Writing application essays is one of the most stressful parts of the college application process. Students are tasked with the job of writing a compelling essay that is authentic and unique while trying to convince a stranger they are worthy of an admit. I have read my share of essays, both good and bad, over the years.
We are now in prime college essay writing time, so I asked some of our former admissions officers (from Williams, Georgetown, Princeton, Bowdoin, Tufts, Columbia, and many more) what works and doesn’t work. Some of their answers may surprise you.
What makes a college essay stand out?
The best essay reflects the uniqueness of the applicant and approaches the topic in an unconventional manner. It should reveal something significant about the student’s experiences, values, beliefs, aspirations, thought process and growth. A predictable essay does not stand out.
Eloquent use of the English language, without an overuse of SAT words no one understands, combined with insights will grab an admissions officer’s attention. The essay should be personal and real and the right dose of humor can also help.
Give us an example of an essay that really grabbed you.
One former admissions officer remembers a student who divided her experience with her 4-H lambs into reflections on the life cycle and four seasons. Her college essay had pithy imagery and revealed insights on her personal growth over a period of seven years.
Another memorable essay was when a student told the story about putting a ping pong ball into a microwave to see what would happen. She described exactly what happened — instead of writing an essay about her love of physics, she actually showed her passion.
What topics should be avoided?
The list includes: deceased relatives, gimmicks, grudges, a sports injury, raging hormones, violence, and anything you wouldn’t want your mother to read. Tread carefully on essays that discuss the “big” game or community service projects that could come off as patronizing.
What makes an essay awful?
Essays written for shock value do not go over well, nor do essays that are full of proclamations, platitudes and/or accomplishments. Students need to appear likeable and show the admissions officers how they can contribute to the school.
What is the worst thing a student can do on an application?
Lying or plagiarizing is the most common answer from our former admissions officers, but sounding arrogant and not proofreading are application killers too.
The application essays are one of the most important components of the college application and can make or break an admissions officer’s decision. The bottom line is that the essay should tell a unique story about an important milestone that shows your growth and aspirations.