College essays can be one of the most daunting parts of the application process, but they are also an incredible opportunity to shine. Here is your moment to show a college who you are and what you would bring to their campus. So how do you craft a strong, dynamic essay? We turned to the experts, seasoned college counselors, for their sage advice and the tips that they’ve shared with hundreds of their students over the years. Read their answers below:
Advice from The Experts
“The first step in writing a great college essay is understanding that there is not one type of great college essay! I still remember reading an essay a student wrote about folding soup. Twenty years ago! Since then, I’ve had students write about playing guitar, food allergies, Bubble Tea, scuba diving, working at a farm stand, being the youngest in a family and everything in between. See, there’s not one perfect topic, nor do colleges have a preference for which essay prompt you answer.
Another thing to keep in mind is that colleges and universities are not looking for you to write about something so unique that no one has ever done it. That’s actually kind of impossible. What could you do that no one has ever done? So, take that pressure off yourself. Rather than thinking about how to be the most unique, think about what elements of your life you want to share, ones that might not come through in the other parts of your application. Are you a great problem solver or a critical thinker? Did you learn something from a common experience that others might not have? Do you see the world in a certain way because of your family background or where you were raised? These nuances of your identity don’t come through in transcripts and test scores, but they help admission committees distinguish one student from another.
Once you identify a topic, remember that the college essay isn’t an English paper. Colleges and universities want to see that you can articulate your thoughts well. What they don’t want to see is a formulaic introductory paragraph with three supporting paragraphs and a conclusion. They want to hear your authentic voice in the essay, and that doesn’t occur in a particular format. The essay is formal in the sense that it has a specific place in the review process, but your writing should not be formal. Your essay should sound like you.
Finally, print your essay and read it out loud. This may be the biggest advantage you can give yourself. Not only does reading your essay help you identify typos and awkward wording, it also helps you hear how it will sound to a committee of strangers. Are you communicating what you intended? Would you admit yourself? Do you sound like the kind of student who would make an impact on campus or be a compassionate roommate? Those are the things admission officers are trying to determine.
—Reena Gold Kamins
College, Career & Life, LLC
“Supplemental Essays might be the most important, yet most overlooked and underrated, part of your applications. The main essay, the one you would likely use for multiple colleges through the Common App platform, is often read the least because it goes to all colleges. However, the college admissions staff themselves writes the supplemental essay questions. They really want to know the answers. Many colleges ask the question: “Why do you want to come to ‘insert school’s name here’?” It is very important to answer this type of supplemental essay question very specifically. When you think you have completed the “why” essay, if you could hypothetically replace the name of another college and still have it make sense, you have not done an adequate job. When writing the “why supplements,” you need to mention the college’s specific academic and extracurricular opportunities that interest you. If you were to attend that school, what would you participate in on campus? What classes would you consider? This will demonstrate why you are a good fit for the school, and that is something that admissions counselors consider carefully.
Your responses to supplemental essay questions can distinguish you. If you had visited that campus, check your notes and photos to jog your memory before you begin writing. You can also peruse the college’s website or brochures to learn about special internships, study abroad opportunities, or other interesting programs.”
Madenberg College Consulting
“The admissions dean wants to know about you, not the people and events in your life. In other words, if you write about your dad, or grandmother, or a bike trip through Montana that you took last summer (no matter how dramatic) talk about the person or event in a short paragraph only. Then use the rest of the essay to show what you learned from the person or experience, how you’ve changed because of it. No matter what the question—the who or what has influenced you the most—the task is not to write about the “who” or the “what.” The college admissions dean wants to know what fascinates you about the “who” or the “what.” Your college essay demonstrates how you stand out from your friends and all those other seniors applying to Selective U! Be yourself and go with the essay that has the most “you” in it, not necessarily the most politically correct essay. Trust me. No, better yet, trust you.”
—Joyce Slayton Mitchell
US College Admissions Educator
“It’s important to be authentic, and always to be honest. You might be asked to interview for admissions or a scholarship. You should be able to back up everything you write. Admissions officers are human. They like to learn, laugh and smile just like you do. Your chances of getting your essay past the first reader are better when you can educate, without talking down to him or her, and make them laugh or smile. Admissions officers at a selective school have so many essays to read. They’re more likely to remember the people who make them happy.”
—Stuart L. Nachbar
“Give a snapshot. I work with students to help them show a lot about themselves in one story/anecdote/concept. The essay is not meant to tell a student’s life story from birth to age 17. That would be, well, boring. I encourage students to find their story, whether it is something big or something mundane. ” It is important to tell the college what you want them to know, not what you think they want to hear. One meaningful, poignant, or funny snapshot can capture enough that the admissions team feels like they “get” you and how you would fit into their college community.
Be authentic. Simply put, do not make stuff up or even stretch the truth. A seasoned college admissions officer can sniff that out in a heartbeat. When students try too hard to write about something that they don’t feel connected to, the essay loses its authenticity.
No problems? No problem. Not every student comes to us with a tragedy to write about, and that’s a wonderful thing! Students often feel like if they don’t have a “major” life occurrence to write about, then they won’t stand out as an applicant. But that is not the case. Admissions officers often talk about memorable essays that aren’t about the loss of a loved one or a battle with a life- threatening disease. Sometimes low-key topics are better than tragic ones. I remember working with a student who wanted to write about his fascination with crows. His mom was skeptical, but I convinced her to let him go with it. The essay was well written, and he did an exceptional job of expressing his personality through his discussion on crows. His passion for the subject came through. It was real, authentic, and memorable.
Admit U Consulting
“When writing your college essay, your goal should be to express a strength of yours in an interesting way. Start with a great story! Think about a book or movie that you loved and try to begin your essay with that same kind of powerful opening. You need to relay a great story at the top, one that will captivate your reader and hold his or her attention. Your job here is to create FOMO in your reader. Compel them to read more, to learn about you and why the college or university where that admissions officer works would be missing something without your presence. Most people feel they do not have a great story to tell at first.
In the 12 years that I have been a college counselor, I had only three students who had obvious essay topics when they walked in my door. One was a beekeeper, another was an EMT and the third was a firefighter. Examine your interests and think about a moment in your life that stands out. Analyze this experience and express an important attribute that came out of this event. The personal statement is your chance to sell yourself to a college or university and show what you can contribute. Don’t miss this tremendous opportunity!”
—Esther Wachs Book
College Knowledge 4U
“The personal statement is YOUR story. To successfully convey who you are, reflect on what you’ve done, where you’ve had the most impact, and how you spend your out-of-school hours. Thinking about where and how you dedicate your time and effort is one of the most revealing ways to show your character, passions, and perspective. These are all critical aspects to capture for your essay. The components that help distinguish you, it’s important to tell your story in your unique voice, because your application will be read alongside peers who may have similar backgrounds and experiences. You must share a compelling narrative to make your application more memorable in comparison. At the end of the day, this is a personal statement. It needs to be specific to you. Don’t write about someone else or something that can broadly apply to anyone your age. After you’ve finished your first draft, edit your essay as much as possible to capitalize on this opportunity to set yourself apart. Your end goal should be to come across as an individual who is special, impactful and demonstrates the passion needed to make a difference on a college campus.”
In Genius Prep-Admissions Experts
“What do admissions officials really want to read in a college essay?” I commonly hear this question from high school students and their families. I encourage clients to shift their thinking from what they think an admissions official wants to hear to their unique narrative in the form of a personal statement. All high school students have experienced adversity and successes that have distinctly defined them. Compelling personal statements inform admissions officials about passions and circumstances they would not otherwise gleam from the overall application. The strongest personal statements not only have illustrious descriptions of people, hardships, victories, and life events, but also ultimately describe how those experiences have affected the student’s growth. After all, the personal statement is the heart and soul of a student’s college application, so be sure to tell your memorable story!”
—Jason A. Vallozzi
Campus to Career Crossroads
“The personal statement is an opportunity to give the college admissions information that they haven’t read in the rest of your application. They don’t want a laundry list of your service work or why you love playing soccer, which they can already infer from your activities section. What they do need is a story or a concept that illustrates some key qualities about your personality: your compassion, your resilience or your ability to examine your faults and change for the better. Start the process by listing the qualities that you like most about yourself and brainstorm one or two instances reflecting these elements.
Perhaps you moved through a conflict with a co-worker at your summer job, you have a unique tradition in your family, or you have recently discovered a new talent. Then, free write the piece using our A-List Story Building Arc: situation, reaction, realization. What was the situation? How did you react to it, and what did you ultimately realize about yourself? Don’t worry about the quality of the writing or the word count. The nuggets of brilliance, a sentence here or a paragraph there, will eventually have a shape, and after several edits, you’ll start to see a real draft. But remember, let go of the expectation that your essay has to be a certain way. It doesn’t have to be anything in particular; it just has to be you.”
The A-List Tutoring Services, Inc.
—Liora Yalof and Bonnie Klein started Daytripper University after years of college touring with their kids, and too many bad hotels and terrible meals to count. Happy to relive their Syracuse days, they have been hitting the road spending time on college campuses engaging with students and locals to bring you all the best information to make your college tours fun and less stressful. The website also has numerous resources helping parents navigate the college process. Read more about Daytripper University here.