10 Tips From the Pros on Application Essays

Last updated on November 15, 2017

There’s no one like you and you’ve known that from Day One. Now’s the time to let that uniqueness shine through to the world! A college essay gives students a chance to show what’s special about their personality, values, viewpoint and experiences.

Here’s what professional writers know about crafting a college essay that will open doors.

1. It’s About “U,”as in Unique

Colleges ask for essays for one reason: they want to get to know prospective students as individuals. Above all, the essay should be a personal statement, not a rehash of other people’s opinions or what your student thinks the college wants to hear.

2. No Lists (Even A-Lists)

List of even top grades and stellar sports records do not belong in an essay. Admissions review committees want a glimpse of a student’s character, not a repeat of information on the application.

3. Ready for Your Close-up?

A narrow focus is better than a broad one. Encourage your student to zero in on one memorable moment or life-changing insight and enrich it with compelling details.

4. Research

All facts must be carefully checked beyond the Internet with a reputable source such as Encyclopedia Britannica or World Book.

5. Read It Aloud

Awkward, unclear language pops out quickly when it’s read aloud. Volunteer to be your student’s audience and constructive critic.

6. Less Is More

In their eagerness to sound serious, many students overwrite. The best writers use as few words as possible to get a point across.

7. Keep It Active

Avoid passive voice, which distances the reader and slows down the pace. Pull people in with strong verbs and an active voice.

8. Me, Myself and I

Bragging will really turn off a selection committee. The most effective essays show some humility.

9. Proofread

Your student should proofread carefully for spelling, grammar and punctuation errors, using a dictionary and a grammar manual. (Spell-checking computer programs can be helpful, but they often miss such typos as “Untied Nations.”) You can help here too, or enlist a friend if you’re not comfortable in the role of editor.

10. Play by the Rules

Every college has its own rules and requirements. Your student should stick to the word length, format and topic suggested by each school.

Take a Look

To get a flavor for the kinds of topics colleges favor, your student might study five essay prompts from the Common Application, a universal form accepted by nearly 450 schools, along with sample essays and critiques.

More samples and tips are available in books such as Peterson’s Best College Admission Essays, On Writing the College Application Essay and Acing the College Application.