how their background has shaped who they are. 

4. Personal Challenge Essay 

The Personal Challenge Essay allows students to describe an obstacle they have overcome. Many of the best college essays highlight a student’s personal struggle, but it can be challenging to not overshare . Be sure to read college essay examples to help you strike the right balance. 

5. Extracurricular Activities Essay

The Extracurricular Activities Essay allows you to elaborate on your college resume. It offers you an opportunity to discuss your favorite club, sport, or community project. The Yale supplemental essays   include an Extracurricular Activities Essay, asking students to reflect on how they have worked to enrich their community. 

6. Unique or Oddball College Essays 

Some colleges are known for their unique essay prompts, such as the University of Chicago . These college essay prompts require students to get creative, and some of the best college admission essays come from a unique or oddball prompt. While these prompts may be intimidating, they can be a great opportunity for you to flex some creative muscles. They can also be a lot of fun to write, so don’t shy away from them!

7. Short Essays 

Short college application essay prompts can be some of the more challenging essays to write. Learning how to write better essays can help you with the short essay prompts, as you need to be concise and thoughtful about what you include. Every word will matter in a short essay prompt. So, think carefully about what you want to say and how you will say it. This will help you write the best college admission essays possible.

You may encounter a number of different supplemental essays, but all of them have the same goal—to help admissions officers learn more about you and your goals. If you’re still feeling stuck on your essays, U.S News has a great guide on How to Write a Supplemental Essay . Harvard also has great essay writing resources, including 12 Strategies to Writing the Perfect College Essay and student perspectives on the college essay. Vanderbilt has also compiled some essay writing tips, and the Smith College essay tip sheet can also come in handy. 

Do colleges care about supplemental essays?

While it’s hard to say exactly how supplemental essays factor into the admissions process, we do know that colleges care about your essays. The supplemental essay is the best opportunity for you to speak directly to the colleges you’re applying to. As such, it can serve as a great way for admissions officers to get to know you better. While college essay topics can feel silly or repetitive, it’s important to dedicate time and effort to your essays. 

One of the more common college essay mistakes is re-using the same essay for multiple colleges. While you can strategically re-use sentences and phrases, it’s important to make sure that each essay is unique to each college. Colleges want to ensure that the students they admit are passionate about their campus, and the best college essays effectively communicate that passion. The common college essay topics are designed to help admissions officers learn more about you, so it’s crucial to take them seriously. 

Case Study: Ivy League Essays

Let’s think about two hypothetical students, Lisa and Leo. They both have similar SAT scores, GPAs, and strong recommendation letters. They both were heavily involved in extracurriculars and met the admissions criteria for many Ivy League universities . Lisa wanted to learn how to write better essays, while Leo assumed the essays wouldn’t weigh as heavily as the other parts of his application. Lisa started to research college essay tips, read college essay examples , and familiarized herself with the college application essay format. She made sure to read different articles on how to write better essays, such as this one by U.S. News and Forbes’ The Perfectionist’s Guide to the College Essay . 

Leo wasn’t too concerned about college essay tips or learning how to write better essays. He did not seek college essay help and turned in the same Why Major essay to many of his top choices. While Lisa took care to make sure each of her college application essay prompts was unique and varied between each school, Leo assumed nobody would read the essays. Come Decision Day, it’s no surprise that Lisa was accepted to her top choice, and Leo was waitlisted. 

You can see why Lisa would have an advantage over Leo—taking enough time and effort to learn how to write better essays can help increase your chances of admission. Developing creative and unique college essay ideas can be a challenge, but it is worth the effort. If you research common college essay tips and read different college essay examples, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you learn how to write better essays. 

What makes a great college essay?

With so many resources and college essay tips, it can be hard to determine what makes a great college essay. When learning how to write better essays, it can be helpful to have some guidelines to keep in mind. We’ve collected 5 key components of the best college admission essays to help you learn how to write better essays: 

How to Write a Great College Essay

1. compelling hook.

A compelling hook can be the difference between a good college essay and a great college essay. If you’re wondering how to start a college essay, introducing an interesting personal story or anecdote can be a great way to set up a compelling hook in your first paragraph. Learning how to write better essays will help you develop compelling hooks to help capture the reader’s attention. Part of writing a compelling hook is to land the ending as well, so be sure to finish strong.

2. Personal detail not offered elsewhere in application 

The college application essay format is designed to help you highlight details that may not be present elsewhere in your application. The best college admissions essays help add to a student’s application and offer insight that helps create a holistic profile. If you want to learn how to write better essays, then brainstorm details or stories that may be missing from your overall application. 

3. Original and engaging topics 

While many of the college application essay prompts will be repetitive, it’s important to make sure your essays have original and engaging topics. Think outside the box and try to approach your essays creatively. After all, learning how to write better essays can help you come up with original topics that will help your essays stand out. If you’re feeling stuck, U.S News has 10 Tips to Inspire College Essays to help. You can also read this U.S. News article on common essay topics and what admissions officers think of them. 

4. Unique and personal voice 

One of the biggest college essay tips is to develop your unique and personal voice. This can be the hardest part about learning how to write better essays. However, it’s crucial in making sure your essays stand out. Your essays should reflect your own voice and help the reader get to know you as an individual. Developing your own writing voice is a great skill that can take significant time and effort. If you’re struggling on developing your voice, Forbes has a great guide you can read here . 

5. Grammatically sound and free of errors 

It’s common to find college essay mistakes in the first, second, or even third drafts – making the proofreading process crucial. Ensuring that your college essay is free of errors, and follows all applicable grammatical rules, will make a great impression on admissions officers. Learning how to write better essays will help you catch any errors you make. U.S. News has a great guide on Grammar Do’s and Don’t for college essays if you’re concerned about using the proper rules.

Overall, the best way to incorporate these components is to invest a lot of time and effort into your essays. Make sure to ask for college essay help through proofreading, editing, and read-throughs. Having multiple teachers, mentors, and relatives read through your essays will help ensure the best versions are submitted. Learning how to write better essays takes a lot of time and practice, so the earlier you can start, the better.

How do I make my college essay stand out?

With college admissions becoming more and more competitive, it’s important for your college essay to stand out. If you’re interested in learning how to write better essays, we’ve compiled 9 college essay tips to help you. From help on how to start a college essay to breaking down the college application essay format, our college essay tips are designed to help you each step of the way. 

Our essay tips are designed for students across all stages of the application process, from freshmen and sophomores looking to get a head start to seniors deep in the application season. If you’re looking for more step-by-step guides, Forbes has a great guide on How to Write A College Essay. You can read it here . 

Our 9 college essay tips will help you write standout essays and help capture exactly what you want to communicate to colleges. 

9 College Essay Tips

Tackling the essay portion of your college admissions process can be daunting. In this guide on how to write better essays, we have discussed a lot of useful college essay tips including college application requirements, what makes a great college essay, and how you can write the best college essays possible. Now, we’re going to give you some practical college essay tips that will apply to any prompt you’ll encounter. 

Only the best college essays will rise to the top, so it’s important to know how to write better essays, especially if you apply to reach schools such as Ivy League universities . When considering how to write better essays, it’s important to look at college essay examples like the Tufts supplemental essays, Fordham supplemental essays, UPenn supplemental essays, and Yale supplemental essays. Additionally, always check out college admissions sites to see if they have specific tips for their essays. For example, here are some tips on the Smith College essay. 

With plenty of available resources and college essay tips, like this guide on how to write better essays, you can write the best college admission essays. Our college essay tips come directly from experts who have guided hundreds of students through the college admissions process, like these tips from experts at Vanderbilt . You can also check out our Success Stories , where you can read about real CollegeAdvisor students’ journeys!

Wondering how to start a college essay and how to write better essays? Great! Because we will now discuss 9 college essay tips. These tips will show you how to write better essays that showcase your unique qualities.

#1: Start Early

Wondering how to write better essays? The first thing you need to know is to start early. You might have heard the first of our college essay tips before, but experts agree that you need to give yourself ample time to tackle college essays. This means enough time to develop college essay ideas, complete drafts, and review them multiple times. That way, you can steer clear of any college essay mistakes. This can be tedious, but it is an imperative part of writing the best college admission essays.

U.S. News suggests that students wondering how to write better essays should start writing the summer before senior year. Schools often release their college essay prompts at the end of summer. Ideally, by the fall you will have drafted your personal statement , finalized your college list, and started working on other aspects of the Common App. This ensures you have a solid foundation when college essay prompts are released. Additionally, this will make it less stressful to dive right into the writing process.   

Most importantly, starting early gives you plenty of time to write multiple drafts before college application deadlines . These can be as early as October or November for those applying Early Action or Early Decision. Regular Decision deadlines are generally in December or January. So, figure out when you intend to submit your college applications. Then, make a priority list of essays in the order of their due dates.

Planning your essay strategy

In addition to your Common App essay , many colleges ask applicants to submit supplemental essays. These ask students to explain what interests them about a particular school or major. These college essay prompts are generally released in the late summer. They also tend to be shorter than the main essay. So, when budgeting your time, don’t forget about school-specific supplemental essays!

Moreover, starting early gives you ample time to familiarize yourself with college application requirements. You can review the essay requirements for each of the colleges you’re interested in on their websites. There, you will find the college essay prompts, word limits, and other college application essay format guidelines. This guarantees that you are well prepared and write the best college admission essays. 

Whether you’re writing the Tufts supplemental essays, Fordham supplemental essays, UPenn supplemental essays, Yale supplemental essays, or responding to the Smith College essay prompts, you’ll need to follow the school-specific guidelines. So, make sure you understand what makes each of these college essay prompts unique.

#2: Practice Writing about Yourself

College essays ask students to be personal and vulnerable in their writing, which may be unfamiliar to them. However, it’s an essential aspect of how to write better essays. Telling personal details about yourself and your goals does not mean simply restating your college resume . But, it also doesn’t mean you should overshare or “trauma dump.”

While you may excel in crafting research reports, personal writing can be challenging. There are a few contexts outside of the college admissions process where you will be asked to write about yourself. This is where the second of our college essay tips on how to write better essays comes into play: practice writing about yourself.  

There are various strategies you can use to practice. First, you can begin by writing a daily journal. Inevitably, you will have to write about yourself, your thoughts, and your actions. Next, you can audio record yourself talking and write from that. This will ensure your writing captures who you are and even has a conversational tone. You might also try free-writing. Just set a timer and write until it goes off! The more often you do this, the easier it will get. And, you’re bound to find some meaningful gems among the scribblings.

Targeted essay practice

Another good way to get acclimated to writing about yourself is to look at college application essay prompts from prior years and practice responding to them. These college essay prompts will likely be similar to those in your application cycle. Finally, read college essay examples written by other students to get a feel for how to respond. These exercises are key components when considering how to write better essays.

Reading college essay tips is great, but remember that practice is key. Learning to write about yourself is a vital skill when learning how to write better essays. 

#3: Familiarize yourself with the essay prompts

The most common types of supplemental essays and college essay prompts are as follows: 

  • Why School Essay
  • Why Major Essay
  • Cultural Diversity Essay
  • Personal Challenge Essay 
  • Extracurricular Activities Essay
  • Unique or Oddball College Essays
  • Short Essays

College essay prompts generally fall into one of these specific college application essay format categories. So, it’s essential to familiarize yourself with them in advance to know how to write better essays. By reviewing past college essay prompts and college application essay formats, you can practice your responses in order to write the best college admission essays. No matter if you’re writing Tufts supplemental essays, Fordham supplemental essays, UPenn supplemental essays, Yale supplemental essays, or Smith College essays, familiarizing yourself with a wide variety of essays will give you an edge. This will increase your admissions odds at selective schools. 

Reading sample college essays

Additionally, to gain a better understanding of what universities look for, it’s beneficial to read through college essay examples of why school essays. Familiarizing yourself with why school college application essay formats will provide insight into the specific aspects of the responses that admissions officers value. So, college essay examples can teach you what to expect from these sorts of college application essay prompts. This is a key component in any student’s “how to write better essays” plan. 

Checking out other college application essay formats, such as examples of extracurricular activities college application essay prompts, can help you figure out how to write better essays about your own extracurriculars. Namely, you’ll want to focus on the impact they’ve had on you and, subsequently, your current path to higher education. 

When preparing to write your college essays, consider the word limit of the college application essay prompts. This will determine how much or how little you can include in your writing. Sometimes, less is more. And, it’s always best to aim for the suggested word limit. 

By following these college essay tips on how to write better essays, you can prepare yourself to tackle college essay prompts and craft outstanding responses. Familiarizing yourself with a variety of prompts will ensure you’re ready for anything when it comes to college essays. 

#4: Take time to research

Before you start writing, you should learn more about the schools you are applying to. One of the most important college essay tips on how to write better essays is spending time researching the colleges on your list. This will allow you to uncover specific opportunities that align with your goals. And, you should want to be just as good of a fit for the school as it is for you. Moreover, a key part of how to write better essays is including school-specific details.

However, you should not only research the basic things like the college essay prompts and college application requirements. Instead, you should focus on things that are specific to the school and coincide with your interests. What major are you considering? Why is the campus setting appealing to you? What organizations do you want to get involved in? Are there professors that you’re excited to learn from? Foregrounding these details gives you a chance to prove to the admissions team that you have invested time and energy into finding the best college for you.  

Learn all that you can so that you can submit a well-informed and persuasive application. Your essay should show how the college meets your needs and how you plan to contribute to the campus environment. 

Make sure to mention any unique aspects of the school or curriculum that could contribute to your overall career goals . The more details you use, the better you will be able to paint a picture of why you belong at that school. Researching the college you are applying to will enable you to gather relevant information about its values and opportunities. Then, you can use the specific details that attract you to the school to write the most impactful essays.

#5: Outline your essays

Outlining your essays is one of the most crucial college essay tips in the “how to write better essays” process. Outlines allow you to organize your thoughts, structure your college essay ideas, and ensure your essays effectively convey the intended message. 

Outlines are beneficial because they help you clarify your main points and maintain focus throughout your essay. They enable efficient use of your word limit and aid in college essay ideas development. Additionally, outlines contribute to the overall time management process. 

It can be easy to get distracted while writing and go off on a tangent. That’s okay when it comes to free-writing practices. However, when it’s time to write your actual essay, you’ll need to be more focused and intentional with your writing. By creating a solid plan, you will set yourself up for a successful essay writing process.

#6: Never repeat yourself

Supplemental essays provide applicants with an opportunity to provide additional information to the admissions committee, highlighting why they are a strong fit for the school. That’s why the sixth of our college essay tips on how to write better essays is to never repeat yourself . Your essays should be used to expand upon different college essay topics, experiences, and perspectives.

You’ll likely run into a scenario in which the school you are applying to requires two types of supplemental essays. Let’s say you choose to write about similar or adjacent college essay topics for both. For example, you discuss your passion for community service in both essays, elaborating on different aspects within each. While this approach may seem coherent, it’s generally a better choice to write about two entirely different subjects for the essays. Writing about different topics demonstrates that you are a well-rounded applicant and would contribute to various aspects of the college community. 

When elaborating on extracurricular activities listed on the Common App, you’ll need to provide additional details and deeper meaning. Be strategic and don’t restate what has already been mentioned. Instead, use this opportunity to dive deeper into specific projects, achievements, leadership roles, and personal growth. 

#7: Showcase your voice

Your writing voice is the unique and distinctive style, tone, and personality that comes through in your essays. Think of it as your way of expressing your thoughts and ideas on the page. When writing your college essays, an admissions team should be able to “hear” your voice. 

An important element of how to write better essays is writing with an authentic voice . Your college essays should sound like you. So, unless you frequently use Shakespearean language, avoid it in your college essays. 

Use these college essay tips as tools to show who you are, what you value, and how you think. By making sure your authentic voice comes through, you can do just that. It’s vital that your essays are an authentic, personal, and vulnerable representation of who you are. Remember, you are what you write . 

#8: “Show” don’t “Tell”

You’ve probably heard it before, but #8 on our college essay tips on how to write better essays reaffirms the importance of showing, not telling, in your college essays. Your college essays give you the opportunity to show the admissions team who you are beyond your academic achievements. Entertaining or intriguing anecdotes are more effective at explaining your qualities and passions than just statements. 

Think about your most meaningful and favorite life stories. Do they show something about your personality, values, interests, or character?  You should use relevant anecdotes in order to show the admissions officers how you embody certain traits or beliefs, as opposed to just stating you have them.

Let’s take a look at this example of “show” vs “tell” writing:

“Tell” Writing: “I am compassionate and want to help others. I have volunteered at a local homeless shelter, which has been very rewarding.”

“Show” Writing: “Last summer, as I was volunteering at the local homeless shelter, I experienced an indescribable sense of fulfillment. I served a tired-looking woman with three young children a hot plate of food. She met me with gratitude and relief in her eyes, and I met her with a warm smile. At that moment, I saw my small act of kindness make a tangible difference in someone’s life and knew that I wanted to pursue a career that would do the same.”

As you can see, the “show” writing example paints a vivid picture and engages the reader by providing specific details and descriptions. This creates a more impactful and memorable narrative while providing evidence of the argument being made: the student is passionate about helping others. If you decide to write about a common topic like service, do it because your experience has led to thought and reflection, not because you feel like it’s what admissions officers want to hear. 

If you want to know how to write better essays, whether writing Tufts supplemental essays, Fordham supplemental essays, UPenn supplemental essays, Yale supplemental essays, or Smith College essays, showing and not telling is key. You’ll notice it in all exceptional college essay examples.  

#9: Ask for help!

You should approach the editing phase of your college essays with the same importance as the writing phase. This phase is connected to the first of our college essay tips: start early! The earlier you start planning your essays, the more time you’ll have to ask parents, teachers, and advisors for college essay help. Having an outsider look at your essay will teach you a lot. So, make sure you dedicate sufficient time to this critical phase. 

When you feel like your essay is ready for review, use multiple resources to increase the chances of producing an error-free essay. Begin with writing assistant programs, like spell-check, for basic errors. Then, ideally, seek college essay help from at least two knowledgeable adults. Their feedback can help when considering how to write better essays. Additionally, look to these tips from Harvard experts and Harvard students on how to write standout college essays. 

Give yourself time to receive external feedback on your college essay topics and ideas as well as grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Following these guidelines will help you to complete your college application essays before the application deadline. This will ensure you submit work that impresses admissions officers and is free of college essay mistakes. For perfectionists, this Forbes guide to the college essay may be exactly what you’re looking for. 

After reading all these tips, you should now know how to start a college essay. You can always reach out to our advisors at CollegeAdvisor for college essay help by scheduling an appointment here . We also have guides on writing college essays and supplemental essays, as well as examples of college essays that worked. However, when in doubt during your writing process, revisit these tips for a reminder of how to write better essays.

Learning how to write better essays

Many students struggle with figuring out how to write better essays during the college admissions process. They may think they can’t write the best college admission essays or master the college application essay format. However, with the college essay tips listed above and good college essay help, anyone can learn how to write better essays. What makes a great college essay is a combination of practice, revision, and time. 

Are you trying to master how to write better essays? Start by giving yourself enough time to work on your college application essay prompts. Many of our college essay tips require time to research, outline, and plan before you even start writing your first draft. The more time you have to revise and fix your college essay mistakes, the better your essay will be.

Following college essay tips is also important because you may not have experience with this kind of writing. College essay prompts and supplemental essays require different skills than essays for your high school classes. For example, teachers often discourage writers from being too personal in academic essays. However, college essay prompts require a great deal of personal information, and the best essays include authentic personal experiences.

When learning how to write better essays, you can always learn from past successes. Reading essays that worked is a very popular way to gain insight into the college application essay format. Moreover, they may provide inspiration for your own essays, of which there will likely be several. Many colleges ask for multiple supplemental essays, so reading widely will prepare you for the endless college essay prompts available.

Approaching Different Types of Essays

In truth, your understanding of how to write better essays for college will only deepen with practice. In other words, writing for various college essay prompts will improve your final product. Of course, reading sample essays for a variety of topics beforehand will widen your perspective and prepare you to write. With that said, you do actually have to write something—put all those tips and knowledge to good use.

Each essay will demand something different from you: extracurricular experiences, academic aspirations, and challenges faced. While the end goal remains to showcase your best sides to admissions, it can be challenging depending on the prompt. By reading and writing multiple genres of essays, you’ll figure out the best approach to any prompt.

Nowadays, there are many different college essay topics to choose from; some will be better suited to you than others. Knowing what prompts will bring out the best side of you is essential to writing great essays. And don’t worry too much about writing about a never-before-seen or wholly unique experience. Despite what some may say, common topics aren’t off-limits—you just need to fine-tune them to showcase your strengths.

Writing within a short word count is another difficult aspect of how to write better essays. Most academic essays are several pages in length, whereas some college application essay prompts allow fewer than 150 words. Short essays especially require careful word choice and, often, more than one revision. The best college essays are highly polished, refined college essay ideas—basically, start early to get ahead.

Reading College Essay Examples

One of the best ways to learn how to write better essays is to read successful college essay examples. Many college websites will post essay examples from their most recent incoming class. In these, you can see what admitted students wrote about and get some college essay ideas of your own. 

With that said, beware of plagiarism. You should never copy supplemental essays that were written by somebody else. Not only is it considered plagiarism, but it also will not help you answer the college essay prompts better. Developing your authentic voice, with some inspiration gained from research, is the best technique for how to write better essays.

If you’re looking for examples for a wide range of college essay prompts, CollegeAdvisor.com has you covered there, too. We’ve compiled some of the best college essays, all written by students like you who were accepted into top colleges. These sample essays and their accompanying college essay tips are excellent models for learning how to write better essays.

Another place to find great college essay help is this article featuring 10 different essays that earned their writers’ acceptance at the end of the admissions process. This article features every possible college application essay format, including Common Application essays and different variations of supplemental essays. Regardless of your college essay prompts, you can find college essay tips for how to write better essays. Unconventional college essay topics are particularly difficult to brainstorm for, so these examples can help you figure out how to start a college essay. 

More Essay Guides from CollegeAdvisor

At CollegeAdvisor.com, we know the value of looking over a variety of successful college essay examples. That’s why we’ve compiled essay guides covering the college essay prompts for over 100 of America’s top universities. From the UPenn supplemental essays to the Yale supplemental essays and Tufts supplemental essays, our guides will help you prepare for any college’s prompts.

Because each school’s essays are different, specific essay guides are an excellent place to start. If you’re seeking college essay tips for supplemental essays at a particular school, the best source is successful essays. Our articles also include guides on how to write better essays for Ivy League schools , the UC system , and much more.

What about college essay tips for non-specific essays? While each school’s supplemental essays are different, nearly all of them require some sort of personal statement . This may be through the Common Application , Coalition Application , or an alternative college application essay format. Certainly, there are many articles out there with general college essay tips, like those from U.S. News or Forbes . However, there is no better way to learn how to write better essays than reading full examples.

Use your network

Finally, don’t be afraid to consult your personal network for college essay tips. Do you have a friend, older sibling, or high school alum who attends a college on your list? You can ask them about their essay or about their experience at the school. If you live nearby, you may even be able to accompany them there to walk around campus.

Their perspective could be very valuable since they’ve already gone through the admissions process and been accepted there. Their insights into your personality can also help you consider which college essay prompts will best serve you. When looking into how to write better essays, make sure you take advantage of all the resources available to you.

Making your supplemental essays stand out

We’ve gone over a lot of advice for how to write better essays. By now, your head may be swimming with all the college essay tips and topics we provided. So let’s get back to basics and figure out the most essential things to writing great essays.

To summarize, we wanted to highlight three more college essay tips to help your supplemental essays stand out from the crowd . And, especially if you’re applying to popular schools, there will be a big crowd.

Depending on a school’s size, an admissions officer may read hundreds or thousands of applications during the college admissions process. And because college application requirements are the same for every applicant, they’re likely reading hundreds of responses to the same college essay prompts. Therefore, making your essay stand out is a great way to make a positive first impression on your application.

How to Write a Standout Essay

1. prepare with research.

The first of our additional college essay tips is to do your research. Supplemental essays often ask students why they want to attend the school or explain how they embody the school’s values. In order to write supplemental essays on these topics, you should know what makes the school appealing to you. Consider a virtual or in-person campus tour, and definitely visit the school website. This research will provide a solid foundation for your essays. Detailed, passionate college essays whose writers did their research stand out among generic essays with only surface-level knowledge of the school. So, write about what moves you, and show that you’ve thought about pursuing those passions at that school. 

2. Be Genuine

The second tip for how to write better essays is to be authentic. One of the most common college essay mistakes is writing what you think the admissions officers want to hear . Instead, use the essay as an opportunity to showcase your personality and character.

Don’t just list your accomplishments or try to cram every single accolade you’ve received into an essay. Rather, pick out some personal stories to share that answer the prompt while also providing information about you. The best college admission essays showcase qualities and tell stories not found elsewhere in your application.

3. Don’t Skimp on Time

Finally, anyone who knows how to write better essays knows that time management is paramount. These college essay tips are incredibly useful only if you allow yourself enough time to implement them, so start early! The Common Application opens on August 1st each year, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a head start. Take some time to think about which topics are best for you, or research supplemental essays from your preferred colleges. The earlier you start, the better off you will be. 

An early start means more time to edit—after all, the best college admissions essays go through several rounds of revision. Good editing requires time and patience, which is why starting on your essays early is essential. Taking the time to try several college essay ideas and choose the best ones will ensure that you submit your best work. You also need time to rest. Sometimes, learning how to write better essays means taking a few days’ break, then coming back to writing with fresh eyes!

Starting early also gives you more time to write multiple essay drafts and share them with people for feedback. In addition to giving yourself enough time, it is important to ask for help with how to write better essays. Even if you consider yourself to be a strong writer, college application essays require very specific skills. Support during the admissions process can come from family members, friends, and teachers and will take many forms. Just make sure that your editors are not writing the essay for you or making changes that undermine your own voice. 

CollegeAdvisor is here to help

We have already established that the best college admission essays are written with lots of help and support from others. Personalized guidance is important when learning how to write better essays. An expert can often help you put these college essay tips into practice with your own writing. After all, the college application essay format is pretty different from other forms of writing you’re likely used to. In light of that, it helps to work with someone familiar with college essay topics and college application essay prompts.

College admissions can be extremely stressful. The sheer number of college application requirements that need to be completed for each school is daunting, even if you are a strong student. Plus, the skills and knowledge required for a college application are different from the ones high school classes call for. So, if you’re struggling with how to write better essays, know that you’re not alone. There are many resources available to help you. 

Those resources include CollegeAdvisor.com. In addition to our numerous free articles, we offer personalized admissions help to hundreds of students worldwide. If you’re trying to write your best college admission essays, we can lend a hand.

Getting Help from CollegeAdvisor

At CollegeAdvisor.com, our team of 400+ Admissions Experts and former Admissions Officers has helped hundreds of students approach the college admissions process with confidence. Whether you need help with how to start a college essay or already have a draft, our experts can help you create the best college application essays possible! We offer one-on-one guidance to students as they complete every aspect of their college applications, including essays. We’ll help you brainstorm topics, create drafts, edit your writing, and more so that you feel confident when you press “submit.” 

In addition to your personal college advisor, we also have a dedicated Essay Editing Team whose job is helping students with how to write better essays. They work with your college advisor to provide additional college essay help. This team of specialists will receive your essay and return it within 48 hours with targeted feedback and guidance on how to write better essays. Plus, you can keep sending drafts as you revise so that the feedback you receive will evolve as your essay does.

Finally, where applicable, CollegeAdvisor offers students the chance to have an “application dress rehearsal.” Here, your full application, including essays, is reviewed by one of our former Admissions Officers. They will review the college application essay format with you, check your materials, and flag any issues they see with the application.

They’ll also provide specific feedback based on their experience in admissions offices at the top universities nationwide. They know how admissions officers think and will use that knowledge to help you with how to write better essays. In addition, these former admissions officers will help you prepare for interviews if your school requires them. 

College Essay Tips – Final Thoughts

When it comes to college essay prompts, there are many different approaches for how to write better essays. Different college essay prompts will require different techniques. For example, the Fordham supplemental essays may require different skills and perspectives than the Smith college essay. However, the college essay tips we’ve compiled here can be used with a wide range of college application essay prompts. These tips for how to write better essays come from experts in the field with years of admissions experience.

Don’t be afraid to share essays with your advisor, a trusted teacher, or a family member for additional college essay help. They may be able to see errors that you missed and provide a new perspective on your writing. At the same time, since they know your personality, they can tell you if your writing is representative of your potential.  In addition, seeking support from a CollegeAdvisor.com expert can give you the added confidence that the advice you are receiving is backed by years of experience. 

Experts you can trust

Our experts can help you not only with how to write better essays but also with any other part of your college application requirements. Supplemental essays and college essay prompts are just one part of the admissions process where our advisors can assist you. We also offer help with financial aid, college list development, test prep, and much more.

To see all the ways that CollegeAdvisor.com can help you with your college applications, sign up here for a quick consultation with one of our experts. For even more free resources and examples of college application essays explore our site. For starters, check out this article about the Common Application essay prompts and this one for essay topic ideas.

This article was written by senior advisor, Jess Klein , Bailey Bennett, and senior advisor, Alex Baggott-Rowe . Looking for more admissions support? Click here to schedule a free meeting with one of our Admissions Specialists. During your meeting, our team will discuss your profile and help you find targeted ways to increase your admissions odds at top schools. We’ll also answer any questions and discuss how CollegeAdvisor.com can support you in the college application process.

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7 Qualities of a Successful College Essay

Bonus Material:  30 College Essays That Worked

The college essay is one of the most important aspects of a student’s application.

It gives applicants an opportunity to articulate their personal values, character traits, and perspectives. It’s also a chance to add more value to your application, simply by demonstrating who you are outside of your resume and transcript.

A “successful” college essay is one that makes the most of these opportunities and, in many cases, earns an acceptance.

We’ve demystified what most admissions officers look for in college applications . But what are these officers looking for in the college essay itself? What are the top qualities of a successful application essay?

In analyzing various essays of admitted applicants, we’ve come up with a list of the characteristics that most of these pieces have in common. We’ll be referring to some of these pieces throughout the post.

Plus, we give you access to 30 college essays that earned their writers acceptance into Ivy League schools. Grab these below.

Download 30 College Essays That Worked

Here’s what we cover:

  • What is The College Application Essay (in a nutshell)?
  • 7 Qualities of a Successful Essay
  • Bonus: 30 College Essays That Worked

The College Application Essay In a Nutshell

Most students applying to a college or university in the U.S. must submit an application essay (or “personal statement”) with their application.

Depending on the application platform the college uses (typically either Coalition or the Common App ), students have 500-650 words to craft a response. While each of these platforms has college essay prompts, it’s helpful to view these prompts as general guidelines as to what colleges are looking for in a response.

Based on these prompts and our own experience coaching college essay students , the application essay is:

  • the chance to say what the rest of your application doesn’t say
  • a demonstration of your character, values, and/or voice
  • the platform to show who you are outside of a resume/transcript
  • an introspective personal essay

The college essay is NOT :

  • a rehashing of your resume
  • an excuse or explanation of other components of your application
  • a formal, five-paragraph essay
  • what you think “colleges want to hear”

A standard college application includes an academic transcript, recommendation letters, extracurricular / activities section, an optional resume, and standardized test scores. The essay is an addition  to these 4 general components, so it makes sense that it should complement them by saying something new.

That’s why we like to define the essay as a “demonstration of character, values, and/or voice.” True, these elements can be inferred from other components of the application. But the essay is your opportunity to clearly and personally demonstrate what matters to you, who you are at the core, and/or your essential perspectives of the world.

For this reason, the college essay is introspective and personal. Colleges want to hear that “I” voice in the application essay, loud and clear, and they want active, intelligent reflection.

You can see this in action in the 30 college essays that worked, which you can download below.

( Note: Some colleges might require applicants to submit supplemental essays in addition to their personal statement. These often have very specific prompts and different word lengths. Here are 8 great tips for approaching supplemental essays . )

 7 Qualities of a Successful College Essay

We’ve assessed several college essays of applicants admitted to a wide range of schools, including Ivy League institutions. While extremely diverse, these pieces generally had the following characteristics in common.

1. Introspective and reflective

Many English teachers tell their students not to use the first-person “I” in their essays. While this might be the standard for some academic essays, the college essay  should  include that “I.” What’s more, it should include a  lot  of that “I”!

This can be understandably uncomfortable for students, many of whom may simply not be used to talking about themselves openly and declaratively on a page. It can also feel awkward from a stylistic point of view for students who are not used to writing in the first-person.

Yet colleges want to hear your words in your own voice, and they are especially interested in learning more about your perspectives on the world and insights gleaned from your various life experiences. That’s why many successful college essays are highly introspective, full of the writer’s active reflections on what they’ve learned, how they view the world, and who they are.

We typically see the bulk of such introspection at the  end  of an essay, where the writer summarizes these reflections (although this is by no means standard), as we can see in the conclusion to Erica’s essay here, which describes her earlier attempt to write and publish a novel:

Sometimes, when I’m feeling insecure about my ability as a novelist I open up my first draft again, turn to a random chapter, and read it aloud. Publishing that first draft would have been a horrible embarrassment that would have haunted me for the rest of my life. Over the past half-decade, I’ve been able to explore my own literary voice, and develop a truly original work that I will be proud to display. This experience taught me that “following your dreams” requires more than just wishing upon a star. It takes sacrifice, persistence, and grueling work to turn fantasy into reality.

In her personal statement, Aja reflects deeply on what she specifically learned from an experience described earlier on in the piece:

I found from my experiment and questioning within my mind that my practices distinguished me from others, thereby allowing me to form relationships on the basis of common interest or personality, rather than cultural similarities, that summer. I valued the relationships more, and formed a deep connection with my lab partner, whom I had found was similar to me in many ways. 

Notice how both of these selections contain a lot of that first-person voice, which is critical to elaborating perspectives, learning points, and introspective thoughts. And did we mention that admissions officers are  looking for  those specific perspectives, learning points, and thoughts that compose who you are?

2. Full of a student’s voice

An academic transcript can be revealing to admissions officers. The same goes for recommendation letters and resumes. But it’s hard to convey an individual voice in these application components. The college essay is your prime vehicle for speaking directly to colleges in your own words  about what matters to you.

Successful college essays thus veer away from the formal voice many students employ when writing academic essays. Rather, they showcase a student’s unique way of expressing themselves on a page, which can be, for example, humorous, informal, intimate, lyrical, and/or speculative.

Voice is at the forefront of Elizabeth’s essay about her love for “all that is spicy:”

I am an aspiring hot sauce sommelier. Ever since I was a child, I have been in search for all that is spicy. I began by dabbling in peppers of the jarred variety. Pepperoncini, giardiniera, sports peppers, and jalapeños became not only toppings, but appetizers, complete entrées, and desserts. As my palate matured, I delved into a more aggressive assortment of spicy fare. I’m not referring to Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, the crunchy snack devoured by dilettantes. No, it was bottles of infernal magma that came next in my tasting curriculum.

Notice how Elizabeth’s descriptions of her passion for spice are rich with her voice: playful, intelligent, and humorous. This also gives us insight into a specific aspect of her character–that’s the power of voice when it comes to personal essay writing, and college admissions officers are very interested in applicants’ characters.

3. Descriptive and engaging

You don’t have to be a natural creative writer to compose a successful college essay. Yet competitive essays aren’t afraid to dive deeply into a subject and describe it, whether that description relates to imagery, emotions, perspectives, or insights. A college essay shouldn’t leave the reader guessing in any way–it should be highly specific and it should tell your story in an engaging fashion.

Harry’s more intellectual essay presents his views on common values in society. He is careful to be very specific and descriptive in these views, incorporating both a relevant incident from history and his own direct relationship to the issue:

Admittedly, the problem of social integration is one I feel can be widely overstated – for example, when I was looking into some research for a similar topic a couple of years ago, I found numerous surveys indicating that ethnic minorities (especially Islam) identify much more closely with Britain than do the population at large. Still though, I, like many others, find myself constantly troubled by the prospect of the war from within that seems to be developing. This fear is fuelled by events such as the brutal killing of the soldier Lee Rigby at the hands of two British Muslims a couple of years ago.

In her essay, Amanda is extremely detailed in describing her experience as a caretaker for a difficult child. The result is a clear portrait of the challenge itself and Amanda’s relationship to this challenge, told from the perspective of an engaging storyteller:

Then I met Robyn, and I realized how wrong I was. Prone to anger, aggressive, sometimes violent (I have the scar to prove it). Every Sunday with Robyn was a challenge. Yoga, dancing, cooking, art, tennis – none of these activities held her interest for long before she would inevitably throw a tantrum or stalk over to a corner to sulk or fight with the other children. She alternated between wrapping her arms around my neck, declaring to anyone who passed by that she loved me, and clawing at my arms, screaming at me to leave her alone.

The successful college essays we see always  emerge from a place of honesty. Writing with honesty also is more likely to accurately convey a student’s unique voice, inspire reflection and introspection, and result in a descriptive, meaningful piece (all of the qualities listed in this post!).

Sometimes this means adopting a candid or direct voice on the page. James starts his essay frankly in this singular statement:

Simply put, my place of inner peace is the seat of that 50 foot sliver of carbon and kevlar called a rowing shell, cutting through the water in the middle of a race.

Or it might mean describing a challenge, vulnerability, or perspective truthfully, as Martin does in his essay about the experiences that have molded his character over the years:

Looking back, I have never been the “masculine boy” as society says my role to be. I have always thought I do not fit the social definition of a male as one who is “manly” and “sporty” and this alienating feeling of being different still persists today at times. However, I also have become more comfortable with myself, and I see my growth firsthand throughout high school.

Given that many universities value “truth” in their own mission statements and mottos, admissions officers will prioritize those essays that ring with a student’s honest voice.

5. Unconventional & distinct

This is by no means a requirement of a successful college essay. But many of the essays that earn students acceptance at their dream schools veer away from the predictable or expected, as we saw in Elizabeth’s essay above (“I am an aspiring hot sauce sommelier”). They are, in a nutshell, 100% unique.

We’ve seen some essays, for example, that follow more radical structures, such as list formats or experimental narratives. Others focus on unexpected subjects, like Shanaz’s piece on the relevance of Game of Thrones in her life and trajectory of learning.

And, time and again, successful college essays step away from what admissions officers already see in applications–academics, standardized tests, extracurricular activities, and classes. They may focus on something very specific (hot sauce or Game of Thrones ), seemingly ordinary (eating a kosher meal in public or working on a problem set), or personally interesting (a historic murder or wrestling game).

Regardless, the essays that “work” emphasize the unexpected, as opposed to the expected. Distinct essays will also feel as if they could not have been written by anyone else .

6. Well-written

This might also sound like an obvious quality of a successful essay, but it’s still worth mentioning. The most competitive application essays showcase strong writing skills, providing evidence of a student’s ability to tell a specific story artfully and well. 

Essays should also be error-free, grammatically precise, and stylistically on point. Successful pieces also might demonstrate versatility through varied sentence structure, word choice, and rhetorical or literary devices. Lastly, well-written essays typically adhere to a specific storytelling structure.

This excerpt from Justin’s essay about his experience in the California Cadet Corps, for example, displays a high command of language, word choice, and sentence structure:

Through Survival, I learned many things about myself and the way I approach the world. I realized that I take for granted innumerable small privileges and conveniences and that I undervalue what I do have. Now that I had experienced true and sustained hunger, I felt regret for times when I threw away food and behaved with unconscious waste. 

7. Meaningful

Above all, a successful college essay adds value to a student’s holistic college application. It is full of  meaning , in that it

  • showcases a student’s unique voice
  • elucidates an applicant’s particular perspective(s), character trait(s), and/or belief(s) and
  • honestly conveys a significant component of who a student is

It might be difficult to compress the entirety of who you are into 650 words. Yet it is most certainly possible to craft 650 words that add significant meaning to an overall application in terms of a student’s  personal potential for the future. This is exactly what admissions officers are looking for . 

What can you do to ensure that your college essay aligns with these successful qualities? You can check out examples of essays that do!

You can download 30 actual college essays that earned their writers acceptance into Ivy League schools, right now, for free.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay. 

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35+ Best College Essay Tips from College Application Experts

Best college essay tips for your college application from college application experts. There are over 35 tips to browse in this list!  How was your college application journey? Let us know over at collegeessayguy.com

This blog has several hundred posts.

Know what that means?

It means we’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about college essays.

But guess what?

A lot of other people have too.

So we reached out to some of our favorite college admissions experts—some current and former admissions officers—and ask one simple question:

WHAT’S your favorite piece of advice about writing a college essay?

Below are the results.

TABLE OF CONTENTS University Admissions Administrators College Application Experts College Essay Guy's College Essay Tips

College essay tips from university admission administrators.

1. know that the best ideas for your essay—the perfect opener, a great twist, a brilliant insight—often come when you least expect them.

That’s why it’s a good practice to keep a reliable collection system with you at all times as you’re preparing to write your essay. It could be your phone. It could be index cards. It could be a Moleskine notebook (if you really want to do it with panache). Just don’t store it in your own brain thinking that you’ll remember it later. Your mind may be a magnificently wonderful idea-making machine, but it’s a lousy filing cabinet. Store those ideas in one place outside your brain so that when inspiration hits you in the bathroom, in the car, on a hike—wherever—you’ll have a place to capture it and come back to it later when you need it.

This college essay tip is by Ken Anselment, Marquette University graduate and Vice President for Enrollment & Communication at Lawrence University .

2. Do not feel pressure to share every detail of challenging experiences, but also do not feel that you need to have a happy ending or solution .

Your writing should provide a context within which the reader learns about who you are and what has brought you to this stage in your life. Try to tie your account into how this has made you develop as a person, friend, family member or leader (or any role in your life that is important to you). You may also want to make a connection to how this has inspired some part of your educational journey or your future aspirations.

This college essay tip is by Jaclyn Robins, Assistant Director of admissions at the University of Southern California. The tip below is paraphrased from a post on the USC admissions blog .

3. Read it aloud.

There is something magical about reading out loud. As adults we don’t do this enough. In reading aloud to kids, colleagues, or friends we hear things differently, and find room for improvement when the writing is flat. So start by voice recording your essay.

This college essay tip is by Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admissions at Georgia Tech. The tip below is paraphrased from a post on the Georgia Tech Admission blog .

4. We want to learn about growth.

Some students spend a lot of time summarizing plot or describing their work and the "in what way" part of the essay winds up being one sentence. The part that is about you is the most important part. If you feel you need to include a description, make it one or two lines. Remember that admission offices have Google, too, so if we feel we need to hear the song or see the work of art, we'll look it up. The majority of the essay should be about your response and reaction to the work. How did it affect or change you?

This college essay tip is by Dean J, admissions officer and blogger from University of Virginia. The tip below is paraphrased from a post on the University of Virginia Admission blog .

5. Be specific.

Consider these two hypothetical introductory paragraphs for a master's program in library science.

“I am honored to apply for the Master of Library Science program at the University of Okoboji because as long as I can remember I have had a love affair with books. Since I was eleven I have known I wanted to be a librarian.”

“When I was eleven, my great-aunt Gretchen passed away and left me something that changed my life: a library of about five thousand books. Some of my best days were spent arranging and reading her books. Since then, I have wanted to be a librarian.”

Each graf was 45 words long and contained substantively the same information (applicant has wanted to be a librarian since she was a young girl). But they are extraordinarily different essays, most strikingly because the former is generic where the latter is specific. It was a real thing, which happened to a real person, told simply. There is nothing better than that.

This college essay tip is by Chris Peterson, Assistant Director at MIT Admissions. The tip below is paraphrased from the  post “How To Write A College Essay” on the MIT blog .

6. Tell a good story.

Most people prefer reading a good story over anything else. So... tell a great story in your essay. Worry less about providing as many details about you as possible and more about captivating the reader's attention inside of a great narrative. I read a great essay this year where an applicant walked me through the steps of meditation and how your body responds to it. Loved it. (Yes, I'll admit I'm a predisposed meditation fan .)

This college essay tip is by Jeff Schiffman, Director of Admissions at Tulane University and health and fitness nut.

7. Write like you speak.

Here’s my favorite trick when I’ve got writer’s block: turn on the recording device on my phone, and just start talking. I actually use voice memos in my car when I have a really profound thought (or a to do list I need to record), so find your happy place and start recording. Maybe inspiration always seems to strike when you’re walking your dog, or on the bus to school. Make notes where and when you can so that you can capture those organic thoughts for later. This also means you should use words and phrases that you would actually use in everyday conversation. If you are someone who uses the word indubitably all the time, then by all means, go for it. But if not, then maybe you should steer clear. The most meaningful essays are those where I feel like the student is sitting next to me, just talking to me.

This college essay tip is by Kim Struglinski, admissions counselor from Vanderbilt University. The tip below is paraphrased from the excellent post “Tips for Writing Your College Essay ” on the Vanderbilt blog .

8. Verb you, Dude!

Verbs jump, dance, fall, fail us. Nouns ground us, name me, define you. “We are the limits of our language.” Love your words, feed them, let them grow. Teach them well and they will teach you too. Let them play, sing, or sob outside of yourself. Give them as a gift to others. Try the imperative, think about your future tense, when you would have looked back to the imperfect that defines us and awaits us. Define, Describe, Dare. Have fun.

This college essay tip is by Parke Muth , former associate dean of Admissions at the University of Virginia (28 years in the office) and member of the Jefferson Scholars selection committee.

9. Keep the story focused on a discrete moment in time.

By zeroing in on one particular aspect of what is, invariably, a long story, you may be better able to extract meaning from the story. So instead of talking generally about playing percussion in the orchestra, hone in on a huge cymbal crash marking the climax of the piece. Or instead of trying to condense that two-week backpacking trip into a couple of paragraphs, tell your reader about waking up in a cold tent with a skiff of snow on it. The specificity of the story not only helps focus the reader’s attention, but also opens the door to deeper reflection on what the story means to you.

This college essay tip is by Mark Montgomery, former Associate Dean at the University of Denver, admissions counselor for Fort Lewis College, founder of Great College Advice , and professor of international affairs at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Kansas.

10. Start preparing now.

Yes, I know it’s still summer break. However, the essay is already posted on our website here and isn’t going to change before the application opens on September 1. Take a look, and start to formulate your plan. Brainstorm what you are going to tell us — focus on why you are interested in the major you chose. If you are choosing the Division of General Studies, tells us about your passions, your career goals, or the different paths you are interested in exploring.

This college essay tip is by Hanah Teske, admissions counselor at the University of Illinois. This tip was paraphrased form Hanah’s blog post on the University of Illinois blog .

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

11. Imagine how the person reading your essay will feel.

No one's idea of a good time is writing a college essay, I know. But if sitting down to write your essay feels like a chore, and you're bored by what you're saying, you can imagine how the person reading your essay will feel . On the other hand, if you're writing about something you love, something that excites you, something that you've thought deeply about, chances are I'm going to set down your application feeling excited, too—and feeling like I've gotten to know you.

This college essay tip is by Abigail McFee, Admissions Counselor for Tufts University and Tufts ‘17 graduate.

college essay tips

College Essay Tips from College Admissions Experts

12. Think outside the text box!

Put a little pizazz in your essays by using different fonts, adding color, including foreign characters or by embedding media—links, pictures or illustrations. And how does this happen? Look for opportunities to upload essays onto applications as PDFs. It’s not always possible, but when it is, you will not only have complete control over the ‘look’ of your essay but you will also potentially enrich the content of your work.

This college essay tip is by Nancy Griesemer, University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University graduate and founder of College Explorations who has decades of experiencing counseling high schoolers on getting into college.

13. Write like a journalist.

"Don't bury the lede!" The first few sentences must capture the reader's attention, provide a gist of the story, and give a sense of where the essay is heading. Think about any article you've read—how do you decide to read it? You read the first few sentences and then decide. The same goes for college essays. A strong lede (journalist parlance for "lead") will place your reader in the "accept" mindset from the beginning of the essay. A weak lede will have your reader thinking "reject"—a mindset from which it's nearly impossible to recover.

This college essay tip is by Brad Schiller, MIT graduate and CEO of Prompt , which provides individualized feedback on thousands of students’ essays each year.

14. I promote an approach called “into, through, and beyond.”

(This approach) pushes kids to use examples to push their amazing qualities, provide some context, and end with hopes and dreams. Colleges are seeking students who will thrive on their campuses, contribute in numerous ways, especially “bridge” building, and develop into citizens who make their worlds and our worlds a better place. So application essays are a unique way for applicants to share, reflect, and connect their values and goals with colleges. Admissions officers want students to share their power, their leadership, their initiative, their grit, their kindness—all through relatively recent stories. I ask students: “Can the admissions officers picture you and help advocate for you by reading your essays?” Often kids don’t see their power, and we can help them by realizing what they offer colleges through their activities and life experiences. Ultimately I tell them, “Give the colleges specific reasons to accept you—and yes you will have to ‘brag.’ But aren’t you worth it? Use your essays to empower your chances of acceptance, merit money, and scholarships.”

This college essay tip is by Dr. Rebecca Joseph, professor at California State University and founder of All College Application Essays , develops tools for making the college essay process faster and easier.

15. Get personal.

Important note: “Getting personal” doesn’t necessarily mean sharing your deepest, darkest secrets, or describing traumatic experiences. It could mean sharing something you care about a lot, or details about one (or more) of the ways you identify.

For even more ideas on how to reveal your skills, qualities, and values without focusing on trauma, check out Why You Don’t Have to Write about Trauma in Your College Essay to Stand Out—and What You Can Do Instead .

16. Just make sure that the story you’re telling is uniquely YOURS .

I believe everyone has a story worth telling. Don’t feel like you have to have had a huge, life-changing, drama-filled experience. Sometimes the seemingly smallest moments lead us to the biggest breakthroughs.

This college essay tip is by Maggie Schuh, a member of the Testive Parent Success team and a high school English teacher in St. Louis.

17. Keep it simple!

No one is expecting you to solve the issue of world peace with your essay. Oftentimes, we find students getting hung up with “big ideas”. Remember, this essay is about YOU. What makes you different from the thousands of other applicants and their essays? Be specific. Use vivid imagery. If you’re having trouble, start small and go from there. P. S. make sure the first sentence of your essay is the most interesting one.

This college essay tip is by Myles Hunter, CEO of TutorMe , an online education platform that provides on-demand tutoring and online courses for thousands of students.

18. Honor your inspiration.

My parents would have much preferred that I write about sports or youth group, and I probably could have said something interesting about those, but I insisted on writing about a particular fish in the pet store I worked at—one that took much longer than the others to succumb when the whole tank system in the store became diseased. It was a macabre little composition, but it was about exactly what was on my mind at the time I was writing it. I think it gave whoever read it a pretty good view of my 17 year-old self. I'll never know if I got in because of that weird essay or in spite of it, but it remains a point of pride that I did it my way.

This college essay tip is by Mike McClenathan, founder of PwnTestPrep , which has a funny name but serious resources for helping high school students excel on the standardized tests.

19. Revise often and early.

Your admissions essay should go through several stages of revision. And by revisions, we don’t mean quick proofreads. Ask your parents, teachers, high school counselors or friends for their eyes and edits. It should be people who know you best and want you to succeed. Take their constructive criticism in the spirit for which they intend—your benefit.

This college essay tip is by Dhivya Arumugham, Kaplan Test Prep's director of SAT and ACT programs.

20. Write about things you care about .

The most obvious things make great topics. What do I mean? Colleges want to learn about who you are, what you value and how you will contribute to their community. I had two students write about their vehicles—one wrote about the experience of purchasing their used truck and one wrote about how her car is an extension of who she is. We learned about their responsibility, creative thinking, teamwork and resilience in a fun and entertaining way.

This college essay tip is by Mira “ Coach Mira ” Simon, Independent Educational Consultant and professionally trained coach from the Institute of Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC), who combines her expertise to help high school students find their pathway to college .

21. Don't tell them a story you think they want, tell them what YOU want.

Of course you want it to be a good read and stay on topic, but this is about showing admissions who you are. You don't want to get caught up in thinking too much about what they are expecting. Focus your thoughts on yourself and what you want to share.

This college essay tip is by Ashley McNaughton, Bucknell University graduate and founder of ACM College Consulting , consults on applicants internationally and volunteers with high achieving, low income students through ScholarMatch.

22. Be yourself.

A sneaky thing can happen as you set about writing your essay: you may find yourself guessing what a college admissions committee is looking for and writing to meet that made up criteria rather than standing firm in who you are and sharing your truest self. While you want to share your thoughts in the best possible light (edit please!), avoid the temptation minimize the things that make you who you are. Show your depth. Be honest about what matters to you. Be thoughtful about the experiences you've had that have shaped who you've become. Be your brilliant self. And trust that your perfect-fit college will see you for who truly you are and say "Yes! This is exactly who we've been looking for.”

This college essay tip is by Lauren Gaggioli, NYU graduate, host of The College Checklist podcast, and founder of Higher Scores Test Prep provides affordable test prep help to college applicants.

college essay tips

23. Parents should NEVER write a student's essay.

Admission officers can spot parent content immediately. The quickest way for a student to be denied admission is to allow a parent to write or edit with their own words. Parents can advise, encourage, and offer a second set of eyes, but they should never add their own words to a student's essay.

This college essay tip is by Suzanne Shaffer is a college prep expert, blogger, and author who manages the website Parenting for College .

24. Don't just write about your resume, recommendations, and high school transcripts.

Admissions officers want to know about you, your personality and emotions . For example, let them know what hobbies, interests, or passions you have. Do you excel in athletics or art? Let them know why you excel in those areas. It's so important to just be yourself and write in a manner that lets your personality shine through.

This college essay tip is by College Basic Team. College Basics offers free, comprehensive resources for both parents and students to help them navigate through the college application process and has been featured on some of the web’s top educational resource websites as well as linked to from well over 100+ different colleges, schools, and universities.

25. Find a way to showcase yourself without bragging.

Being confident is key, but you don't want to come across as boasting. Next, let them know how college will help you achieve your long-term goals. Help them connect the dots and let them know you are there for a reason. Finally (here’s an extra pro tip), learn how to answer common college interview questions within your essay. This will not only help you stand out from other applicants, but it will also prepare you for the college interview ahead of time as well.

26. Be real.

As a former college admissions officer, I read thousands of essays—good and bad. The essays that made the best impressions on me were the essays that were real. The students did not use fluff, big words, or try to write an essay they thought admission decisions makers wanted to read. The essays that impressed me the most were not academic essays, but personal statements that allowed me to get to know the reader. I was always more likely to admit or advocate for a student who was real and allowed me to get to know them in their essay.

This college essay tip is by Jessica Velasco, former director of admissions at Northwest University and founder of JLV College Counseling .

27. Don’t begin with “throat clearing.”

Dive right in.

“As I consider all the challenges I have faced in my life, I find myself most affected by the experiences I have had working at a high-end coffee shop, where I learned some important lessons about myself.”

That’s a major throat clear ... and definitely not a shot of espresso for your readers. They’re snoozing already! So start instead with:

I know her name is Amy but when she orders the vanilla macchiato she instructs me to write “Anastasia,” on the cardboard cup, deliberately pronouncing each letter as if it weren’t the hundredth time I’ve heard it.

Skip the moral-of-the-story conclusions, too. Don’t tell the admission folks, “ Now I know I can reach whatever goals I set. ” If your essay says what it’s supposed to, they’ll figure it out.

Warm-up strategy: Read the first two sentences and last two sentences in a few of your favorite novels. Did you spot any throat-clearing or moral-of-the-story endings? Probably not!

This college essay tip is by Sally Rubenstone, senior contributor to College Confidential , author of the “Ask the Dean” column, co-author of several books on college admissions, 15-year Smith College admission counselor, and teacher.

28. Don't read the Common Application prompts.

If you already have, erase them from memory and write the story you want colleges to hear. The truth is, admission reviewers rarely know—or care—which prompt you are responding to. They are curious to discover what you choose to show them about who you are, what you value, and why. Even the most fluid writers are often stifled by fitting their narrative neatly into a category and the essay quickly loses authentic voice. Write freely and choose a prompt later. Spoiler alert...one prompt is "Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. " So have at it.

This college essay tip is by Brennan Barnard, director of college counseling at the Derryfield School in Manchester, N.H. and contributor to the NYT, HuffPost, and Forbes on intentionally approaching college admissions .

29. Proofread, proofread, proofread.

Nothing’s perfect, of course, but the grammar, spelling, and punctuation in your admission essay should be as close to perfect as possible. After you're done writing, read your essay, re-read it a little later, and have someone else read it too, like a teacher or friend—they may find typos that your eyes were just too tired to see.

Colleges are looking for students who can express their thoughts clearly and accurately, and polishing your essay shows that you care about producing high-quality, college-level work. Plus, multiple errors could lower your chances of admission. So take the extra time and edit !

This college essay tip is by Claire Carter, University of Maine graduate and editor of CollegeXpress , one of the internet’s largest college and scholarship search engines.

30. Take the pressure off and try free-writing to limber up.

If you are having trouble coming up with what it is you want to convey or finding the perfect story to convey who you are, use prompts such as:

Share one thing that you wish people knew about you.

My biggest dream is ___________.

What have you enjoyed about high school?

Use three adjectives to describe yourself:____________, ___________, ________.

I suggest handwriting (versus typing on a keyboard) for 20 minutes. Don't worry about making it perfect, and don't worry about what you are going to write about. Think about getting yourself into a meditative state for 20 minutes and just write from the heart.

To get myself in a meditative state, I spend 60 seconds (set an alarm) drawing a spiral. Never let the pen come off the page, and just keep drawing around and around until the alarm goes off. Then, start writing.

It might feel you didn't write anything worthwhile, but my experience is that there is usually a diamond in the rough in there... perhaps more than one.

Do this exercise for 3-4 days straight, then read out loud what you have written to a trusted source (a parent? teacher? valued friend?).

Don't expect a masterpiece from this exercise (though stranger things have happened).

The goal is to discover the kernel of any idea that can blossom into your college essay—a story that will convey your message, or clarity about what message you want to convey.

Here is a picture of the spiral, in case you have trouble visualizing:

exercise -  essay tips

This college essay tip is by Debbie Stier, publisher, author of the same-title book The Perfect Score Project , featured on NBC’s Today Show, Bloomberg TV, CBS This Morning; in The New Yorker, The New York Post, USA Today, and more.

31. Show your emotions.

Adding feelings to your essays can be much more powerful than just listing your achievements. It allows reviewers to connect with you and understand your personality and what drives you. In particular, be open to showing vulnerability. Nobody expects you to be perfect and acknowledging times in which you have felt nervous or scared shows maturity and self-awareness.

This college essay tip is by Charles Maynard, Oxford and Stanford University Graduate and founder of Going Merry , which is a one-stop shop for applying to college scholarships

32. Be genuine and authentic. Make sure at least one “qualified” person edits your essay.

Your essay should be a true representation of who you are as a person—admissions officers want to read essays that are meaningful, thoughtful, and consistent with the rest of the application. Essays that come from the heart are the easiest to write and the best written. Have a teacher or counselor, not just your smartest friend, review and edit your essays. Don’t let mistakes and grammatical errors detract from your application.

This college essay tip is by Jonathan April, University of Chicago graduate, general manager of College Greenlight , which offers free tools to low-income and first-generation students developing their college lists.

COLLEGE ESSAY GUY’S COLLEGE ESSAY TIPS

The following essay, written by a former student, is so good that it illustrates at least five essential tips of good essay writing. It’s also one way to turn the objects exercise into an essay. Note how the writer incorporates a wide range of details and images through one particular lens: a scrapbook.

Prompt: Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.

The Scrapbook Essay I look at the ticking, white clock: it’s eleven at night, my primetime. I clear the carpet of the Sony camera charger, the faded Levi’s, and last week’s Statistics homework. Having prepared my work space, I pull out the big, blue box and select two 12 by 12 crème sheets of paper. The layouts of the pages are already imprinted in my mind, so I simply draw them on scratch paper. Now I can really begin. Cutting the first photograph, I make sure to leave a quarter inch border. I then paste it onto a polka-dotted green paper with a glue stick. For a sophisticated touch, I use needle and thread to sew the papers together. Loads of snipping and pasting later, the clock reads three in the morning. I look down at the final product, a full spread of photographs and cut-out shapes. As usual, I feel an overwhelming sense of pride as I brush my fingers over the crisp papers and the glossy photographs. For me, the act of taking pieces of my life and putting them together on a page is my way of organizing remnants of my past to make something whole and complete. This particular project is the most valuable scrapbook I have ever made: the scrapbook of my life. In the center of the first page are the words MY WORLD in periwinkle letters. The entire left side I have dedicated to the people in my life. All four of my Korean grandparents sit in the top corner; they are side by side on a sofa for my first birthday –my ddol. Underneath them are my seven cousins from my mom’s side. They freeze, trying not to let go of their overwhelming laughter while they play “red light, green light” at O’ Melveney Park, three miles up the hill behind my house. Meanwhile, my Texas cousins watch Daniel, the youngest, throw autumn leaves into the air that someone had spent hours raking up. To the right, my school peers and I miserably pose for our history teacher who could not resist taking a picture when he saw our droopy faces the morning of our first AP exam. The biggest photograph, of course, is that of my family, huddled in front of the fireplace while drinking my brother’s hot cocoa and listening to the pitter patter of rain outside our window. I move over to the right side of the page. At the top, I have neatly sewn on three items. The first is a page of a Cambodian Bible that was given to each of the soldiers at a military base where I taught English. Beneath it is the picture of my Guatemalan girls and me sitting on the dirt ground while we devour arroz con pollo, red sauce slobbered all over our lips. I reread the third item, a short note that a student at a rural elementary school in Korea had struggled to write in her broken English. I lightly touch the little chain with a dangling letter E included with the note. Moving to the lower portion of the page, I see the photo of the shelf with all my ceramic projects glazed in vibrant hues. With great pride, I have added a clipping of my page from the Mirror, our school newspaper, next to the ticket stubs for Wicked from my date with Dad. I make sure to include a photo of my first scrapbook page of the visit to Hearst Castle in fifth grade. After proudly looking at each detail, I turn to the next page, which I’ve labeled: AND BEYOND. Unlike the previous one, this page is not cluttered or crowded. There is my college diploma with the major listed as International Relations; however, the name of the school is obscure. A miniature map covers nearly half of the paper with numerous red stickers pinpointing locations all over the world, but I cannot recognize the countries’ names. The remainder of the page is a series of frames and borders with simple captions underneath. Without the photographs, the descriptions are cryptic. For now, that second page is incomplete because I have no precise itinerary for my future. The red flags on the map represent the places I will travel to, possibly to teach English like I did in Cambodia or to do charity work with children like I did in Guatemala. As for the empty frames, I hope to fill them with the people I will meet: a family of my own and the families I desire to help, through a career I have yet to decide. Until I am able to do all that, I can prepare. I am in the process of making the layout and gathering the materials so that I can start piecing together the next part, the next page of my life’s scrapbook.

Analysis of The Scrapbook Essay (or) Five Things We Can Steal from This Essay

A great thinker once said “Good artists borrow; great artists steal.” I’m not even going to tell you who said it; I’m stealing it.

#33 Use objects and images instead of adjectives

Check out the opening paragraph of the Scrapbook essay again. It reads like the opening to a movie. Can you visualize what’s happening? That’s good. Take a look at the particular objects the writer chose:

I look at the ticking, white clock: it’s eleven at night, my primetime. I clear the carpet of the Sony camera charger, the faded Levi’s, and last week’s Statistics homework. Having prepared my work space, I pull out the big, blue box and select two 12 by 12 crème sheets of paper. The layouts of the pages are already imprinted in my mind, so I simply draw them on scratch paper. Now I can really begin.

Let’s zoom in on the “faded Levi’s.” What does "faded" suggest?  (She keeps clothes for a long time; she likes to be comfortable.)  What does "Levi's" suggest?  (She's casual; she’s not fussy.)  And why does she point out that they’re on the floor?  (She's not obsessed with neatness.)

Every. Word. Counts.

Now re-read the sentence about her family:

The biggest photograph, of course, is that of my family, huddled in front of the fireplace while drinking my brother’s hot cocoa and listening to the pitter patter of rain outside our window.

What do these details tell us?

The biggest photograph: Why “biggest"? (Family is really important to her.)

Fireplace: What does a fireplace connote? (Warmth, closeness.)

My brother's hot cocoa: Why hot cocoa? (Again, warmth.) And why “my brother’s” hot cocoa? Why not “mom’s lemonade”? How is the fact that her brother made it change the image? (It implies that her brother is engaged in the family activity.) Do you think she likes her brother? Would your brother make hot cocoa for you? And finally:

Listening to rain: Why not watching TV? What does it tell you about this family that they sit and listen to rain together?

Notice how each of these objects are objective correlatives for the writer’s family. Taken together, they create an essence image.

Quick: What essence image describes your family? Even if you have a non-traditional family–in fact, especially if you have a non-traditional family!–what image or objects represents your relationship?

Based on the image the writer uses, how would you describe her relationship with her family? Close? Warm? Intimate? Loving? Quiet? But think how much worse her essay would have been if she’d written:  “I have a close, warm, intimate, loving, quiet relationship with my family.”

Instead, she describes an image of her family "huddled in front of the fireplace while drinking my brother’s hot cocoa and listening to the pitter patter of rain outside our window.” Three objects--fireplace, brother’s hot cocoa, sound of rain--and we get the whole picture of their relationship. We know all we need to know.

There’s another lesson here:

#34 Engage the reader’s imagination using all five senses

This writer did. Did you notice?

Fireplace (feel)

Brother’s hot cocoa (taste, smell)

Pitter patter of rain (sound)

Biggest photograph (sight)

And there’s something else she did that’s really smart. Did you notice how clearly she set up the idea of the scrapbook at the beginning of the essay? Look at the last sentence of the second paragraph (bolded below):

Cutting the first photograph, I make sure to leave a quarter inch border. I then paste it onto a polka-dotted green paper with a glue stick. For a sophisticated touch, I use needle and thread to sew the papers together. Loads of snipping and pasting later, the clock reads three in the morning. I look down at the final product, a full spread of photographs and cut-out shapes. As usual, I feel an overwhelming sense of pride as I brush my fingers over the crisp papers and the glossy photographs.  For me, the act of taking pieces of my life and putting them together on a page is my way of organizing remnants of my past to make something whole and complete.

The sentence in bold above is essentially her thesis. It explains the framework for the whole essay. She follows this sentence with:

This particular project is the most valuable scrapbook I have ever made: the scrapbook of my life.

Boom. Super clear. And we’re set-up for the rest of the essay. So here’s the third thing we can learn:

#35 The set-up should be super clear

Even a personal statement can have a thesis. It’s important to remember that, though your ending can be somewhat ambiguous—something we’ll discuss more later—your set-up should give the reader a clear sense of where we’re headed. It doesn’t have to be obvious, and you can delay the thesis for a paragraph or two (as this writer does), but at some point in the first 100 words or so, we need to know we’re in good hands. We need to trust that this is going to be worth our time.

#36 Show THEN Tell

Has your English teacher ever told you “Show, don’t tell?” That’s good advice, but for a college essay I believe it’s actually better to show THEN tell.

Why? Two reasons:

1.) Showing before telling gives your reader a chance to interpret the meaning of your images before you do. Why is this good? It provides a little suspense. Also, it engages the reader’s imagination. Take another look at the images in the second to last paragraph:  my college diploma... a miniature map with numerous red stickers pinpointing locations all over the world... frames and borders without photographs...  (Note that it's all "show.")

As we read, we wonder: what do all these objects mean? We have an idea, but we’re not certain. Then she TELLS us:

That second page is incomplete because I have no precise itinerary for my future. The red flags on the map represent the places I will travel to, possibly to teach English like I did in Cambodia or to do charity work with children like I did in Guatemala. As for the empty frames, I hope to fill them with the people I will meet: a family of my own and the families I desire to help, through a career I have yet to decide.

Ah. Now we get it. She’s connected the dots.

2.) Showing then telling gives you an opportunity to set-up your essay for what I believe to be the single most important element to any personal statement: insight.

#37 Provide insight

What is insight? In simple terms, it’s a deeper intuitive understanding of a person or thing.

But here’s a more useful definition for your college essay: Insight is something that you’ve noticed about the world that others may have missed. Insight answers the question: So what? It's proof that you’re a close observer of the world. That you’re sensitive to details. That you’re smart.

And the author of this essay doesn’t just give insight at the end of her essay, she does it at the beginning too : she begins with a description of herself creating a scrapbook (show), then follows this with a clear explanation for why she has just described this (tell).

Final note: it’s important to use insight judiciously. Not throughout your whole essay; a couple times will do.

#38 Trim the fat.

Here’s a 40-word sentence. Can you cut it in half without changing the meaning?

Over the course of the six weeks, I became very familiar with playing the cello, the flute, the trumpet, and the marimba in the morning session while I continually learned how to play the acoustic guitar in the afternoon sessions.

Wait, actually try cutting this (in your mind) before scrolling down. See how concise you can get it.

(No, really.)

Okay, here’s one way to revise it:

In six weeks, I learned the cello, flute, trumpet, and marimba in the mornings and acoustic guitar in the afternoons.

There. Half the words and retains the meaning.

#39 Split long sentences with complex ideas into two.

This may sound contrary to the first point but it ain’t. Why? Sometimes we’re just trying to pack too much into the same sentence.

Check this one out:

For an inquisitive student like me, Brown’s liberal program provides a diverse and intellectually stimulating environment, giving me great freedom to tailor my education by pursuing a double concentration in both public health and business, while also being able to tap into other, more unconventional, academic interests, such as ancient history and etymology through the first year seminars.

That’s a lot for one sentence, eh?

This sentence is what I’d call “top heavy.” It has a lot of important information in the first half–so much, in fact, that I need a break before I can take in the bits at the end about “ancient history” and “etymology.” Two options for revising this:

Option 1. If you find yourself trying to pack a lot into one sentence, just use two.

Two sentences work just as well, and require no extra words. In the example above, the author could write:

For an inquisitive student like me, Brown’s liberal program provides a diverse and intellectually stimulating environment, giving me great freedom to tailor my education by pursuing a double concentration in both public health and business. I also look forward to pursuing other , more unconventional, academic interests, such as ancient history and etymology through the first year seminars.

Option 2: Just trim the first half of the sentence to its essence, or cut most of it.

That might look like this:

At Brown I look forward to pursuing a double concentration in both public health and business, while also tapping into other, more unconventional academic interests, such as ancient history and etymology.

And just for the record (for all the counselors who might be wondering), I don’t actually write out these revisions for my students; I ask questions and let them figure it out. In this example, for instance, I highlighted the first half of the sentence and wrote, “Can you make this more concise?”

college essay tips

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ANOTHER GREAT READ: HOW TO START A COLLEGE ESSAY: 9 SUREFIRE TECHNIQUES (2019)

What’s your best college essay tip post it as a comment below..

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

What makes a great college essay?

Application process, our counselors answered:.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

Tips for writing an effective college admissions essay are essentially the same for all students. You will want to reveal to the admissions officers more about yourself, your interests, your values, what you feel strongly about, and what is important to you than what they can discover in the numbers and statistics that make up most of the rest of the application.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

A natural understanding of narrative structure — not the prefabricated “academic paper” structure — and a great story to tell. Don’t worry so much that other people may have “better” stories than you. Everyone’s life is full of story, narrative, and it’s up to you to tell these stories in compelling ways.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

Students ask me this all of the time. The answer? A great college essay is PERSONAL. It doesn’t need to be earth-shattering. We haven’t all pulled babies from burning buildings or sailed around the world in a catamaran. That’s okay. Tell a story from your own life that shows something unique about you. Be honest and even a little vulnerable. The story that your friends perk up to listen to- that’s the stuff that makes for great app essays.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

When you write an essay you need to ask the question: “What would everyone else say if they were writing about your topic?” Discard all of that and write YOUR story about the topic. Making the story unique is what makes a great college essay. Good essays are personal. A reader should be able to learn about at least some of the following: your passions, feelings, perspectives, values, your defeats and/or accomplishments.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

The best advice I can give about writing an essay is speak from the heart. The college essay is not like your English papers. It is “your voice” in the application process. It is not an opportunity for you to tell them about your parents, your grandparents, your teachers or your friends. It is all about YOU!

(1.) Originality: You can’t FORCE yourself to be funny or to write with great Wisdom. You CAN FORCE YOURSELF to sit down in a quiet room WITH NO MEDIA (ipod, iphone, itunes, web, tv, etc etc.) and take a blank sheet of paper and begin to create something that NO WRITER could do as well as you–remember events or experiences from your life.

(1.) Originality: You can’t FORCE yourself to be funny or to write with great Wisdom. You CAN FORCE YOURSELF to sit down in a quiet room WITH NO MEDIA (ipod, iphone, itunes, web, tv, etc etc.) and take a blank sheet of paper and begin to create something that NO WRITER could do as well as you–remember events or experiences from your life. The reason independent college counselors or essay coaches–and this is a generality- could be more helpful is that often (not always) they spend more time and effort up front on COACHING the essay for topic, originality, creativity and HOW to approach writing. What many parents (who may love you, but often just are NOT good writers themselves) or an overworked guidance counselor does is to take a trite, or unoriginal or hackneyed essay and dwell on punctuation and spelling. It’s like going to the junk yard and waxing a rustly heap. Wouldn’t you rather design your own Ferrari??

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

There are FOUR essential components in preparing a great college essay:

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

Honesty, thoughtfulness, and proofreading. Sometimes, a sense of humor doesn’t hurt, if it’s applicable to your subject and/or that moment in your life.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

The Five Traits of an Awesome College Essay

You’ve filled in all the applications. Your teachers have submitted their letters of recommendation. You’ve sent in your transcripts and SAT scores. The only thing left to do is the thing you’re dreading the most: Write your admissions essays.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

A great college essay is one in which the student’s voice and though process comes through clearly. It should be consistent with the rest of the application and showcase an aspect of the student not highlighted in the rest of the application. It is also well written and grammatically correct.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

TYPICAL ESSAYS REQUIRED

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

We remember things in stories. A good story is memorable. Our mind is created to recall things in stories. You want to be memorable to the counselors who read your app. You want to be memorable to the committee.

A great college essay grabs your attention from the first sentence. It takes readers into, through, and beyond the story in 500 words or less. A great essay tells a a unique story that communicates key qualities you can offer the college. That is why a great college essay is personal.This great essay is very visual and helps make you become 3-D for the reader. It starts right away with a specific story from running a marathon in the rain to spilling water on customers–twice– and keeps us engaged from the first word to the last. You can contact me for samples as I collect great essays from the students with whom I work.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

Focused. Purposeful. Authentic. Revealing. Well-written.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

First and foremost is making sure you answer the prompt or question. Admissions personnel recognize if you are submitting a generic essay and they are looking to make sure that you can follow the directions. You then must make sure you can stay on topic, don’t go off on a tangent as you write. Keep referring back to the prompt to make sure you have strayed in some way that doesn’t answer the prompt. It is also is important that you not just say, “I am a compassionate person. Just relate a story or something that happened to you that SHOWS you have that quality.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

A great college essays is uniquely YOU. It is well-written with college bound vocabulary and style, but easy to read and somewhat unassuming. Like great works of fiction, these essays clearly paint a picture in the reader’s mind. The main character (YOU) is developed with depth and detail. Great essays are memorable because they distinctively portray their subjects without relying on clichés or formulaic topics. They convey on paper a sense of who the writer is as a person. After reading a great essay, I feel as if I have just had an enlivening conversation with the person even though it was entirely on paper.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

Herea are some favorite topics & subjects of to write about:

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

The best essays are the ones that provide real insight into who you are and how you think. Your essay should definitely provide perspective on you that augments what is found in the rest of your application….perhaps highlighting an area of passion for you that may not otherwise be obvious. The essays that read best are the ones written authentically, and from the heart.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

Memorability makes the difference. I absolutely endorse spell checking, at least one second read for grammar and, of course respect for the word limit. However, having read some 5000 or so application essays, poignancy counts. There are essays I read in the 90’s that I remember because they were artfully rendered, made me laugh aloud or moved me to tears. Do not attempt that at which you are not proficient! Write what you know, felt or experienced. Few folks who opined regarding politics, social commentary or world peace are successful. Do your best to add “living color” to your topic and remember, that in 90% of the cases, it’s the one and only way admission reviewers hear your voice. Make that voice as sultry and memorable as Etta James’ “At Last!”

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

A great college essay is one that makes your reader want to get to know you better, to engage in a conversation with you. It is an essay that makes your reader laugh or cry or think. It is an essay that truly engages your reader. The best college essays deal with specific examples from the writer’s life. They are not general or abstract, the more details the better. Whether it’s describing an invention, an important experience, or a significant influence, the best essays work their way back to the writer and how he/she was impacted/affected as a person by whatever was described before. The best essays are 20% about the “topic” (the “what”) and 80% about the writer.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

Authenticity! Your essay has to be a true revelation of some facet of YOU – whether it’s your character, how you will contribute to the college/university community, or what your future goals and aspirations are and how a particular school can help you achieve them. (In rare cases, a truly great essay can accomplish all three!)

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

Your honesty. Your sense of humor. Your sincere vision of life. You confident and easy-readable style.

Your honesty. Your sense of humor. Your sincere vision of life. You confident and easy-readable approach.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

A great college essay gives the college an opportunity to see who you really are. Pick a meaningful experience and take the reader through your process of self-discovery. I assisted a student who wrote about her father. A man that she adored but discovered that he was a cocaine addict. She took the reader through the stages of loving, hating, being disappointed, ashamed and finally acceptance, understanding and again loving while “Dad” was going through treatment. She allowed herself to be vulnerable which made the essay dynamite. Another student talked about the struggles of having learning disabilities and the pain that he experienced during his educational career.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

A great English essay does not always make a great college essay

English teachers have the best intentions when helping students with college essays, but they don’t always understand that a great English essay does not always make a great college essay. It is fine to break out of the 5 paragraph mold for a college essay, and it needs to tell about the applicant. It needs to have heart and depth. The college essay often frightens students because they think it has to be about some extraordinary event and they may not have something momentous to write about–that is OK. Actually, the best college essays I have read have been about mundane, everyday life. What made them great is that the students showed (did not tell) who they were through their writing.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

It makes a bored-to-tears admissions officer say, “Thank You!!”

You want the admissions officer who reads your essay to go home and say “wow, I read 250 essays today. I’m sick of high school students, of their summer trips and grandparents and their views on the Civil War and Romeo and Juliet. But there was this one kid whose essay I brought home for you to read…”

You want the admissions officer who reads your essay to go home and say “wow, I read 75 essays today. I’m sick of high school students, of their summer trips and grandparents and their views on the Civil War and Romeo and Juliet. But there was this one kid whose essay I brought home for you to read…”

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

Great essay

Here are some components of a great college essay: — It gets the admissions officer to learn something important about you that does not appear elsewhere on the application. — It focuses on a narrow topic, that you have firsthand experience with — It is an essay that only you could write. — It relates the essay topic back to you — It includes vivid descriptions, specific details, examples, and anecdotes — It is interesting, well-written, and follows the essay instructions

Here are some components of a great college essay. It: — Gets the admissions officer to learn something important about you that does not appear elsewhere on the application. — Focuses on a narrow topic, that you have firsthand experience with. — Could only have been written by you. — Relates the essay topic back to you. — Includes vivid descriptions, specific details, examples, and anecdotes — Is interesting, well-written, and follows the essay instructions

Let’s start at the end:

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

What’s Your Brand?

I have all of my clients think about this question for some time and then literally present to me what the “John or Jane Smith brand” is. To write a great college essay, one needs to have a crystal clear understanding of what their brand is and the story they are going to tell. Reason being, when an Admission Counselor or committee gets done reading your essay, even a week or more later, you want them to have a clear visual image of John or Jane Smith.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

College application essays are a special literary genre, but they are of course personal. They add further dimensions to an individual’s record and great ones need to be creative, thoughtful, and well written. Most importantly however, a great essay will reveal an aspect of a self that a student has chosen to highlight and a voice that is unique to that self.

The Great College Essay: Give Them a Window into You

Few things are as eternal as the search for the great college essay. But given the range of factors that go into the decision making process, it is hard to know if the “successful” essays ones really tipped the balance. That being said, the essay is something you can control so you want to make it good. Quite simply, a great college essay helps illuminate who you are. You need to take the opportunity to present yourself in a way that gives the reader–the potential decision maker–a greater understanding of who you are and what you will bring to the community they are seeking to create. The worst things you can do is write an essay that is generic, one where if your name was replaced by another, the reader could not tell the difference. The people in the admissions office are trying to learn about you and the essay is often the last chance you have to shape their impression and understanding of you. Make it yours.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

The personal statement is arguably one of the most important components of a student’s college application. It is the student’s chance to lend his application a third dimension, to transcend his grades and test scores, and figuratively speak to the admissions officers. This opportunity should not be taken lightly. When approaching the personal statement, the cardinal rule students should keep in mind is: if any other person on the planet could have written the same essay, trash it and start over again. The essay at its very core should be PERSONAL. It should reveal positive qualities about the applicant (maturity, responsibility, compassion, commitment, etc) through the lens of an engaging narrative. Tell a story about your life that an admissions officer would find compelling and/or amusing that is a vehicle for showcasing your strength of character.

Great Essays

If you can make the reader laugh, say “I get that” or “me too”, you are on your way to a strong application. In addition, you are sharing something about yourself that is not anywhere else in your application. Finding a cure for cancer, saving the whales singlehandedly, or traveling abroad to build homes for orphans does not automatically make a great essay. It’s all about the delivery, the reflection, the conversational tone, showing not telling that will make for a winning essay.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

The essay angst

A great college essay is an essay that is interesting, pithy and well written. You want both to keep the reader’s attention and to make the reader want you to be a member of the next freshman class at the reader’s college. Write actively about something you know well. This is your chance to make your application stand out and your one opportunity to have a real voice appear in the file. Tell the reader something about yourself that might not be included in the rest of the application.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

Essays that Work

A great college essay is one that certainly doesn’t repeat what is written on the rest of your application. The college desires to know about you not the character in a book. Who are you? What motivates you? What challenges have you encountered and how have you dealt with those situations. I tell students the following: The admissions official has just read 25 essays and is falling asleep. Lo and behold your essay is next as his/her eyes begin to close. Will the first few sentences keep the admissions person up and eager to read your essay. If the answer is no, start again. Also, I ask the following: In each paragraph of the essay, what did admissions learn about you that they did not already know. Piece together all the things one found out about you and what did the college admissions person now know about you that made them back you for admissions.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

Authenticity…your voice!

This is an opportunity for you to tell a story that you connect with in your own voice. The reader should learn something important about you through the story that might not come through in your application. As a reader, I want to finish an essay and say this kids is funny or brave or caring or clever or an individualist. I don’t want to read it and say, who is this kid?

Tips for Writing a College Essay

The personal essay can help you improve your chances for admission. It may be as short as 250 words, but the words you choose can mean the difference between a “maybe” and a “yes”. The essay tells the admissions committee how and why you are different from everybody else.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

short and sweet

admissions counselor only has a few min to read your essay and his or her attention is the key here. most college essay are very much the same so if you can make your essay stand out, you must delivery a great college essay that the counselor will remember and share with other counselors. a great college essay must use personal experiences to delivery a big message focused on passion of learning, motivation for excellences, and personal value in contributing to community as a whole.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

Be original

Do you have any idea how many essays are written about summer camp, admiring your mom or dad, how terrorism is a bad thing, and your resume? BORING. Try to be original with your topic. It is okay if you have something different to say in one of these essay topics, but most of them are depressingly similar. BE CREATIVE.

Be specific and highlight traits that speak to your talents and interests. Don’t be vague and make sure you answer the prompt. Most of all, be yourself. When you try to impress an admissions officer, it can often appear that way and seem inconsistent with who you are. Use this space to show the school something special, be proud of who you are and let it shine through your written response.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

I will leave this answer to an expert. Johns Hopkins University Associate Director of Admissions Calvin Wise told us he isn’t fazed when he sees impressive grades and test scores on applications for admission. But his adrenaline gets pumping when he reads a great essay. “I never run into a colleague’s office and say ‘look at this 4.0 GPA,’ ” Wise told Wow during a phone interview. ”I will run into an office with a good essay to share; that excites me.We are looking for your story. We want to know what makes you different, unique. We want to know who you are. Academically, we are glad you’ve done well. What did an experience mean to you? How did it shape you?”

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

A great college essay combines creativity, excellent writing, and honesty. The person reading your essay should feel as if they know more about you from reading your essay and they should feel confident that you will be successful with any writing assignments you may be given as a student at their institution. It’s important that your essay be a solid reflection of you as a person and as a student, and that you follow the guidelines provided in terms of topic and word-count.

Herea are some favorite topics & subjects to write about:

Here are some favorite topics & subjects to write about:

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

Here is my video response to the question.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

Many books have been written about what makes a great college essay, or even more generally, a great essay of any variety. To be succinct, however, there are a few general rules that will help you write an essay that will draw positive attention from the admissions counselors who read your essay.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

Avoid current issues (b/c everyone will write about it) Choose topics that genuinely interest you Be specific Colleges value “uniqueness” they want different people with different interests and backgrounds Avoid sob stories Get your essays reviewed by lots of trusted advisors, mentors and your English teacher(s) and be open to feedback

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

Telling Your Story

A great college essay gives the reader a glimpse of the person behind the page. Lots of counselors tell students to “tell a story only you can tell,” and I definitely agree with that. But sometimes students misinterpret this to mean — “tell me about a totally unique experience” — and they get totally stressed out because they don’t feel that they have any unique experiences.

A great essay will give your application a third dimension!

The ultimate point of a college essay is to engage and hopefully convince the reader that you would be an asset on that campus. You need the essay to wow them with your personal qualities while sharing an engaging story, perhaps- a snapshot of your life. The tone could be funny or sad, reflective or poignant, but you NEED that reader to like you, so that they would support your application in admissions. If your essay does not reveal some sense of your best personal qualities are i.e. maturity, leadership or compassion then it has failed.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

The Write Stuff

Focus on ways you have internalized and personalized academic research and demonstrate how this will enhance the university’s academic community. Writing about hiking the Appalachian Trail or obsessively reading “To Kill A Mocking Bird” is noble but not memorable. Simply recanting facts will not distinguish you from other candidates with equal class rank, grades and test scores. Instead of recounting your admiration of Atticus Finch or the red pine of the Carolinas, enhance your essay with the research you’ve done on forest preservation for ecological and cultural conservation or the means which Harper Lee challenges notions of race and gender and its specific correlation with your own understanding of humanity. Making your scholarly endeavors personal will pique curiosity and demonstrate your potential to contribute to an academic community.

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

Five Qualities That Make a Great Application Essay

There are five qualities that make a great application essay. 1. A compelling opening that creates a question in readers’ minds that they must have answered. This propels them into the body of the essay. 2. A subject that is unique. It’s important to remember that Admissions Directors are human. They like variety; they want to be entertained, moved. Reading so many essays, there is a tendency to slump a bit in their chair, when that old familiar, “Why Grandpa Meant So Much to Me” essay comes around again. The applicant’s job then, is to get the AD to sit straight up, thinking, “Well, here’s one I haven’t read this week.” 3. Emotion. The essay should not read like a business report. The best essays contain an emotional content that usually stems from the applicant’s passion for the topic. If the essay expresses legitimate emotion, it will usually stir it in the reader. 4. That next step. The essay should go beyond the story the applicant is telling and discuss how that story is going to affect his or her immediate future. This can be a goal that the applicant wants to accomplish on campus, a self starting project, for example, or even beyond, after graduation. This gives the school a sense of what kind of citizen the applicant will be on campus, which can be a real plus in considering admission. 5. A strong close. The summary paragraph should convince the reader that this student is motivated, capable, knows who they are, and will contribute to campus life in interesting ways. But here’s the key. Try not to tell the reader those things, illustrate them by the depth and perception of your final thoughts. The old show business adage is “always leave them wanting more.” In the college application essay game, it’s “always leave them wanting you.”

Top five tips for writing college application essays and why these tips work

Now is the time to get started thinking about writing essays for early admissions, and here are five tips for writing college application essays and why these tips work:

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

It’s All About You!

Essays are an integral part of the college application. Essays need to be both technically/grammatically correct and engaging. They are a place where the student becomes three dimensional. I explain to students that when the reader is captivated by the essay, it is as though you are sitting in the room with the reader sharing your story personally. Even my students who argue that they are not ‘creative’ writers can produce excellent essays when they find a unique perspective to a topic that evokes passion and enthusiasm. (I have seen engineering-minded students demonstrate written enthusiasm over robotics!) A very wise college admissions representative once shared with me (and an audience of parents and students) that the essay should be no more than 20% about introducing the topic (significant person, significant event, etc.) and at least 80% about the student. That 80-85% should be rich with examples and illustrations. When the reader finishes the essay, he doesn’t want your ‘significant person’ or ‘event’ to outshine you. The reader wants to remember you and your story!

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

A good college essay is one that stays with the reader after he or she finishes reading it, maybe even thinking about it later that day, or the next day. When possible, select a topic that engages you and is one you are interested in addressing. It is important that your voice comes through and that the reader feels he or she has had an opportunity to experience a more personal facet of your character and your unique perspective. Show not tell – very important. Avoid cliches at all cost and never write what you think someone wants to hear. When you are finished with the essay, read it out loud (to yourself) and carefully listen to the content, grammar, and pay attention to spelling or word glitches.

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College Essays

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Most colleges and universities in the United States require applicants to submit at least one essay as part of their application. But trying to figure out what college essay topics you should choose is a tricky process. There are so many potential things you could write about!

In this guide, we go over the essential qualities that make for a great college essay topic and give you 50+ college essay topics you can use for your own statement . In addition, we provide you with helpful tips for turning your college essay topic into a stellar college essay.

What Qualities Make for a Good College Essay Topic?

Regardless of what you write about in your personal statement for college , there are key features that will always make for a stand-out college essay topic.

#1: It’s Specific

First off, good college essay topics are extremely specific : you should know all the pertinent facts that have to do with the topic and be able to see how the entire essay comes together.

Specificity is essential because it’ll not only make your essay stand out from other statements, but it'll also recreate the experience for admissions officers through its realism, detail, and raw power. You want to tell a story after all, and specificity is the way to do so. Nobody wants to read a vague, bland, or boring story — not even admissions officers!

For example, an OK topic would be your experience volunteering at a cat shelter over the summer. But a better, more specific college essay topic would be how you deeply connected with an elderly cat there named Marty, and how your bond with him made you realize that you want to work with animals in the future.

Remember that specificity in your topic is what will make your essay unique and memorable . It truly is the key to making a strong statement (pun intended)!

#2: It Shows Who You Are

In addition to being specific, good college essay topics reveal to admissions officers who you are: your passions and interests, what is important to you, your best (or possibly even worst) qualities, what drives you, and so on.

The personal statement is critical because it gives schools more insight into who you are as a person and not just who you are as a student in terms of grades and classes.

By coming up with a real, honest topic, you’ll leave an unforgettable mark on admissions officers.

#3: It’s Meaningful to You

The very best college essay topics are those that hold deep meaning to their writers and have truly influenced them in some significant way.

For instance, maybe you plan to write about the first time you played Skyrim to explain how this video game revealed to you the potentially limitless worlds you could create, thereby furthering your interest in game design.

Even if the topic seems trivial, it’s OK to use it — just as long as you can effectively go into detail about why this experience or idea had such an impact on you .

Don’t give in to the temptation to choose a topic that sounds impressive but doesn’t actually hold any deep meaning for you. Admissions officers will see right through this!

Similarly, don’t try to exaggerate some event or experience from your life if it’s not all that important to you or didn’t have a substantial influence on your sense of self.

#4: It’s Unique

College essay topics that are unique are also typically the most memorable, and if there’s anything you want to be during the college application process, it’s that! Admissions officers have to sift through thousands of applications, and the essay is one of the only parts that allows them to really get a sense of who you are and what you value in life.

If your essay is trite or boring, it won’t leave much of an impression , and your application will likely get immediately tossed to the side with little chance of seeing admission.

But if your essay topic is very original and different, you’re more likely to earn that coveted second glance at your application.

What does being unique mean exactly, though? Many students assume that they must choose an extremely rare or crazy experience to talk about in their essays —but that's not necessarily what I mean by "unique." Good college essay topics can be unusual and different, yes, but they can also be unique takes on more mundane or common activities and experiences .

For instance, say you want to write an essay about the first time you went snowboarding. Instead of just describing the details of the experience and how you felt during it, you could juxtapose your emotions with a creative and humorous perspective from the snowboard itself. Or you could compare your first attempt at snowboarding with your most recent experience in a snowboarding competition. The possibilities are endless!

#5: It Clearly Answers the Question

Finally, good college essay topics will clearly and fully answer the question(s) in the prompt.

You might fail to directly answer a prompt by misinterpreting what it’s asking you to do, or by answering only part of it (e.g., answering just one out of three questions).

Therefore, make sure you take the time to come up with an essay topic that is in direct response to every question in the prompt .

Take this Coalition Application prompt as an example:

What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What's the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?

For this prompt, you’d need to answer all three questions (though it’s totally fine to focus more on one or two of them) to write a compelling and appropriate essay.

This is why we recommend reading and rereading the essay prompt ; you should know exactly what it’s asking you to do, well before you start brainstorming possible college application essay topics.

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53 College Essay Topics to Get Your Brain Moving

In this section, we give you a list of 53 examples of college essay topics. Use these as jumping-off points to help you get started on your college essay and to ensure that you’re on track to coming up with a relevant and effective topic.

All college application essay topics below are categorized by essay prompt type. We’ve identified six general types of college essay prompts:

Why This College?

Change and personal growth, passions, interests, and goals, overcoming a challenge, diversity and community, solving a problem.

Note that these prompt types could overlap with one another, so you’re not necessarily limited to just one college essay topic in a single personal statement.

  • How a particular major or program will help you achieve your academic or professional goals
  • A memorable and positive interaction you had with a professor or student at the school
  • Something good that happened to you while visiting the campus or while on a campus tour
  • A certain class you want to take or a certain professor you’re excited to work with
  • Some piece of on-campus equipment or facility that you’re looking forward to using
  • Your plans to start a club at the school, possibly to raise awareness of a major issue
  • A study abroad or other unique program that you can’t wait to participate in
  • How and where you plan to volunteer in the community around the school
  • An incredible teacher you studied under and the positive impact they had on you
  • How you went from really liking something, such as a particular movie star or TV show, to not liking it at all (or vice versa)
  • How yours or someone else’s (change in) socioeconomic status made you more aware of poverty
  • A time someone said something to you that made you realize you were wrong
  • How your opinion on a controversial topic, such as gay marriage or DACA, has shifted over time
  • A documentary that made you aware of a particular social, economic, or political issue going on in the country or world
  • Advice you would give to your younger self about friendship, motivation, school, etc.
  • The steps you took in order to kick a bad or self-sabotaging habit
  • A juxtaposition of the first and most recent time you did something, such as dance onstage
  • A book you read that you credit with sparking your love of literature and/or writing
  • A school assignment or project that introduced you to your chosen major
  • A glimpse of your everyday routine and how your biggest hobby or interest fits into it
  • The career and (positive) impact you envision yourself having as a college graduate
  • A teacher or mentor who encouraged you to pursue a specific interest you had
  • How moving around a lot helped you develop a love of international exchange or learning languages
  • A special skill or talent you’ve had since you were young and that relates to your chosen major in some way, such as designing buildings with LEGO bricks
  • Where you see yourself in 10 or 20 years
  • Your biggest accomplishment so far relating to your passion (e.g., winning a gold medal for your invention at a national science competition)
  • A time you lost a game or competition that was really important to you
  • How you dealt with the loss or death of someone close to you
  • A time you did poorly in a class that you expected to do well in
  • How moving to a new school impacted your self-esteem and social life
  • A chronic illness you battled or are still battling
  • Your healing process after having your heart broken for the first time
  • A time you caved under peer pressure and the steps you took so that it won't happen again
  • How you almost gave up on learning a foreign language but stuck with it
  • Why you decided to become a vegetarian or vegan, and how you navigate living with a meat-eating family
  • What you did to overcome a particular anxiety or phobia you had (e.g., stage fright)
  • A history of a failed experiment you did over and over, and how you finally found a way to make it work successfully
  • Someone within your community whom you aspire to emulate
  • A family tradition you used to be embarrassed about but are now proud of
  • Your experience with learning English upon moving to the United States
  • A close friend in the LGBTQ+ community who supported you when you came out
  • A time you were discriminated against, how you reacted, and what you would do differently if faced with the same situation again
  • How you navigate your identity as a multiracial, multiethnic, and/or multilingual person
  • A project or volunteer effort you led to help or improve your community
  • A particular celebrity or role model who inspired you to come out as LGBTQ+
  • Your biggest challenge (and how you plan to tackle it) as a female in a male-dominated field
  • How you used to discriminate against your own community, and what made you change your mind and eventually take pride in who you are and/or where you come from
  • A program you implemented at your school in response to a known problem, such as a lack of recycling cans in the cafeteria
  • A time you stepped in to mediate an argument or fight between two people
  • An app or other tool you developed to make people’s lives easier in some way
  • A time you proposed a solution that worked to an ongoing problem at school, an internship, or a part-time job
  • The steps you took to identify and fix an error in coding for a website or program
  • An important social or political issue that you would fix if you had the means

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How to Build a College Essay in 6 Easy Steps

Once you’ve decided on a college essay topic you want to use, it’s time to buckle down and start fleshing out your essay. These six steps will help you transform a simple college essay topic into a full-fledged personal statement.

Step 1: Write Down All the Details

Once you’ve chosen a general topic to write about, get out a piece of paper and get to work on creating a list of all the key details you could include in your essay . These could be things such as the following:

  • Emotions you felt at the time
  • Names, places, and/or numbers
  • Dialogue, or what you or someone else said
  • A specific anecdote, example, or experience
  • Descriptions of how things looked, felt, or seemed

If you can only come up with a few details, then it’s probably best to revisit the list of college essay topics above and choose a different one that you can write more extensively on.

Good college essay topics are typically those that:

  • You remember well (so nothing that happened when you were really young)
  • You're excited to write about
  • You're not embarrassed or uncomfortable to share with others
  • You believe will make you positively stand out from other applicants

Step 2: Figure Out Your Focus and Approach

Once you have all your major details laid out, start to figure out how you could arrange them in a way that makes sense and will be most effective.

It’s important here to really narrow your focus: you don’t need to (and shouldn’t!) discuss every single aspect of your trip to visit family in Indonesia when you were 16. Rather, zero in on a particular anecdote or experience and explain why and how it impacted you.

Alternatively, you could write about multiple experiences while weaving them together with a clear, meaningful theme or concept , such as how your math teacher helped you overcome your struggle with geometry over the course of an entire school year. In this case, you could mention a few specific times she tutored you and most strongly supported you in your studies.

There’s no one right way to approach your college essay, so play around to see what approaches might work well for the topic you’ve chosen.

If you’re really unsure about how to approach your essay, think about what part of your topic was or is most meaningful and memorable to you, and go from there.

Step 3: Structure Your Narrative

  • Beginning: Don’t just spout off a ton of background information here—you want to hook your reader, so try to start in the middle of the action , such as with a meaningful conversation you had or a strong emotion you felt. It could also be a single anecdote if you plan to center your essay around a specific theme or idea.
  • Middle: Here’s where you start to flesh out what you’ve established in the opening. Provide more details about the experience (if a single anecdote) or delve into the various times your theme or idea became most important to you. Use imagery and sensory details to put the reader in your shoes.
  • End: It’s time to bring it all together. Finish describing the anecdote or theme your essay centers around and explain how it relates to you now , what you’ve learned or gained from it, and how it has influenced your goals.

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Step 4: Write a Rough Draft

By now you should have all your major details and an outline for your essay written down; these two things will make it easy for you to convert your notes into a rough draft.

At this stage of the writing process, don’t worry too much about vocabulary or grammar and just focus on getting out all your ideas so that they form the general shape of an essay . It’s OK if you’re a little over the essay's word limit — as you edit, you’ll most likely make some cuts to irrelevant and ineffective parts anyway.

If at any point you get stuck and have no idea what to write, revisit steps 1-3 to see whether there are any important details or ideas you might be omitting or not elaborating on enough to get your overall point across to admissions officers.

Step 5: Edit, Revise, and Proofread

  • Sections that are too wordy and don’t say anything important
  • Irrelevant details that don’t enhance your essay or the point you're trying to make
  • Parts that seem to drag or that feel incredibly boring or redundant
  • Areas that are vague and unclear and would benefit from more detail
  • Phrases or sections that are awkwardly placed and should be moved around
  • Areas that feel unconvincing, inauthentic, or exaggerated

Start paying closer attention to your word choice/vocabulary and grammar at this time, too. It’s perfectly normal to edit and revise your college essay several times before asking for feedback, so keep working with it until you feel it’s pretty close to its final iteration.

This step will likely take the longest amount of time — at least several weeks, if not months — so really put effort into fixing up your essay. Once you’re satisfied, do a final proofread to ensure that it’s technically correct.

Step 6: Get Feedback and Tweak as Needed

After you’ve overhauled your rough draft and made it into a near-final draft, give your essay to somebody you trust , such as a teacher or parent, and have them look it over for technical errors and offer you feedback on its content and overall structure.

Use this feedback to make any last-minute changes or edits. If necessary, repeat steps 5 and 6. You want to be extra sure that your essay is perfect before you submit it to colleges!

Recap: From College Essay Topics to Great College Essays

Many different kinds of college application essay topics can get you into a great college. But this doesn’t make it any easier to choose the best topic for you .

In general, the best college essay topics have the following qualities :

  • They’re specific
  • They show who you are
  • They’re meaningful to you
  • They’re unique
  • They clearly answer the question

If you ever need help coming up with an idea of what to write for your essay, just refer to the list of 53 examples of college essay topics above to get your brain juices flowing.

Once you’ve got an essay topic picked out, follow these six steps for turning your topic into an unforgettable personal statement :

  • Write down all the details
  • Figure out your focus and approach
  • Structure your narrative
  • Write a rough draft
  • Edit, revise, and proofread
  • Get feedback and tweak as needed

And with that, I wish you the best of luck on your college essays!

What’s Next?

Writing a college essay is no simple task. Get expert college essay tips with our guides on how to come up with great college essay ideas and how to write a college essay, step by step .

You can also check out this huge list of college essay prompts  to get a feel for what types of questions you'll be expected to answer on your applications.

Want to see examples of college essays that absolutely rocked? You're in luck because we've got a collection of 100+ real college essay examples right here on our blog!

Want to write the perfect college application essay?   We can help.   Your dedicated PrepScholar Admissions counselor will help you craft your perfect college essay, from the ground up. We learn your background and interests, brainstorm essay topics, and walk you through the essay drafting process, step-by-step. At the end, you'll have a unique essay to proudly submit to colleges.   Don't leave your college application to chance. Find out more about PrepScholar Admissions now:

Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.

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How to Start a College Essay: 5 Effective Techniques

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

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Impressionable Openers

Descriptions and demonstrations, show vulnerability, be authentic, stay personal, fun & quirky, common mistakes to avoid in your college essay.

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Frequently Asked Questions About Starting a College Essay

College essays are a huge part of your college career. If not huge, one of the biggest, and for someone who has been there and done that, I know the amount of pressure the beginning of a college essay, as well as the entire essay, can put on your shoulders.

Not only are you trying to juggle things like word count and grammar errors, but you're also trying to create the perfect college essay introduction that will attract admissions officers to your application or professors to your writing skills. And that, itself, can feel impossible, fill you with dread and self-doubt, but just breathe. I am here to help all present and future students know how to start a college essay.

Today is all about starting a college essay. I have come up with five easy and effective techniques that will help you create essays so good you're going to leave your readers wanting more , starting with your opening sentence! So, this is for all college students and college applicants. Stress no more! This guide was created to help you write a successful college essay. Let's get into it.

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what five things do excellent college essays have in common

The beginning of your essay should, first and foremost, always have a strong opening sentence . This sentence sets the tone for not only your readers but for the entire essay. Having a wobbly, almost interesting opener can steer an admissions officer and/or professor away, so you want it to be strong. And it doesn't have to be complicated! Less is more in this situation. Here are a couple of ways you can accomplish this.

  • Look within and be relatable
  • Use your real life for inspiration
  • Think about ways to evoke emotion

Here are some examples of impressionable openers:

  • Example 1: When I was 11 years old, my mother told me she had cancer over breakfast.
  • Example 2: Maybe yellow isn't my favorite color.
  • Example 3: I sat next to this girl in class who made me feel stupid.

DISCLAIMER : your opener should ALWAYS adhere to the essay prompts. These are just a few examples that can capture your reader's attention almost immediately.

In order to keep readers interested, visuals are key . Image-based descriptions will not only add value to your writing, it will give your readers front seats to your essay's journey. These descriptions let actions speak for themselves.

Here is an example of a description and demonstration in an essay:

  • Example 1: "I was sitting on a bar stool when the word 'cancer' hit me like the smell of her coffee brewing on the stove. The Rice Krispies were popping in my cereal bowl, and MTV Jams was playing in the background, yet all I could hear was the sound of doom all around me. The lips of my mother were moving, but I was frozen, crumbling on this stool like my mother's health. She was sick, and I didn't know how sick or what that even meant, and that terrified me."

Why This Works:

Here you can clearly feel the writers emotional state: shocked, still, scared. Not only is this moment at breakfast traumatic, you feel frozen in time with the writer. Using descriptions like this will evoke so much emotion and leave your reader wanting more.

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Something one of my teachers told me in high school was any good essay will have personal elements in it, no matter the topic. That always stuck with me and became the way I approached my college essays. Showing vulnerability in your writing will always guarantee interest. It also evokes emotion.

You can show vulnerability by:

  • Being honest
  • Explaining what's going on inside underneath the exterior
  • Describe what's going on around you at the moment
  • Letting go of the fear of being seen
  • Connecting with the topic
  • Being transparent about mistakes/flaws

Examples of showing vulnerability:

  • Example 1 : My mother telling me she had cancer over breakfast was not on my bingo card this year.
  • Example 2 : I never thought losing someone I love would change me.
  • Example 3: I had to lose everything in order to gain everything.

I know being vulnerable can be tough for some , but showing this side of you to college admissions officers and/or professors will not only make you stand out, but it can also help free you of things that might be weighing on your mind. Not to sound corny, but it can be therapeutic and make you a better writer . Just make sure you are staying on track with the essay prompt, and you're set!

Whether it's believed or not, an admissions officer wants to see pieces of you in your personal statement, so starting your essay by showing authenticity is a major major key. Along with being vulnerable, there are a few ways you can achieve this.

  • Reflect : Take the time to reflect on your experiences, values, and beliefs that have shaped who you are today. Let your values, passions, and interests shine through in your writing.
  • Mind Your Voice : Write in your own voice and avoid trying to sound like someone you're not. Authenticity comes from being genuine and true to yourself.
  • Tell Your Story : Share personal anecdotes and insights that show your unique perspective.
  • Be True to You : Focus on what matters to YOU (as long as you're on topic!). Write about what is meaningful and important to you rather than what you think admissions officers want to hear.

Above all, be open . Showing introspection and self-awareness in your essay will show any admissions committee who you are beneath the surface, as well as your personal growth.

You can also begin your essay being as random and silly as you'd like . It goes hand-in-hand with other important factors like vulnerability and authenticity. But don't get too crazy . Beginning your essay with something strange will definitely draw readers in. Let me show you what I mean.

  • Example 1 : I start my mornings off in silence and solitude to keep people away from me.
  • Example 2 : Sometimes, I like to circle big words in complex articles to learn new words. Yeah, but to also keep one in my back pocket for later use.
  • Example 3 : Being the youngest child means getting away with everything you want, and that's exactly how I like it.

Do you see how each sentence draws you in? Not only are they light-hearted, but they also make you want to know why you want to keep people away in the morning and what kind of weapon you're forming against others with new words. And every youngest sibling will attest to feeling that exact same way. All of these examples are sure to make your essay fun, show who you are, and leave readers wanting more.

mistakes to avoid in college essays

Years of writing college essays have taken me through every high and low of the process possible. And when they're good, they're great! But for some reason, my mistakes stick out more than anything. So, I've compiled a list of common mistakes to avoid when writing your college essay .

  • Avoid Being Cliche - While you want to be captivating, you want to avoid overly used syntax and phrases that could potentially lose your reader's curiosity. For example, "in today's day and age," "follow my heart," "don't judge a book by its cover," etc. are all cliches that can be avoided by thinking outside of the box.
  • Using Vocabulary to be Impressive - I know you want to impress the admissions committees, but it's important to stick to what you know and not what you can allude to. That is, use verbiage that resonates with your personality. Using extravagant words can work against you, and they can also sound forced. College admissions officers want to see the real you, so show it to them.
  • Steer Clear of Controversy - Though it's not said enough, your college essay should tell your personal story and not touch on things that can stir the pot. For instance, talking about politics and religious beliefs may not be the route you want to take UNLESS it's called for in the college essay topic. And if so, stay on track with the essay prompts.
  • Procrastinating : Waiting until the last minute to start writing your essay will bite you in the butt. You will feel rushed and end up writing a poorly crafted piece. Give yourself enough time to complete an essay draft, edit the draft, and repeat this two-step cycle until your essay is complete.
  • Lack of originality : This goes hand-in-hand with avoiding cliches. Your college essay should exude a lot of your personality, so show admissions officers and teachers who you are! Include your cultural background, test scores that you're proud of, any future aspirations, etc. This all depends on the essay prompts, of course, but in my experience, every essay topic has room to show who you are.
  • Ignoring the prompt : This is a major key. STAY ON TRACK. Make sure to carefully read and understand the essay prompt, and write your essay accordingly. The last thing you want to do is write a college essay that has nothing to do with the prompt. Reading is essential here.
  • Lack of focus : If you want to know how to start a college essay, that means knowing how to stay focused. Find a quiet space, turn off electronics, hide your phone, and really nestle into how you want to capture your reader's attention. This will help you use your five senses clearly, keep your writing strong and not write an overly wordy essay. Focus is the tool here.
  • Poor organization : Make sure your essay has a strong structure with clear transitions between paragraphs. An outline will work best to accomplish this. If you go into starting your college essay without a plan, be prepared to hit all roadblocks.
  • Neglecting to Revise and Edit : Like procrastinating, don't fail to revise and edit your work. Always, always, always proofread your essay for grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors , as well as clarity and coherence.
  • Not Seeking Feedback : Listen, I know that completing an essay is an accomplishment in itself, and you immediately want to submit it, but it's so beneficial to have others read your essay for feedback. You can only spot so many holes in your work when your eyes are constantly reviewing it, so a second, third, or even fourth set of eyes can help point out areas for improvement.

Above all, trust the writing process. Though I do want you to be aware of your jargon, don't get too wrapped up in thinking you're making a mistake. That's what editing is for! Once you complete your college essay, you should always revise and edit accordingly . What you thought sounded good might make you edit it to sound great. Just keep in mind that many colleges are looking for honesty and authenticity vs how well you can sound on paper . So, if you're aware of these factors, you'll be good to go.

ways to overcome writers block

Ways to Overcome Writer's Block

Take it from someone who has suffered from chronic writer's block, it's a pain to get through . Imagine being on a writing streak so good that when you stop, the entire essay writing process stops as a whole. It's definitely a challenge, but after 10 years of writing essays and really honing my craft, I learned a few things that have helped me get through even the thickest of writer's blocks, and I want to share them with you. Check them out:

  • Take a break : This works every single time. Take a short break and step away from your computer to clear your mind and come back with a fresh perspective. For me, 15 minutes is all I ever need. If you need more time, that's okay. Just try not to make your break a rest.
  • Freewriting : Sometimes, I'd start writing without worrying about my structure or grammar to get the ideas flowing, and surprisingly enough, I found my essay taking a pleasant turn.
  • Change your environment : Move around. Don't underestimate the effects of a different location or workspace to stimulate creativity. Try coffee shops, bookstores, a park, or a new room in your house. New environment, new energy.
  • Set small goals : This one is actually the most important. Some people get overwhelmed with the word "essay" for things like lack of proper writing skills, pressure to write a great essay, etc. But if you try breaking down your writing task into smaller, manageable chunks to make it less overwhelming, it can help. For example, set a goal of three paragraphs one day, take a day to edit those paragraphs, two more the next day, and so forth. Find a formula that works for you.
  • Brainstorming : Write down all your ideas--everything. No matter how small you think the idea is, write it down. Even if these ideas seem unrelated, they will help you generate new thoughts and connections.
  • Read or listen to music : It took me a while to realize this helps, but engaging in other forms of art can inspire new ideas and break through mental blocks. And new creativity can lead you to impress admissions officers.
  • Talk it out : As a writer, it's hard to let people in on the creative process, but discussing my ideas with a friend, family member, or colleague helped me gain new perspectives and insights.
  • Relax and Meditate : Hear me out: it works! Practice deep breathing and/or meditation to reduce stress and anxiety that may be contributing to writer's block.

I won't sugarcoat it: the college application process can be intimidating , but it doesn't have to throw you off your game. When it comes to college essays, I see them as opportunities to be fun and expressive. Trust me when I say if you have fun with it, you'll attract the reader's attention , paint vivid details, and write an essay that will leave the admissions officer wanting you at their school. So, take it one step at a time and watch your personal statement come to life.

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How can I make my college essay stand out to admissions officers?

Simply put, be yourself. As long as you stay on track with the essay's topic, showing pieces of yourself will allow admissions officers to know more about who you are. Essays are meant to show readers who you are, how you feel, and what you think naturally, not robotically, so be authentic in your writing, and you'll be sure to stand out amongst the rest.

What are some common mistakes to avoid when writing a college essay?

Some common mistakes to avoid in your essay are using cliches and boring wording. You also want to avoid procrastinating, wasting time, not focusing, not editing, etc. When writing your essay, you want to make sure you give your writing the time and attention it deserves, so make sure you're aware of what is pulling you away from your writing. This will help you stay focused. If you have any other doubts, refer to the section about mistakes in this article and let it guide you to success.

How important is the college essay in the admissions process?

Your college essay is key in the admissions process . It's an admissions committee's first impression of you as a writer and potential student, so it should be taken very seriously. Trying to cut corners or rush through the writing process will be obvious, and it will stand out more than things like test scores, academic achievements, extracurricular activities, and any other positive influence you've had in your life. So, don't take the easy way out and really work on your essay.

Feeling confident in your college essay skills and want to explore some other essay content? Explore our blog on the comma splice to enhance your technical writing skills!

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I'm not really sure about the different types of college essays out there. Could someone please let me know what types of essays to expect when applying to college? I want to be prepared and start brainstorming ideas early.

Of course! It's a good idea to familiarize yourself with the different types of college essays so you can start brainstorming ideas. Here are the main types of essays you may encounter during the application process:

1. Personal Statement: This is the most common essay type and is required by most schools. The Common Application and Coalition Application have several prompts for personal statements, but they all essentially ask you to reflect on a significant experience, personality trait, or value that defines you. Your personal statement should be engaging, thoughtful, and reveal something meaningful about yourself.

2. Supplemental Essays: Many colleges require supplemental essays in addition to the personal statement. These essays can cover a wide range of topics and vary in length, depending on the specific college and prompt. Some common supplemental essay topics include: "Why this college?", "Elaborate on an extracurricular activity", "Describe a community you belong to", or "Why do you want to study your chosen major?"

3. Diversity Essays: Some colleges ask for an essay that highlights your unique background, culture, or experiences related to diversity. This is your chance to share how your individuality will contribute to the school's community.

4. Intellectual Curiosity Essays: A few colleges might ask about a time when you were intellectually stimulated, or how you pursue your intellectual interests outside of the classroom. This type of essay showcases your curiosity, critical thinking, and love for learning.

5. Creative Essays: Although less common, some colleges may give you the option to submit a creative essay or project. This could be a poem, short story, or even a multimedia piece. Remember to follow the specific guidelines provided by the college.

As you brainstorm ideas for each type of essay, make sure to choose topics that are genuine, engaging, and allow you to demonstrate your personal growth, values, and aspirations. Remember that each essay should showcase different aspects of your personality, experiences, and goals to provide a well-rounded impression of yourself.

Good luck with your college application process!

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what five things do excellent college essays have in common

8 Do’s and Don’ts For Crafting Your College Essay

←5 Awesome College Essay Topics + Sample Essays

6 Personal Essay Brainstorming Exercises →

what five things do excellent college essays have in common

Contrary to what you might think, you essay is not a place to prove your worthiness to attend college. Instead, it’s a place to convey your personality, demonstrate who you are, and explore what you can bring to campus.

Not sure what to say? Here are 8 dos and don’ts for writing your college essay.

Don’t: Regurgitate your resume.

Do: find a hook..

Colleges have your transcript, SAT/ACT scores, recs, and extracurriculars to understand the academic side of you. Your essay is a place to show them what you’re really like—your personality, passions, and what you’ll bring to campus. It’s a place to demonstrate that you have a fit —meaning you would fit in with the student body and contribute to the campus—with the school.

Use a hook—a compelling anecdote, an example, a question—at the beginning of your essay to draw your reader in. (Read How to Get the Perfect Hook for Your College Essay to help you come up with an idea.) This is a chance to demonstrate what your personality is like and give them an idea of your voice.

Don’t: Turn use overused metaphors.

Do: use rhetorical devices..

A personalized metaphor can be a great way to capture your experiences and views through the lens of a single experience. For instance, you might discuss a time you volunteered at a hospital in a third-world country to capture how you believe in helping others. For tips on developing your own metaphor, check out How to Develop a Personalized Metaphor for Your Applications .

However, be wary of using common or cliche experiences as metaphors for something more global. Topics like sports injury and pet death are so common that adcoms’ eyes will glaze over the second they see them. Plus, these topics don’t really capture bigger-picture trials and may make you seem unworldly. While there may be a place to talk about them—for instance, if you had to quit an activity because of a sports injury, you may want to explain in the additional information section—, it’s better to develop a more original topic for your essay.

However, how you say it is more important than what you say. That’s why you should use rhetorical devices —symbols, imagery, metaphors, anecdotes, and other compelling language—to describe your experience and make it seem real to adcoms.

Don’t: Assume you have nothing to say.

Do: brainstorm..

You don’t have to have started your own business to tell a compelling story . Remember: how you say it is more important than what you say.

To get started, try some brainstorming exercises . For instance, you might make lists of beliefs, character flaws, personal anecdotes or whatever else pops into your head.

My brother wrote his essay about failing his driving test. Somehow, he managed to turn what could have been a mundane, if disappointing, experience into a hilarious and even poignant story. (He ended up going to Cornell, so it worked.) All of this to say, you can turn even the most common, everyday experience into a reflection on something larger.

Don’t: Shy away from challenges or difficulties you’ve faced.

Do: choose the most appropriate forum to discuss them..

If you’ve taken time off or personal issues have impacted your grades and schoolwork, you should explain it in your application. However, take care to do it in the right section and in a way that portrays you in the most positive light possible. Overcoming obstacles can certainly be positive, but you don’t want colleges to regard you as a liability, such as if you’ve had significant psychological issues they won’t be able to address.

Essays are a good forum for discussing obstacles you’ve faced and how you’ve overcome them, but if you choose this kind of topic, make sure it helps colleges understand your personality better. You don’t want to be defensive in your essay; don’t gripe about a conflict with a teacher, for instance. Some issues may be better left to the additional information section.

The Takeaway

The purpose of your essay is to paint a picture of who you are. Adcoms will get an idea of your academic and extracurricular achievements from other sections of your application. The essay is where you demonstrate your character, what you will bring to campus, and new insights and perspectives you can offer. To write a compelling essay, convey your ideas through powerful language, and use a topic about which you can write passionately.

For more tips on writing your college essay, read:

How to Write an Impressive College Essay: A Step-by-Step Guide

How to Write a Personal Statement That Wows Colleges

Want help with your college essays to improve your admissions chances? Sign up for your free CollegeVine account and get access to our essay guides and courses. You can also get your essay peer-reviewed and improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.

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  1. 177 College Essay Examples for 11 Schools + Expert Analysis

    Now, let's get to the good stuff: the list of 177 college essay examples responding to current and past Common App essay prompts. Connecticut College. 12 Common Application essays from the classes of 2022-2025 . Hamilton College. 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2026; 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2022

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    College essay example #1. This is a college essay that worked for Harvard University. (Suggested reading: How to Get Into Harvard Undergrad) This past summer, I had the privilege of participating in the University of Notre Dame's Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program .

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  8. Top 41 Common Application Essays That Worked

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  9. Examples of College Essays: 10 College Essays and Why They Worked

    A college essay is a piece of writing that responds to a given prompt, either on the Common App lication, Coalition Application, or on a school's individual application. College essays can range anywhere from 50 to 800 words. There are two main types of college essays: personal statements and supplemental essays.

  10. College Essay Examples

    Table of contents. Essay 1: Sharing an identity or background through a montage. Essay 2: Overcoming a challenge, a sports injury narrative. Essay 3: Showing the influence of an important person or thing. Other interesting articles. Frequently asked questions about college application essays.

  11. How to Write Better Essays

    1. Compelling Hook. A compelling hook can be the difference between a good college essay and a great college essay. If you're wondering how to start a college essay, introducing an interesting personal story or anecdote can be a great way to set up a compelling hook in your first paragraph.

  12. 7 Qualities of a Successful College Essay

    6. Well-written. This might also sound like an obvious quality of a successful essay, but it's still worth mentioning. The most competitive application essays showcase strong writing skills, providing evidence of a student's ability to tell a specific story artfully and well.

  13. 35+ Best College Essay Tips from College Application Experts

    Use your essays to empower your chances of acceptance, merit money, and scholarships.". This college essay tip is by Dr. Rebecca Joseph, professor at California State University and founder of All College Application Essays, develops tools for making the college essay process faster and easier. 15. Get personal.

  14. What makes an excellent college essay?

    Hello! Crafting an excellent college essay takes some time, thought, and effort, but I'm glad you're seeking advice on how to approach it. Here are a few tips for creating a strong, memorable essay: 1. The most important aspect of your essay is that it accurately reflects who you are. Don't try to be someone you're not or only write what you think the admissions officers want to hear.

  15. What makes a great college essay?

    A natural understanding of narrative structure — not the prefabricated "academic paper" structure — and a great story to tell. Don't worry so much that other people may have "better" stories than you. Everyone's life is full of story, narrative, and it's up to you to tell these stories in compelling ways.

  16. 3 College Essay Examples that Need Improvement

    3. Quality Writing and Storytelling. It's important to show your writing skills in an essay, and keep your audience engaged. Don't forget, the essay is different from other parts of your application: it's a story. That means you need dialogue, action, sensory details, and a strong hook. Think about your favorite writers and how they tell ...

  17. What Do Colleges Look For in an Essay?

    Initiative. Initiative is one of the top qualities that colleges look for. Students who show initiative will likely bring that take-charge attitude with them to college, where it will help them contribute to the campus. The essay should always involve you taking some kind of action—it shouldn't just be about things that happened to you.

  18. 5 Strategies To Unlock Your Winning College Essay

    The best essays have clear, coherent language and are free of errors. The story is clearly and specifically told. After drafting, take the time to revise and polish your writing. Seek feedback ...

  19. 53 Stellar College Essay Topics to Inspire You

    Once you've chosen a general topic to write about, get out a piece of paper and get to work on creating a list of all the key details you could include in your essay. These could be things such as the following: Emotions you felt at the time. Names, places, and/or numbers. Dialogue, or what you or someone else said.

  20. 5 Awesome College Essay Topics + Sample Essays

    Awesome College Essay Topics + Sample Essays. The truth is that a "good" college essay topic varies by individual, as it really depends on your life experiences. That being said, there are some topics that should work well for most people, and they are: 1. A unique extracurricular activity or passion.

  21. How to Start a College Essay: 5 Effective Techniques

    Ignoring the prompt: This is a major key. STAY ON TRACK. Make sure to carefully read and understand the essay prompt, and write your essay accordingly. The last thing you want to do is write a college essay that has nothing to do with the prompt. Reading is essential here.

  22. 5 Common College Application Essay Myths

    Myth: You should use the essay to tell the college anything and everything about yourself. Fact: Your personal statement should focus on one detail or life event. It's almost impossible to tell a college everything they need to know about you in 650 words or less. This is why students should pick a significant event or story that either ...

  23. Types of college essays?

    This type of essay showcases your curiosity, critical thinking, and love for learning. 5. Creative Essays: Although less common, some colleges may give you the option to submit a creative essay or project. This could be a poem, short story, or even a multimedia piece. Remember to follow the specific guidelines provided by the college.

  24. 8 Do's and Don'ts For Crafting Your College Essay

    Do: Use rhetorical devices. A personalized metaphor can be a great way to capture your experiences and views through the lens of a single experience. For instance, you might discuss a time you volunteered at a hospital in a third-world country to capture how you believe in helping others. For tips on developing your own metaphor, check out How ...

  25. Welcome to the Purdue Online Writing Lab

    Mission. The Purdue On-Campus Writing Lab and Purdue Online Writing Lab assist clients in their development as writers—no matter what their skill level—with on-campus consultations, online participation, and community engagement. The Purdue Writing Lab serves the Purdue, West Lafayette, campus and coordinates with local literacy initiatives.