Students often consider the college admissions essay to be one of the most challenging aspects of the application process.
These essays are time consuming, hard to write, and sometimes the defining factor as to whether a student gets admitted to a competitive college.
We turned to our resident college admissions expert for his top 10 tips on how to write a college application essay.
Steve Peifer, CEP is the Vice President of College Counseling at KD College Prep. He has helped students receive admittance from their top choice colleges for more than 20 years. In 2007, he won the CNN® Hero for Championing Children Award and the Yale University Counseling Award. Since then, he has won numerous additional college counseling awards, including the NACAC Excellence in Education Award.
Over the years, Steve has reviewed college applications for several prominent colleges, so he has first-hand experience with the other side of the application process.
10 Tips for Writing an Awesome College Application Essay
1. Give Yourself Enough Time
Essay writing is time consuming, and a college admissions essay is probably unlike many of the research papers or book reports you wrote in English class.
It will probably take a few rough drafts until you find a topic you really like. We always recommend students plan to finish testing by the end of junior year so that they have time to focus on college applications and essays starting the summer before 12th grade.
Of course, it never looks good to submit an application at 11:59 p.m. the day that it’s due. Don’t let the essay be what’s holding you back.
Plan ahead and give yourself plenty of time to really dive into your college admissions essays. Dedicate a couple hours per week to reviewing and perfecting your writing.
If you want to get a head start on your essays, we offer the APPLY NOW! Boot Camp in which our college counseling team guides students through the college application process. During this four-day event, students work through two edited college essays, an edited personal resume and activity list, and the Common App® and ApplyTexas® application.
2. Avoid Risky Topics
Cliche Essay Topics
Many students tend to write the same type of essay. The three topics we recommend students steer away from are “the Divorce,” “the Disease or Death of a Relative,” and “the Big Game.”
“This is hard to say, but sometimes what’s fresh, raw, and personal to a student has been written the same way a million times,” Steve said.
Receiving advice from someone experienced with the admissions process has its benefits. He or she will identify the types of topics excessively written about by students.
Risky Essay Topics
Young adult and post-modern fiction are crawling with drama-filled, risque stories about sex, drugs, and alcohol. While a teenager may enjoy reading this type of story in his or her free time, a college admissions essay is not the place to experiment with this type of writing.
Your college admissions essay should demonstrate that you’re a responsible young adult. Colleges are not keen on admitting students who are fascinated by the vices of life.
Another topic students should avoid is political beliefs. You don’t want the reader to be affected by his or her own personal opinions when reading your essay. It’s hard to gauge whether someone would agree with you on such a topic, so it’s best to avoid it entirely.
3. Find Your Voice
While students sometimes tell stories the same way, every once in a while a student finds a way to put a new spin on the story.
For example, Steve had a student who originally wrote the typical “Death of a Relative” essay about her grandfather. When they met to discuss the essay, he asked her questions to help spark some meaningful memories.
As they talked, Steve learned that her grandfather used to always take her out for ice cream, but the strange thing was that he would never get any for himself, despite the fact that he loved ice cream.
Steve had a hunch and asked how her grandfather would pay for the ice cream. There was a long pause.
“With coins,” she said. “He made a sacrifice for me every time, and I didn’t even notice…What else have I missed?”
The student went back and rewrote the essay, and it became a really powerful message about how she wanted to live her life differently so that she didn’t miss the beauty in people.
When writing your college application essay, try to find your own voice. This is the part of your application in which you can show a little personality. If you’re a funny person, weave your sense of humor into it. If you’re a deep thinker, find a way to communicate that in your story.
4. Show, Don’t Tell
Steve remembers a student who originally struggled with finding a topic that was unique to her experience. Her first essay draft was about volunteering in a hospital. The teenager wrote a story about getting up early, losing much needed sleep, and finding out she gained more than she gave.
Steve knew that this type of story had been told many times before. So he said, “In my family, when I started doing my parent’s taxes, that’s when they stopped treating me like a kid. How do you become an adult in your family?”
She answered, “When you learn how to cave dive, hold your breath for at least four minutes, and go where the lobsters are; when you can approach a lobster without getting clawed and get to the surface without killing it; and most importantly, when you can prepare it in a way so that Uncle Leonard won’t yell at you because you screwed up a good lobster. That’s when they take you seriously.”
“That’s it. That’s your essay. No one else is going to write that essay,” Steve said.
When you read the student’s response, did you visualize what that process would look like? Many of us have zero experience catching or preparing lobsters, but when the student describes this unique experience, we can picture it.
Use of imagery and descriptive language helps paint a picture for the reader. This tactic can help make your essay memorable.
Later on, an admissions officer at an Ivy League college reached out to Steve to say that she was blown away by the essay. Sharing a unique experience in a way that readers can visualize can really make an impact.
For more tips on deciding what to write about, read “How to Choose a College Essay Topic.”
5. Hook Your Reader
Did you know that the first sentence or two is by far the most important piece of your college admissions essay?
By the time your application comes across an admissions officer’s desk, he or she may have been reading applications nonstop for three months straight.
“At that point, if your first sentence doesn’t grab them, then they’re reading it, but not for content,” Steve said.
Remember, admissions officers spend about eight minutes per application. However, time spent reviewing applications may vary depending on the college. Colleges often use rating systems, such as categorizing an essay as positive, neutral, or negative.
“If you lose them right away, then you have a neutral essay,” Steve said.
6. Stay on Topic
If you’ve chosen to answer a particular essay prompt, make sure you’re answering the questions being asked. Too often, students become consumed in the process and forget to stay on topic.
If none of the specific prompts inspire you, choose one of the open-ended prompts.
For example, one of the Common App prompts says, “Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.”
7. Make Every Word Count
According to the Common App, you should limit your college admissions essay to 650 words or less. Remember, admissions officers spend about eight minutes per application. Essays get even less time than this.
What you write should be concise, so choose every word carefully. If you’re having trouble sticking to this limit, it may be time to consider another topic.
8. Keep Parent Involvement to a Minimum
To some parents, it may be tempting to “help” or even write your student’s college application essays entirely. But this is often a very poor choice.
“Parents, please do not write essays for your kids,” Steve said. “If I can figure it out, then the colleges definitely can.”
A healthy level of involvement is for parents to check in every once in a while and see how a student is doing so far in the process. However, it’s important for a parent to know his or her boundaries. Parents should let their students take charge of their essays.
Admissions officers know that 17- and 18-year-old students write these essays. Do not use the essay to prove proficiency in the English language. Test scores and high school transcripts will demonstrate that. Instead, the essay should show a student’s personality and perspective.
If a parent goes in and inserts more sophisticated language or deletes a student’s voice, it may jeopardize the student’s chances of acceptance.
9. Consider Your Audience
Remember, college admissions officers are the ones that read your essay. Think about how someone in their position may interpret your writing.
One common mistake Steve says students make is they turn their essay into a lecture rather than tell a story.
“I think adults dislike students who pontificate and lecture, but students who tell stories remind adults of why they wanted to work with kids,” Steve says.
As a teenager, you may seem wise when talking to your peers, but to a 45-year-old admissions officer, you may come off as young and naive.
When reviewing essays, admissions officers are looking for a reason to say yes. You just have to give it to them.
“I think what admissions officers hope for is that they get to know someone,” Steve says. “You want their takeaway to be, ‘This is a nice, smart kid who would be an asset to our college.’”
10. Spellcheck Is Not Enough
Spelling or grammar errors in your essay are a no-go.
While admissions officers look for reasons to say yes when reviewing your essay, they’re also looking for reasons to say no. If you have a stellar essay topic, but your grammar and spelling are subpar, your application may move to the rejection stack.
A simple spellcheck is not enough to consider your application clean. You really need to have someone else look at it.
We don’t recommend that you give this task to your peers or parents as they probably do not have experience with this type of essay.
Instead, trust someone who has experience proofreading college application essays (like your high school counselor or a professional college admissions expert).
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