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10 Tips for Writing a College Admissions Essay

Weighted more heavily than ever before, the college essay is essential.

Key points

  • College admission essays are more important than ever before.
  • With most schools now test-optional, it is imperative to stand out in your written responses.
  • Time management skills, brainstorming time, a classic style, and extensive research can help produce a strong essay.

Game on! It’s the fall of your senior year of high school and you are ready to apply for college. Or are you? The process actually begins well before.

Weighted more heavily than ever before, the college essay is essential. With most schools now test-optional and applicant numbers rising, this is one area where you can shine. So, flex – it’s time to show off… but also remain humble. How is that possible? A mix of preparation and strategy.

Based on my extensive experience, here are my top 10 tips to shine through a college essay:

1. Kill Your Drafts. Prepare to compose many, many drafts of the same essay, and don’t ever go with your first one. Prepare to toss out 90% of your first draft. I’m a professional writer, and I never get my first, fifth, or even 10th draft right. Accept the process — no shortcuts. On a first draft, you usually answer the prompt 75% in. Editing is also necessary because you will be repurposing your core essays for multiple schools.

J. Kelly Brito/Unsplash
The first draft is never the right draft. Prepare for an extensive revision process.
Source: J. Kelly Brito/Unsplash

2. Time Management. Set aside chunks of time on weekends and create deadlines for yourself. Hold yourself accountable. It’s about time management — you will need to master this skill to be successful once admitted to college. Think ahead about when you will be busy. The summer between junior and senior years is pivotal. Set your own deadlines and stick to them.

3. Persuade, Inform, Entertain. Admissions officers read thousands of answers to the same essay prompts. Put yourself in their shoes. How can you be memorable? By being different. This means: Get to the point! Tell your story in a self-aware and captivating way. The very first word must be a hook. Application essays are meant to entertain as much as inform, persuade and show off your creativity, intelligence, writing ability, efficiency, and self-awareness.

4. Stand Up and Stand Out. There is no other you. We each have our own stories. So think about the elements in your life that in combination and/or individually make you you. Always show (NEVER tell) your values, grit, and determination.

5. Mentors Are Key. Find a mentor to advise you through the writing process. Even if you are lucky enough to have a college counselor, if you attend a typical U.S. public high school, you are one of hundreds of that particular counselors' students. As much as they love to help you, they just don’t have the bandwidth nor do they have this specific training. (College counseling is an entire industry with countless advisors and price points. So do your research to find someone you can work with well ahead of your senior year).

6. Flex the Brain. Brainstorm exercises are a must to mine your memory for relevant, interesting stories to share. They help you gain the awareness necessary to understand your values, struggles, fears, motivators, and inspirations to share with the admissions committee. What transformative events have occurred in your life? What lessons have you learned? Produce a list of touchpoints that include your favorite quotations, books, classes, foods, and more.

7. Be Active. It will be too late to join a club and become its president in the fall of senior year, so it is important to pursue extracurricular interests well beforehand. Colleges often require an extracurricular activities resume in which you detail:

  • Type of activity (athletics, arts, work, etc)
  • Participation grade levels
  • Timing of participation (during school year, summers, etc)
  • Hours per week and weeks per year
  • An interest for which activities you wish to continue in college

Think of every activity you are involved in through the lens of contribution. How do you contribute to your teammates, team, school, or larger community? And how will this transfer to your new college environment?

8. Have a Timeless Style. The key to entertaining an admissions officer is to create a jazzy, well-paced essay. As you know, we have all lost our attention spans. We quickly flick through shows and have become attuned to TikToks. Don’t let this happen to your application. Have fun with word choice, onomatopoeia, poetic verse, italics, dialogue, zeitgeisty references, made up words, and lyrics.

9. Do Your Research. Figure out the factors that are important (or not) to you: geography, size, areas of study, professor-student ratios, and more. You can read the university rankings but take them with a huge grain of salt. The factors they take into account may not resonate with you. For example, do you care about their athletic facilities? Get in touch with current students and alumni to learn more about the school – use LinkedIn. Of the 4,000+ schools out there, certainly a handful will be the “the perfect fit” for you.

10. Befriend Teachers. Build solid relationships with your high school teachers junior year — especially with math and English teachers who will be writing your recommendations. Create a resume/CV for them so they know who you are outside of the classroom. Teachers can always add a supportive and new dimension to your application that you as the applicant could never capture.

Most importantly, enjoy this process. You are embarking on an opportunity you have been working toward your entire lifetime. Mobilize your resources, roll up your sleeves, and good luck!

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