18 Tips For Writing The College Admissions Essay

Many students find the college admissions essay to be the most difficult part of the college application process. The essay is an opportunity for students to improve their chances for admission by showing what makes them stand out. This is not an essay that can be banged out in a day or when a student is under a lot of stress. Given this, summer is an ideal time to get the jump on the writing.

“From our many years of experience, students are much less stressed during the summer when they’re not bogged down by schoolwork, or distracted by sports, extracurriculars, socializing and testing,” said Mandee Heller Adler, CEO and founder of International College Counselors. “With less pressure, students are better able to think, reflect and connect with a writing topic. During the summer they also have more time to write and revise.”

The essay may be as short as 150 words, but those words can mean the difference between a “maybe” and a “yes.” The essay tells the admissions committee how and why one student is different from all the others. While there is no exact formula for the perfect admission essay, here are some tips to consider when trying to make a lasting impression on someone who reads 50 to 100 essays a day:

  1. Make it personal. The admissions committee is looking to learn about the student—his or her achievements, obstacles, goals, passions, personality, values, and character. If a student is asked to write about an influential person, the college wants to know his or her influence on the student. In whatever topic is chosen to center an essay around, the student needs to shine through.
  2. Focus on one facet. Admissions committees are looking for an in-depth essay. Pick one project, one activity, or one passion. Students who cover too many topics in their essay will end up with a list. The magic is in the details.
  3. Tell a good story. Students who want to write about a difficulty, should not give the admissions committee a list of complaints. It’s best to tell them how that difficulty was overcome.
  4. Keep it real. Speak from the heart and it will show. Then the essay will flow more easily. A student should choose something that he or she has experienced because this will provide the vivid and specific details needed in an essay.
  5. Come out looking good. Students must always think about what information they want colleges to know and use when evaluating their application. Students should not share anything that doesn’t make them sound good, unless they absolutely have to, or can turn it around to show the positive.
  6. Share your opinions, but avoid anything controversial. Anyone could be reading an admissions essay, so a student wants to appeal to the broadest audience possible. Write about something that is liked as opposed to something that is not.
  7. Don’t repeat information already in the application. If six AP courses in one year are in the application already, students should not insert this fact in the essay unless this relates directly to the focus of the essay. Admissions officers want to learn something about a student from the essay that they can’t learn from reading the other sections of the application.
  8. Avoid cliché topics unless there is something extraordinary to say. These topics include a trip to Europe, the controversial celebrity who is idolized, overcoming an injury and making an athletic comeback, and understanding the meaning of life from a camping trip.
  9. Leverage native culture, traditions, and experiences. International applicants, Native Americans, or otherwise non-traditional students, should not try to “Americanize” or “mainstream” their application. Schools are looking for diversity. The goal is to stand out and not appear to be like all the other applicants.
  10. Copy-and-paste carefully. Sure, it’s easier to tailor one essay for many schools than to write each one from scratch. However, read each essay over carefully, like it’s the first one that was written. Almost every admission officer can tell tales of students who accidentally wrote how excited they were by the opportunities offered at another school.
  11. Avoid scientific words, acronyms, industry jargon, or foreign phrases. The essay needs to be easy for anyone to read.
  12. OMG! Avoid using slang or other hard-to-decipher language.
  13. Profanity. Don’t use any. It will get a student noticed. Not in a good way.
  14. Spend time on the essay. The admission committee is looking to see what a student can do given the time to brainstorm, rewrite, and polish. They are looking to see what topic was chosen and what was done with it. An essay won’t help a student if it’s sloppy and uninformative.
  15. Check the grammar and spelling. It is OK to write conversationally, but the grammar and spelling still need to be correct. And don’t solely rely on a computer’s spell-checker. Often times, the wrong word (spelled correctly) can slip by.
  16. Show the essay to someone who can provide objective feedback. Sometimes students can get too close to the essay and be unable to see it clearly. Other people can often tell if there isn’t enough being revealed, if essay rambles, if the humor is falling flat, or if the impression being made is not the most flattering one. Remember, this essay is going to a total stranger and is going to be making a big decision based on what they’ll learn from it.
  17. Write the optional essay. Optional essays are not optional.
  18. Don’t lie or plagiarize on the college application. If a university finds out a student lied on an application or essay, the application will get rejected, almost guaranteed. Plagiarism is always wrong, and schools are getting better at detecting it.

“The earlier a student starts writing, the less pressure he or she will feel,” said Adler.