What makes a great college essay?

Application Process

Our counselors answered:

What makes a great college essay?

Lily Trayes
Founder and CEO Ivy League Placement

What makes a great college essay?

Here is my video response to the question.

William Chichester

What makes a great college essay?

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

Ellen erichards@ellened.com
Owner Ellen Richards Admissions Consulting

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: 1. Market yourself, not a story. You can tell the best story in the world, but if it doesn’t provide insight on your accomplishments then it fails to market yourself. The reader should have a much better sense of you and your achievements and future goals. For example, I remember a friend who wrote her essay for Harvard about how her parents took a mission trip to Africa and that inspired her to dedicating her life to improving healthcare for the poor. While heartwarming, it had two problems: It didn’t highlight any of her accomplishments It showed very limited insight into her personality She was waitlisted. And while the essay wasn’t the only reason, it didn’t help. 2. Don’t be modest! This is a common problem with overachievers. Having done many impressive things, they then downplay their success, with comments and phrases like: “There are so many other qualified students who want to get into Harvard” or “I will be incredibly lucky if you accept me to Stanford - I know many others deserve it Do NOT say stuff like that. Perhaps honest, and unfailingly nice, it does nothing for you. Now, don’t go around bragging about how you’re the smartest chemistry student since Marie Curie. But don’t downplay your accomplishments - be proud of them. Sincerely describe how hard it was to win first place in Academic Decathlon, or top prize at the State UIL contest. Be confident and be your biggest fan - if you’re not, admissions offices are liable to overlook your application in place of someone who acts like they deserve it. 3. Use anecdotes and stories A good story is priceless. Remember my friend above who wants to change the world of healthcare for the poor? Exactly. While the purpose of her essay was misguided, her use of a vivid story certainly caught my attention enough to remember it all these years later. Remember, admissions committees host actual committees to discuss a lot of the potential candidates - particularly ones that are on the border of acceptance and waitlisting. You want memorable stories in your essay that they can refer back to, that they can quote, that they can point to and say, because of what this student did, they deserve to come to Stanford. You want to be able to be the "So and so guy" when they are looking for something on the tip of their tongue. Your essays are your best chance at making that happen. Use powerful imagery and personal anecdotes whenever you can. Leave readers with a lasting impression and it will serve you well come decision time. 4. Reiterate achievements; don’t reiterate a narrow interest Similar to the first point, you want to brag a little bit in your essays without overdoing it. But when you brag - make sure you brag about your most impressive accomplishments, rather than filling up a page with a list of runner up awards. But whatever you do, make sure you link your accomplishments back to your success. Don’t talk about the time you let the opposing time score 14 earned runs in one inning while you were pitching, UNLESS you also talk about how that propelled you eventually to a no-hitter and the state championship. Don’t talk about your first published short story, UNLESS you also describe how that success led you to commit to fiction writing, eventually winning national recognition and driving your desire to become a student of creative writing. You get the drift. Too often, students will discuss a small accomplishment that had great personal significance but limited significance to the university. The best candidates describe accomplishments that had both - and those are the successful ones. 5. Don’t name drop when it doesn’t make sense Essays that include sentences like the following: “Harvard has been my dream school because my friend Ryan Smith is a Harvard freshman and I’ve always looked up to him.” “I think Stanford would be a great match for me because my older sister is currently a junior there, and our personalities have always been very similar.” Make no sense. It gets even worse when people name-drop various professors, university alums, etc Randomly mentioning a person you know goes to the university does not make the university want you anymore. Only name-drop if mentioning that name is a KEY PART of the story you are telling in your application essay, So only name-drop if, without the name, your essay would lose meaning. If you do it wrong, at best it will be ignored. At worst it will make you look fake. Not helpful.

Laura O'Brien Gatzionis
Founder Educational Advisory Services

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.

Nancy Milne
Owner Milne Collegiate Consulting

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.

Tam Warner Minton
Consultant College Adventures

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. Use your own voice. Write in the first person. Write as if you are speaking with someone, expressing yourself on a given topic. Of course it must be well written, but the admission committee wants to hear what you think, what you feel, what you would do. Eliminate unnecessary words. ? Okay: "Over the years it has been pointed out to me by my parents, friends, and teachers -- and I have even noticed this about myself, as well -- that I am not the neatest person in the world." ? Better: "I'm a slob." Don't Forget to Proofread Typos and spelling or grammatical errors can be interpreted as carelessness or just bad writing. Don't rely on your computer's spell check. It can miss spelling errors like the ones below. ? "After I graduate form high school, I plan to work for a nonprofit organization during the summer." ? "From that day on, Daniel was my best fried." If you are funny, be humorous. If you are intellectual, be philosophical. If you are creative, be original and write an essay that will stand out.

Kathryn Lento

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?

Bill Pruden
Head of Upper School, College Counselor Ravenscroft School

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.

Corey Fischer
President CollegeClarity

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.

Lora Lewis
Educational Consultant Lora Lewis Consulting

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. The blank page can be daunting, and those short little essay prompts can be downright intimidating. But if you're willing to put in the time and effort, you can write a compelling essay you'll be proud to submit. Here are five things to keep in mind before your fingers hit the computer keys. A great college essay: 1) Addresses the prompt (assuming a specific prompt is given). While you are drafting and revising, stop to ask yourself: Am I answering the question the college is asking me? 2) Reflects your unique voice. Don't waste time trying to sound "collegiate" or scouring the thesaurus for big words to make your essay sound formal. Your essay should sound like you and let the reader "hear" who you are and what makes you a unique individual. That's what colleges are interested in; not (unless you're studying acting) in how well you can pretend to be someone else. 3) Is genuine. You don't have to spill your guts in your college essay, but it's important to be authentic in your self-expression. Write about your own ideas and experiences and do so from an honest place in your heart. Forget about trying to guess what colleges want you to say and simply say what's meaningful to you. 4) Is well-written. Your essays doesn't have to be perfect (if you could write a publishable essay, why would you be going to college in the first place?), but it should adhere to the standards of a high quality essay and be relatively error free. One draft won't do it. Write, get feedback, revise, proofread. Repeat. 5) Be your own essay. Writing college essays is stressful, especially if you don't consider yourself a strong writer, you're pressed for time, or you're otherwise struggling. When you feel like so much is riding on a single piece of writing, the task can be daunting and even paralyzing. Persevere and resist any temptation to put forth an essay that is anything less than 100% your own work. Getting feedback, suggestions and proofreading help from friends, teachers, parents and counselors is fine, but it should never go beyond the level of "workshopping" support you'd receive in any classroom writing situation.