What makes a great college essay?

Application Process

Our counselors answered:

What makes a great college essay?

Barak Rosenbloom
College essay mentor, guide and editor essaymentors.com

What makes a great college essay?

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...” You want to be that one kid. Let's start with what a great essay isn’t: -- It isn’t an academic paper. A lot of students I work with have only learned to write well-reasoned essays with a thesis paragraph, evidence paragraphs, and a concluding paragraph. Academic essays are important, but they don't make for compelling personal essays. -- It isn’t a sales pitch touting your fantastic features. Proclaiming, “I’m a hard worker, conscientious, funny and tall” isn’t believable. Anyone can say that. Let your recommendations do the job of explicitly saying what a great/talented/funny/thoughtful person you are. -- It isn’t about anyone or anything other than you. Franklin Roosevelt is not applying to college, and no matter how much you admire him, he can’t help you. The same with France. A great essay shows you for who you are. It tells a story that illuminates some of your personality or strengths. The ones I find most powerful show learning, growth and self-awareness. Sometimes, the hard work is in understanding yourself. It’s not a skill taught in schools, or in most of our families. But if you can look inside to see how an event or idea changed you, challenged you, helped you grow and learn, or affected your life, then you’re 80% there. Of course, you need to get it on paper in a memorable way. You can bring that poor, bored-to-tears, over-caffeinated admissions officer right into your life and world for 500 words. Help them experience what you’ve experienced, learn what you’ve learned. Maybe read some short stories or articles to get a sense of how this kind of writing is different from academic writing. Find a mentor, editor or teacher who can help guide you through the process of writing something memorable. You have a great essay in you. Everyone does. It may take some time to find it, and it will take more time to write. But when you’re done, it will be something you’ll be proud of and something that can help get you into college.

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.

Geoff Broome
Assistant Director of Admissions Widener University


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.

Janelle Braverman
Educational Consultant Independent University Advisors, LLC

What makes a great college essay?

Focused. Purposeful. Authentic. Revealing. Well-written. Now how this is manifested is varied and impossible to generalize.

Melanie Rome
College Admissions Counselor Melanie Rome, College Admissions Counselor

What makes a great college essay?

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. prompt, call UNIGO to find anecpert in

Margaret Tung
Strategist Yale University

What makes a great college essay?

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.

Tana Taylor-Juko
English Instructor

What makes a great college essay?

There are FOUR essential components in preparing a great college essay: 1. A great college essay always starts with a great topic. What does that mean? Something people are interested in? Not necessarily. A great topic should always be something YOU are passionate about. How many times during high school were you told to write about something you were not really interested in? Probably more than enough. Well, a college essay gives you the opportunity to explore areas that matter most to you. No matter what course you are in, you should be able to dissect the material to find issues, controversies, or facts that speak to your personality. When that happens, take it and run with it. Use those "wow, I didn't know that" moments to develop an essay that would be enjoyable to write. 2. A great college essay always includes a clear thesis statement. Thesis statements can and should act as the road map for your essay. It should present the purpose of your writing, it should be clear and understandable, and it should make your reader interested in what you have written. To achieve this, I often rely on a thesis formula. The formula is structured as such: SUBJECT --> CLAIM --> DIRECTION --> UNIVERSAL IDEA The subject - your chosen topic Claim - what is important about the topic Direction - how you will focus the attention of your essay Universal idea - why your intended audience will find your essay important Example: In THE LION KING, Directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff adequately convey the importance of family ties through stylistic narration, emotional appeal, and complex character development. Here, the subject is THE LION KING (and the directors). The claim is that they are conveying something about the film. The direction is "through stylistic narration, emotional appeal, and complex character development," and the universal idea is "the importance of family ties." Notice that your thesis does not have to follow the order of the thesis formula, but it should include all the elements of the formula. 3. A great college essay always has a catchy introduction and conclusion. You always want to grab your readers' attention with something that will make them want to continue reading your work. Statistics, quotes, or a narrative are always good places to start. In the same way, you always want to leave your reader with something to remember, so the conclusion is just as important. Provide your reader with some closure and don't leave them hanging. 4. A great college essay is always organized. Be sure that your essay follows the structure you have provided in your introduction and/or thesis statement. If you say you will discuss a,b,c, and d, don't talk about them throughout your paper as d, b, a, and c. Remember to include topic sentences that reflect your thesis statement which will help act as a guide for great organization. There are certainly more things that you can do to make your essay even better, but these FOUR elements will give you solid foundation for a great college essay.

Deanna Kubit

What makes a great college essay?

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! The best way to make an impact is to tell a story. Imagine reading 100 essays and each one is mundane and talks about how much they like your college. When considering your essay topic, ask yourself, "What makes me unique?" Maybe you want to study Political Science and you have served on the student government throughout high school. Don't talk about your campaign strategies, what offices you have held and what committee's you have chaired (those are listed under your activities section). Tell them what you learned, how it made a difference in your life and what changes it created in your high school. Passion and excitement need to be in the essay. Admission officers are looking for students who want to be on their campus, want to participate on their campus and want to make a difference in the world, but above all, they want to know how you are different from the other 100 applications sitting on their desk. If your essay could be written by anyone else who was on student government, then it is not ready to submit. Your essay needs to be positive, powerful and passionate. It needs to tell the admission rep who you are and what you want in the voice of a young adult. Do not sit with a Thesaurus and think you are going to impress the reader. These are highly skilled professionals who read essays for a living. Believe me, they have seen and heard it all before. Your job is to give them something personal about you that no one else could describe because it is not their life or their experience. How do you know when it is ready to submit? When you read your paper aloud and at the end of your essay a smile comes your face because you know it is the best thing you have ever written. It is the best paper because it is all about YOU!

Karen Ekman-Baur
Director of College Counseling Leysin American School

What makes a great college essay?

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. Remember that admissions officers will be reading large numbers of essays, and you will want to create an essay that will stand out in the interesting way it is formulated, as well as in its unique subject matter. You definitely don't want to put the readers to sleep! You have surely had certain life experiences which will provide interesting material for your essay(s) - even things which you yourself take for granted. Consider how the story you have to tell would be perceived by someone else who has never before heard that story. Write analytically, rather than merely descriptively. Descriptive writing is a factual account of a topic or event, simply telling what happened. Analytical writing will pose or answer questions, make comparisons, or present and defend viewpoints. Rather than just state what happened, an analytical approach will explain and interpret events. Why did they take place? What were their consequences? How did they relate to other developments? What is your interpretation of what transpired? How do/did you feel about the topic about which you are writing? In most cases, you will be required to limit the essay to a certain number of characters or words. I always suggest that students not worry too much about this limitation to begin with - just get your ideas written down (typed). After that, some strategic editing can be done to trim the fat off and get the essay down to the required size. Don't worry! Although this task may seem daunting when you think about it, it inevitably results in a more concise, streamlined presentation of your concept. Finally, make sure that the essay does not have glaring errors in spelling, sentence structure, and paragraph formulation. In fact, try to make it as correct as possible. Besides appearing very careless, these kinds of errors can actually interfere with the ability of the reader to understand your point. It will be helpful if you have other people whose opinion you value read the essay to give you feedback on areas that might not be clear or which require further explanation, but make sure that the essay remains in your own "voice".

Amberley Wolf
College Consultant Wolf College Consulting

What makes a great college essay?

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. College essays should also demonstrate your ability to think and organize your thoughts. Above all... make sure you choose a topic you care about. If you are bored of the topic, then most likely the reader will be bored too.