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What Are Some Cornerstones of a Good College Application Essay?

Knowing exactly what makes a college application essay "good" is key to knocking yours out of the park. Here's some advice to get you started!

Kim LiftonKim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop
A good college essay can help you get accepted, but a bad one can sometimes prevent it. That’s why it’s important to do it well. A good college application essay:

  • Will always answer this question, no matter what the prompt: “What do I want this college to know about me beyond my grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities?”
  • Will be a story about you that is focused, not broad. The subject is you; the topic of the essay is secondary. You can write about any topic as long as it answers the prompt and focuses on you.
  • Will be about something meaningful.
  • Will focus on what you learned from the experience discussed in the essay, not only what you did. Reflection is more important than the experience on its own.
  • Will sound like you (not your parents or anyone else): a smart 17-year-old high school student who is ready for college!

Jon FrankJon Frank
One of the biggest misconceptions in the college application process is the idea that great writers have a big advantage over everyone else. Thankfully, this isn’t true; after all, we aren’t all applying for graduate programs in creative writing! The real key to a great college essay is having great, meaningful experiences to draw from. Compared to that, writing the essay is the easy part. Once an applicant has a handful of great stories (we call them “greatest hits”) in hand, the following three keys will ensure top-notch essays:

  • The essay is personal. A great college essay should share something about you that only close friends and family know, perhaps even stories that (were you to share them with some friends) might make you feel somewhat uncomfortable. This isn’t the time to be shy.
  • The essay is creative. This is your chance to show that you are not like (millions of) other college applicants. Perhaps an unusual introduction, an unusual format, an unexpected perspective—always demonstrate your ability to think outside the box.
  • The essay shows leadership and initiative. Colleges seek graduates who will have a lasting impact on the world. And it is leaders who affect the most change. Ideally, applicants can include some leadership abilities or successes in college essays as well.

Need more help writing your admission essays? Check out our Application Essay Clinic articles.

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