Last Updated: Nov 2, 2020
Year after year, students send me college application essays to review that were written for an English class. Most of the essays earned A’s...but not a single one was ready to submit with a college application. That’s because a college application essay is not an English paper—if colleges wanted an English paper, they would have asked for one. Rather, your college essay is an opportunity to show admissions officers who you really are, how you’ll fit in, and that you can write well enough to succeed at their school.
So forget about rubrics and grades, and ditch the five-paragraph essay format. Just write something genuine, something reflective, something that will make the person reading your essay smile and want to know more about you. To emphasize the importance of writing a new, authentic essay, here’s a story and some tips to help you through it.
The problem with the English essay
Several years ago, I reviewed an essay that earned an A+ and high praise in class from an English teacher by a talented young writer. The writing was gorgeous. He described his love of travel and noted how many multiple overseas trips he took; there were vivid descriptions of buildings and places, emphasizing how much he loved traveling. The sentences flowed; the spelling was perfect; the essay had a beginning, middle, and end. He certainly knew how to write. Yet, while the essay was excellent by high school standards, it lacked reflection and needed more focus to catch the attention of an admission officer.
We helped this student turn his broad story into a more insightful piece about a single night out in Spain when he realized how much culture and community meant to him. Getting there wasn’t so difficult—we used a step-by-step process that helped him reflect and reframe his central story. We had a plan to get it done, and we followed a schedule with deadlines to hold him accountable. In the end, this student wrote in his own words and his own voice and felt confident in his work. What’s more, he landed a coveted spot at his first-choice college, one of the most competitive public institutions in the nation.
5 tips for framing (or reframing) your college essay
Think of that essay you wrote for English class as a first draft for your college essay, just as this student did. A college application essay is an opportunity to share something meaningful about yourself—and it can influence admission committees more than you know. Your job is to write an application essay that colleges will want to read and will help you make an impression on your reader.
After speaking to admission professionals from coast to coast, we’ve found these five tips will help you and your essay stand out:
1. Be reflective in your college essay
Colleges use essays to find out if a student is compatible with the educational environment on their campus. They want to know how a student thinks, what they’ve learned, and how they’ve grown. Will they add value to the campus? Will they fit in? Is their college right for this student? The essay provides admission committees with additional insight to help them make admission decisions.
Whether they work at large, small, public, private, or Ivy League schools, admission representatives tell us time and again they want reflective stories written by the student in their own voice. “Students are often so focused on writing beautiful pieces of prose that they fail to answer the question and don’t write authentic, meaningful personal statements,” says Christoph Guttentag, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Duke University. “The hook gets in the way; the writing gets in the way.”
2. Make sure you understand the prompt
This sounds easy enough, but you might be surprised how often students stumble on this point. Read and re-read the prompt to make absolutely sure you know what’s being asked of you. Shawn Felton, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Cornell University, implores students to “answer the question. Since so many students don’t do that, you could actually stand out by doing that very basic thing.” To really understand what any prompt wants to know, ask yourself: What do you want colleges to know about you that they won’t otherwise know from the rest of your application? Consider your best traits and characteristics, not just accomplishments, experiences, or awards.
If you want readers to know you’re 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 young. Focus on an important moment or a small piece of your experience, then demonstrate why that moment matters. How did your experience change you or prepare you for college? “Students don’t need to compile an entire season into an essay,” says Lorenzo Gamboa, Associate Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Santa Clara University. “Just give us one place, one time, one moment, and that will do it for you.”
3. There is no perfect topic to write about
Every month, I offer a free class for students to help them get started on the college essay; I answer their questions live during the session. Sometimes I get 30 questions, other times 100. No matter how many, at least half of the questions focus on college essay topics. They look something like these:
- What’s the best essay topic?
- What topics should I avoid?
- What topics do colleges like best?
- What should I write about?
- How should I choose a topic?
- What topics get noticed?
- What do I need to do to find a good topic?
The answer is always the same: there is no perfect or worst topic. A good topic focuses on the student, answers the prompt, and shows reflection. A bad topic does not focus on the student, does not answer the prompt, and does not show insight. “Don’t get hung up on the right topic,” says Heath Einstein, Dean of Admission at Texas Christian University. “Most 17-year-olds haven’t scaled Kilimanjaro, so don’t worry about finding an angle that hasn’t been tried before. Write about what you know. If the most meaningful experience to you has been serving as a camp counselor, it doesn’t matter that other students have addressed it. People will try to talk you out of certain ideas, but trust your gut. Ultimately, be yourself, and that will be good enough.” Gregory Sneed, Vice President for Enrollment Management at Denison University, adds, “The topic of the essay doesn’t need to be mind blowing, but if it reveals someone who would be highly valued in our campus community, that could tip the scales.”
4. Be genuine in your college essay
If there’s one thing that turns off admission officers, it’s reading a personal statement or application essay that sounds like an adult got ahold of it and wrote it or added words to it. They’re looking for genuine stories that show something meaningful and sound like the student whose name is on it. Leonard Satterwhite, Senior Associate Dean of Admissions for Washington and Lee University, has read a lot of essays in his decades inside the admission office. He looks for authenticity: “How authentic is the voice in the writing? What issues does the student tackle in the essay? Is the writing memorable, and does it illuminate vividly the student’s personality, perspective, and/or background? Does the writing reveal deep intellect and the potential to be an academic leader at W&L?”
5. Write it yourself
It’s okay to get help applying to college—and it’s okay to ask for help as you’re writing your college essay. But you need to actually write it yourself, in your own words and your own voice. And be careful working with anyone who tells you what topic to select, that colleges prefer certain prompts over others, or what words to use—that advice won’t necessarily be what’s best for the type of story you want to tell. If you don’t write your college application essay yourself or even get too much help, admission representatives will know, and they won’t like it. 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.
So before you use your high school English paper as your application essay, consider this story and these tips. Just because they both contain the word “essay” doesn’t mean these assignments have the same style and intended audience. If you like your English paper, use the tips above to reframe it for a fantastic college essay that’s sure to impress admission committees. Good luck!
For more admission essay help, check out the Application Essay Clinic in our College Admission section.