How to Create an Impressive College Essay

How to Create an Impressive College Essay

Tips from an expert!

Imagine that you are an Admissions Counselor assigned the task of reviewing a large stack of applicant files. You are tired, as you have been reviewing these profiles for days. And you have a deadline, which is quickly approaching.

Each applicant receives a fifteen-minute review before you decide whether to forward the file to the Admissions Committee. What type of college essay would stand out to you and potentially create a favorable admission decision going forward?

Colleges receive a large number of applications; some get as many as thirty thousand applications for a Freshman Class of four thousand. The majority of these applicants either meets or exceeds the Admission Profile. Within this competitive process, applicants need to stand out and the college essay is one area where a student can shine… or not.

Admissions counselors are looking for specific characteristics and seek the answers to these questions:

  • How will this student contribute to our campus, classroom and community? What talents and strengths will they bring and how will they help to create a diverse, well-rounded community? 
  • What unique perspective does this student possess and how is this demonstrated in a creative, well-written manner? 
  • Who is this student? What has shaped them and what inspires them? What are they passionate about? 
  • What sets this student apart from a candidate with a similar academic profile? 
  • Are they successful, focused, resilient, independent, honest, and able to get along well with others?

So, how do you get started? What should you write about and what topics should you avoid?

How to Get Started Writing a College Essay

This is exciting! The college essay provides an opportunity to tell your story and write about what matters to you.

Begin by reviewing the essay prompts and select one that inspires you. Start with a short story about something you experienced that relates to the prompt. Write from your heart, not your mind. Most topics are fine as long as they are uniquely approached. Describe this event using emotions and descriptive details. How did you feel? What did you see, hear, think, or experience during the event? Next, how did it change you or inspire some type of growth? The focus of your essay should be narrow and personal. Grab the attention of the reader and make them want to find out more about you.

Begin by “free” writing; don’t edit or reread. Write anything and everything that connects to the prompt. Put this draft away for a few days and come back to it. Do you like it? What would you change? Keep only what you love. Complete this process again in a few days.

After the second review, continue to keep only the information you like. Demonstrate the way this event and the related feelings defines you and then relate it to other experiences in your life. How does this demonstrate who you are or how you have grown? What did you learn and how does this shape your future decisions? Show, don’t tell. Show by taking the reader on a journey into your mind, feelings and life by revealing the part of you that matters, is unique and is real.

While reviewing your essay, ask if this topic is important to you. Are you the only one who could have written it in this way? Make it personal, deeply felt, and authentic as it exposes the real you in a positive light, not who you think they want to see. An inauthentic voice or story shines through very easily. Remember to have your essay reviewed by a teacher, counselor or parent!

Topics to Avoid When Writing a College Essay

There are some topics that are overused and as Admissions Counselors read them, they describe them as “Another essay on…”

  • How I lost/won the big game.
  • How I made/did not make the team
  • Death of a grandparent or pet (sad, however it is overused) 
  • Reaction to natural disasters
  • Detailed description of a service experience or mission trip
  • Views on politics or religion
  • Any demonstration of illegal behavior
  • A review of what is on the resume
  • The most important person in your life
  • Revealing something too private to write about
  • Boyfriend/Girlfriend relationship issues
  • Discussing works of art or historical events
  • Focusing on your flaws
  • Starting with a famous quote

If you feel inclined to use an overused topic, you must make it your own and showcase it in a unique way.

Tell Your Story When Writing a College Essay

The essay should be a mix of psychology and philosophy. What defines who you are and what do you stand for? What is your personality like and what are your values?

Tell your story in a creative, well-written manner. Take the reader on a journey beginning with a captivating short story to how this impacted your life and finish with an insightful summary. The essay should sound like an intelligent, passionate and authentic seventeen-year old wrote it.

Would you want to be this student’s roommate? Does it sound like this is someone who will bring value to the campus community? Ask yourself if you are proud of the essay and if it accurately reflects who you are – a young adult who is growing, learning and finding your way in the world.

Ask yourself if you would be impressed with this essay if you were on the Admissions Committee. Would you feel it is memorable and moving? If so, congratulations! You have done a great job!


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