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.

Suzan Reznick
Independent Educational Consultant The College Connection

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.

Wendy Andreen, PhD
College & Career Planning

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!

Jan Hale
College Admissions Advisor Independent

What makes a great college essay?

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.

Helen H. Choi
Owner Admissions Mavens

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. Telling a story "only you can tell" means that you tell the reader a story from your perspective. So you don't need to have great exotic vacations or heartbreaking stories of community service in some far off land -- you just need to reveal your point of view about a topic. Let us know about your feelings and opinions. When you can show the reader a slice of your genuine self -- you are on your way to a great college essay. The uniqueness of an essay stems not from some external experience, but your internal responses.

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

Brian D. Crisp
Founder and President Crisp Consulting + Coaching; Burton College Tours

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.

CRAIG HELLER
President www.CollegeEssaySolutions.com

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."

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.