Tips for Writing a Great College Essay

Tips for Writing a Great College Essay

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Show that you belong at the school of your choice

Everyone dreads writing the college essay, but it’s actually a great opportunity to show who you are and why you belong at the school of your choice. Standard applications are based on test scores and grades, while with your essay, you can distinguish yourself from the crowd.

Over the past two decades, I’ve helped hundreds of students with their essays and can still remember the best and the worst. Along the way, I have seen which essays were most successful and which were not. Remember, admissions officers read thousands of essays. They’re tired, and they’ve seen it all—the good, the bad, and the weird—so let’s do this!

The basics

The summer before senior year of high school is an ideal time to pick your topic and start crafting a great essay, but if you aren’t ahead of the game, don’t despair. At the most fundamental level, your essay needs to answer four questions:

  1. Did you follow the guidelines?
  2. Have you conveyed who you are, aside from what’s clear from the other portions of your application?
  3. Would you make a positive contribution to the college community?
  4. Are your reasoning and writing skills at college level?

These four requirements are just the bare minimum you should hope to achieve. Have fun with the first draft, and write from the heart. Showing passion and humility will make your essay memorable for the right reasons.

Choosing your topic

Sometimes colleges give applicants a specific topic to write about, but often the guidelines are broad enough that you must choose the topic yourself. I’ve seen many students get overly stressed about topic choice, so here are some hints that might help you avoid writing a cliché essay that will bore the reader. For those of you who are gifted writers, feel free to break some of the rules; but for most students, these tips will prove useful:

Share something they don’t already know about you. If you get straight A’s and are in the honor society or play a sport, avoid rehashing those achievements in your essay. Admissions folks are easily bored by essays that list accolades because they see them all the time. Instead, engage them with something unique and original. Be sure to tell a story, make a point, and have a clear focus. One of my favorite essays was by a young woman who raised chickens and sold their eggs to help with the family finances. She’d complained to me that she had nothing to write about. With a little probing, I learned her backstory. What’s yours?

Avoid inflammatory topics. Don’t risk getting the reader hot under the collar by writing about religion, politics, sex, drugs, or anything else that might alienate. Bluster and strong opinions are risky. Don’t use profanity or promote illegal activities.

Share a challenge without melodrama or self-pity. Have you been through challenges that affected your grades or your ability to excel in school? In your essay, you can give more information about this challenge, but be careful not to make it a pity party.

Use caution when writing about travel or volunteer experiences. Reading an essay about where you went, what you did, and what a good person you are can be quite boring. This type of essay is effective only if you have a deeper story to tell, such as a mistake, challenge, or lesson that incorporates rich details of the landscape or the people.

Write about culture and identity with sensitivity. Not every reader will be amused if you write in a stereotypical way about yourself, your family, or those you’ve met. Avoid mockery and easy conclusions.

Don’t write about a grievance or a grudge. Although writing about someone who did you wrong might make for a passionate essay, you risk seeming like the kind of person who has trouble bouncing back from challenges and who won’t add value to the community.

Stay away from the un-essay. Feeling hampered by the requirements and tempted to write a stream-of-consciousness narrative or try your hand at pure sarcasm? Don’t. Acting too cool to write a real essay might turn off the reader. Those essays rarely work.

Avoid overdone topics. Admissions officers see the same topics again and again. Please don’t write about your pet, unless it’s a sled dog that helped you win the Iditarod. Heroism essays, such as scoring that final touchdown or raising lots of money to help the homeless, can also fall flat. Be humble and thoughtful rather than self-promotional. Another tired topic is “The most important person in my life.” Your mom or coach might actually be awesome, but an essay about either one won’t reveal enough about you unless you craft it very carefully around a specific shared experience.

Engage the reader with strong writing

Nothing ruins a great topic more than weak writing. Here are 10 tips to ensure your writing is at its best:

1. Grab them with the first sentence. This sentence sets the tone and needs to be perfect.

2. Avoid passive and wishy-washy language. Phrases such as “stories were shared” (Who shared them?), as well as “sort of” and “or something” will weaken your essay.

3. Vary sentence length. To keep from sounding like a robot, pay attention to the rhythm of your writing. Strive for a combination of short and long sentences.

4. Don’t start every sentence with I. A string of sentences beginning with I is monotonous and risks sounding self-absorbed. This is something I’ve seen too many times.

5. Stay away from vague, imprecise language. Watch out for vague words such as things, aspects, endeavors, abilities, and society. Pull the reader in with vivid, descriptive language that draws on all the senses.

6. Use strong verbs and avoid adverbs. It’s fine to use adverbs in your rough draft, but then be sure to cut, cut, and cut some more. Let a variety of verbs do the work instead.

7. Nix the clichés. Clichés are off-putting because they lack originality and we’ve heard them too many times. Phrases such as “that’s the way the cookie crumbles,” “one in a million,” and “to make a long story short” will hurt your essay.

8. Edit filler. Do two sentences essentially say the same thing? Ditch one.

9. Use interesting adjectives. Descriptions such as nice, pretty, and good make the reader worry about your limited vocabulary. Use strong adjectives that a reader will find interesting.

10. Don’t show off with “big words.” That said, I’ve read too many essays where it’s obvious that the writer used a thesaurus just to try to impress the reader. If you are an artist who is writing about a particular painting, then cerulean may be the best choice; if not, then maybe cerulean shouldn’t end up in your essay.

The final stretch

If you’ve written a draft of your essay and applied all 10 tips, let your essay sit for a day or two. Then read it out loud to hear if it flows and makes sense. It’s common to find errors once you give the work a little distance.

Then fix your errors and have someone other than a parent or a teacher read your essay. Don’t tell this person anything about it in advance. After he or she has read it, ask what idea comes across and make sure it’s what you were striving for.

If it sounds good to your ear, an outsider understands it, and you followed the tips, you should now have a winning college essay.

Congratulations, and good luck!

Have you read 100 Tips for Getting into the College of Your Choice?

Dr. Marika Lindholm founded to ignite a social movement of Solo Moms. A trained sociologist, Marika taught courses on inequality, diversity, and gender at Northwestern University for over a decade. After a divorce left her parenting two children on her own, she realized Solo Moms lacked much-needed resources, support, and connection. She built her social platform, Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere, out of this combination of academic and personal experience. Marika is also the coeditor of We Got This: Solo Mom Stories of Grit, Heart, and Humor, a frank, funny, and unflinchingly honest anthology—written by 75 Solo Mom writers, including Amy Poehler, Anne Lamott, and Elizabeth Alexander—that celebrates Solo Moms: their tenacity, courage, and fierce love for their children. Marika can be reached at

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