What Works for College Application Essays

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Last Updated: Mar 9, 2020

The essay section of your college application can seem pretty intense, especially after filling in the easy stuff like your name, address, and test scores. Where do you begin? What should it sound like? Who can you ask for help? Luckily for you, others have been there before, and we know some experts with great advice on how to get started, so we asked them!

Finding a topic for your essay

“Students say, ‘I don’t have anything to write about.’ Well, they do. They just don’t know where to look,” says Estelle Rankin, co-author of the book McGraw Hill’s Writing an Outstanding College Application Essay and academic consultant for the College Board. She tells the story of one student who was totally convinced she had nothing interesting or worthwhile in her life to write about. But the student had been a dancer since she was three years old, and when she stopped to think about what was most important to her, she came up with this: tap, click, dash! She began her application essay with those words, the sounds of tap dancing, introducing her readers to her experience as a dancer, choreographer, instructor, and volunteer. “Find something small and unique,” Rankin says. “Give us some insight as to what’s important to you,” whether it’s your passion for zombie movies or the way you feel the first day of baseball season. Bottom line? Everybody’s got something!

Interview yourself

A good way to start is to read through all the possible application essay questions, then go with the one that jumps out at you first. Focus on that prompt and forget about the others. (Some schools allow you to choose your own topic, but you can still follow these steps to generate ideas.) Try “interviewing” yourself to find the right life experience to pursue, suggests Rankin. Jot down your thoughts, and look for one particular thing or incident that will grab the reader’s attention—that’s your opening.

New life for overused ideas

There are also plenty of suggestions for what not to write about, like why your mom/dad/sibling/coach/pastor is important to you. Why? Because certain subjects are commonplace and overused, and you want your application essay to stand out. That being said, if the need to address one of those topics is strong enough, or if you have an extremely unique experience, you should trust your instincts.

“I believe that even a trite or overused genre can have a new life if the student writes the essay from a different angle,” says Erika Jeffers, Senior Admission Counselor at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. “When using that experience in an admission essay, students should broaden their scope and try to capture a moment that is rarely visible. Make it personal.”

Related: Application Essay Example: The Surgeon

Writing your essay authentically

There’s no tried-and-true formula for writing the perfect application essay, but there’s one rule that all students should follow in their essays: be true to yourself. “They have to learn to trust themselves as a resource,” says Rankin. “They have the information within them, and they should go with that.” Basically, talk about what you know. If you are naturally funny, infuse some humor into your essay. If a fictional character has had a greater impact on your life than any real person, write about that character. Be genuine, and your personality will shine through the words on the page.

Write an attention-grabbing intro

Before admission counselors can get to know you, the essay needs to grab their attention, drawing them into your story. “Find a clever opening,” says Rankin. “Make the reader want to meet you.” Some of her suggestions include dropping readers into the middle of a dialogue, quoting a favorite song, or issuing a bold statement. However, all of these openings hinge on your ability to relate them to the topic. “Focus on something important, something that gave you insight,” she says, and make sure you stick to it. Take that single idea and fill it out with details, personality, and passion.

Don’t write it like a class essay

You also need to remember that this is not an essay for your English class. It doesn’t need to sound academic; the tone can be conversational or serious or somewhere in between. “Depending on the topic of the essay, it could go either way and either tone is acceptable,” says Jeffers. “Again, it’s about the student remaining true to themselves.” Also, unlike academic essays, you don’t necessarily need to provide a fully formed conclusion. Instead, end the essay with a strong closing statement. It can be ironic, humorous, or poignant—it just needs to lead back to the topic.

Follow the essay prompt

Finally, make sure you truly understand the application essay prompt. Read (and reread) it carefully. Why? Because you need to understand the question to answer it correctly! This may sound obvious, but many students write eloquent application essays that completely miss the mark, bypassing what the prompt was actually asking. For instance, “write about someone who has influenced you” doesn’t mean you’re writing that person’s biography. The essay is still about you.

Related: Unique Ways to Stand Out on Your College Applications

Essay mistakes to avoid

Not surprisingly, mistakes anywhere on your application hurt your chances of getting in. But they can be avoided by proofreading every page, particularly the essay. Rest assured, you’re going to make mistakes in your essay, but that’s what first, second, and third drafts are for. “Sometimes I don’t think students even take the time to go back and reread their writing,” says Ellen Furnari, Admission Counselor at Wells College in Aurora, New York. “Nothing kills a mood like reading a good essay and finding a horrible spelling mistake or a misplaced comma!”

Common mistakes

Common errors include simple grammar mistakes, like the misuse of homonyms, as well as a lack of attention to detail. For example, if you’re going to send the same essay to multiple schools, edit to make sure any reference to College X doesn’t appear in the copy you send to University Y. “I’ve come across several admission essays which state the reasons why that student thinks they will be a great fit for another college,” says Jeffers.

Also, avoid using a thesaurus to fill your application essay with big, “smart-sounding” words. It’s easy to misuse those words, and that’s an immediate red flag to admission counselors. They also know when they’re reading an essay that has been written by someone else, like your parents or English teacher. However, it is okay to have your parents, teachers, or guidance counselor edit your essay. In fact, you should ask them, your siblings, your friends—anyone who knows you well—to read it before you send in the final copy. “The more eyes that see the essay the better,” says Jeffers. But, before passing it on to a trusted proofreader, read the essay aloud; it’s often easier to hear awkward phrasing than see it.

“Your essay should be a chance to let your writing skills shine,” says Furnari, so don’t waste the opportunity! Just remember that even the most ordinary topic can be approached in an extraordinary way. She recalls an application essay that described the student’s love of physics through his love of sledding as a child. Simple and sincere, it was the perfect window into that student’s life. “Ultimately, it’s not what you write about—it’s how you write it that’s important.”

Related: Top College Essay Tips from Admission Insiders

Suggestions for what not to write

Think twice before using any of the following topics, say these experts. They’re overused, and your essay may become lost in the crowd. Remember to write about something that is unique to you and no one else.

  • The Dictionary Essay: This essay opens with a word, followed by the applicant describing the word’s significance, and it always sounds contrived.
  • Parents: Writing about how admirable your parents are is hard to do without sounding generic.
  • Sports: Admission counselors have read every sport disaster and/or victory story out there. They also know you loved your coach.
  • The Recipe: “Two cups enthusiasm, one teaspoon determination, and a dash of dreams make the perfect student.” This is also the recipe for a boring essay.
  • Controversies: Whether it’s the death penalty, war, or politics, people will always disagree about these things; plus, it’s easy to sound intolerant when discussing them.
  • Tragedies: Whether about personal or social tragedies, these essays make it hard for admission counselors to be objective, and they actually tend to reveal very little about the applicant.
  • The Big Question: In this essay, students attempt to answer a broad, profound, but ultimately impossible question, like “what is the meaning of life?”
  • Shameless Groveling: Don’t use your essay to applaud the school you’re applying to, which includes criticizing other colleges to make a comparison.

 For more application essay advice, check out our College Admission section.

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