18 Tips for Writing the College Essay

The personal essay can help improve a student’s chances for admission.

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. Write about yourself. The admissions committee is looking to learn about you—your achievements, your obstacles, your goals, your passions, your personality, your values, and your character. If you are asked to write about an influential person, the college wants to know his or her influence on you. Whatever topic you choose to center your essay around, make sure you shine through.
  2. Focus on one facet of yourself. Admissions committees are looking for an in-depth essay. Pick one project, one activity, or one passion. Cover too many topics in your essay, and you’ll end up with a list. The magic is in the details.
  3. Tell a good story. Demonstrate how you are compassionate—don’t just tell readers you are. If you had a difficulty, don’t give the admissions committee a list of complaints. Tell them how you overcame them.
  4. Keep it real. If you speak from the heart, it will show, and your essay will flow more easily. Choosing something you’ve experienced will also give you the vivid and specific details needed in your essay.
  5. Present yourself in the best light. Always think about what information you want colleges to know and use when evaluating your application. Don’t share anything that doesn’t make you sound good, unless you absolutely have to, or you can turn it around to show the positive.
  6. Share your opinions, but avoid anything controversial. You don’t know who is going to be reading your essay, so you want to appeal to the broadest audience possible. Write about something you like as opposed to something you don’t.
  7. Don’t repeat information already in your application. If you’ve taken six AP courses in one year, don’t list that you’ve done it unless this relates directly to the focus of your essay. Admissions officers want to learn something about you from your essay that they can’t learn from reading the other sections of your application.
  8. Avoid cliché topics unless you have something extraordinary to say. These topics include a trip to Europe, the controversial celebrity who you idolize, overcoming an injury and making an athletic comeback, and understanding the meaning of life from a fishing trip.
  9. Leverage your native culture, traditions, and experiences. If you’re an international applicant, Native American, or otherwise non-traditional student, don’t try to “Americanize” or “mainstream” your 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 you wrote. 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. Your 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 you noticed. Not in a good way.
  14. Spend time on your essay. The admission committee is looking to see what you can do given the time to brainstorm, rewrite, and polish. They are looking to see what topic you chose and what you did with it. An essay won’t help you if it’s sloppy and uninformative.
  15. Check your grammar and spelling. You can write conversationally, but the grammar and spelling still need to be correct. And don’t solely rely on your computer’s spell-checker. Often times, the wrong word (spelled correctly) can slip by.
  16. Show the essay to someone who can give you objective feedback. Sometimes you 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, or your essay rambles, or if the humor is falling flat, or if you’re not making the impression you’d want to. Remember, this essay is going to someone who doesn’t know you 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 you lied on an application or essay you will get rejected, almost guaranteed. Plagiarism is always wrong, and schools are getting better at detecting it.



International College Counselors is an independent college admissions company that helps students in the U.S. and all over the world find, apply to, and gain acceptance into the college of their dreams. The college counselors are dedicated to helping students and their families successfully navigate the college admission process. For more information on International College Counselors or to contact an expert college counselor, please visit www.internationalcollegecounselors.com or call 954 414-9986.