Feb   2016



My Top 5 College Admission Essay Tips

Student, Occidental College
Last Updated: Feb 25, 2016

I could not wait to apply to college my senior year of high school. I sped through the Common Application and eagerly answered all the basic questions such as my course schedule and extracurriculars. I made sure to ask my teachers for letters of recommendation within the first week of classes to ensure they would not be bombarded by letters for other students. I was feeling pretty confident about the whole college application process. Then, I finally felt the dread of college essay writing that everyone was talking about: I had to write the personal statement! In addition, because I was applying to private schools, there were several supplemental essay questions I had to fill out too.

Luckily for me, I have always been pretty good at writing; however, the real task was trying to make my application essays stand out while still remaining true to myself. I like to think that these tips on how to write a successful college admission essay did the trick, because in the fall of 2014 I was admitted into a private university that required an extra five short essay responses! By following some of these guidelines, I hope you’ll have a productive college application season too.

Start early

You might think you have all the time in the world to enjoy your summer before senior year, but in the fall, especially as senioritis and other special senior events begin, it will become hard to make time to write your college essays. Starting in the summer prevents rushing to meet deadlines and sending in an essay that is not your best work. And though many students think beginning their college applications in the summer will take away time to do other fun things, writing only a paragraph a day doesn’t take long and can really make a difference (after all, your essays will probably only be a maximum of 650 words)!

Focus on one specific thing

There were five Common Application essay prompts for the 2015­­–2016 school year: a background, identity, or interest with an integral story; a lesson learned from a failure; a time when a belief changed; a problem that would like to be solved; and an accomplishment that marked the transition from childhood to adulthood. These are the same kinds of prompts you’ll find on other college applications too. That’s because they’re broad topics designed to appeal to most students and give them room for creativity. However, they can be so generic that they also lead to the temptation to just simply write out your whole life story. But that’s not what the application essay is about! Instead, focus on one specific aspect—really specific—of your life and personality you feel your college application would be incomplete without. That’s your essay topic.

Mentioning influential figures are fine, as long as you tie the essay back to yourself

A major mistake many students make when writing their application essays is failing to mention themselves when writing about how someone else inspired them. It is fine to talk about how your parent or a famous innovator inspired you to want to study the major you are applying, but don’t fill up the majority of your 650 words talking about all of their accomplishments. Do not use someone else’s life story to convince why a college should accept you as their student; always remember that the essay’s focus must be on you.

Don’t brag about your academics

Don’t mention how many AP courses you took, how high your GPA is, how “advanced” your course load is, etc. The school has your transcript for all of those things. I’ve read a number of personal statements, and I cringed whenever someone simply listed all the AP classes they took in justifying why they would make a great candidate for a particular school or major. The essay is about who you are as a person. It is acceptable to mention a course if it greatly impacted your life, but don’t limit yourself to your academics.

Mention what you can do for the school, not just what the school can do for you

This tip is probably best suited for supplemental essays instead of the more generic personal statement all or most of your schools will see. When answering school-specific questions such as, “What do you plan on getting involved in if admitted into this university?” or “What makes this university stand out to you?” talk about how you will be actively engaged as a member of the college’s community and not just about what the school can do for you. Colleges like to see how you will use the tools they offer to give back to the campus and put what you learned into practice.

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About Naomi Hong

I graduated from Occidental College in 2018 with a degree in International Relations and Japanese and a minor in Economics. I currently work as a concierge/front desk agent at a luxury hotel in Southern California. I am passionate about hospitality and travel and hope to continue my career within the hotel industry. I enjoy writing articles about career advice, studying abroad, and learning new languages. 


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