Admission Officers' Secrets to Standing Out in Your College Essay

President, Wow Writing Workshop

A college application essay is an opportunity to share something meaningful about yourself—and it can influence admission committees more than you know!

After speaking to admission professionals from coast to coast, we’ve found these five tips will help you and your application stand out:

1. Make sure you understand the prompt

Easy enough, but you’d be surprised how often students stumble on this point. Read and reread the prompt to make absolutely sure you know what’s being asked of you. “Answer the question,” says Shawn Felton, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Cornell University. “Since so many students don’t do that, you could actually stand out by doing that very basic thing.”

2. Brainstorm ideas

Don’t just dive in and write. Take time to brainstorm alone and/or with a friend, parent, consultant, teacher, or sibling. Just don’t let anyone else tell you what you should or shouldn’t write. Ultimately, the only idea that will work is the one you choose.

3. Stay focused

If you want readers to know you are a hard worker, describe a time when you toiled through the night to hone a project to perfection. If you’re trying to impart your love for the arts, talk about the play you wrote, directed, and starred in with neighborhood kids when you were 10. Focus on an important moment or a small piece of your experience, and then demonstrate why that moment matters. How did your experience change you or prepare you for college? “Focus on a moment you feel has defined you as a person and as a student,” says Tamara Siler, Rice University’s Senior Associate Director for Admission/Minority Recruitment Coordinator. Lorenzo Gamboa, Associate Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Santa Clara University, adds, “Students do not need to compile an entire season into an essay. Just give us one place, one time, one moment, and that will do it for you.”

4. Write it yourself

If you do not write your college application essay yourself, or if you get too much help, admission people will know. They know what a high school senior’s voice sounds like. “You can get help, but in the end, it must be your voice, and a savvy admission officer will know if it isn’t,” says James R. Fowler, Jr., Assistant Vice President of Enrollment at Dean College.

5. Keep it positive

“What message are you sending to colleges if you write about how much you dislike your father?” says Brent Benner, Director of Enrollment Management at The University of Tampa. “If this story demonstrates something positive about you, then use it. But be careful. Every kid has had a hardship, but life is about problem-solving and conflict resolution. I want to read anything that paints a picture of moxie, drive, determination, and courage; those are compelling and tell me how someone problem-solves.”

One thing’s for sure: admission officers don’t want you to write a story about something you think they want to hear. They do want to read a story you want to share.

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