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7 Important College Application Essay Tips

December 15, 2008 By: Category: College application essays, Get into College

You have consulted everyone, right? You have asked your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, classmates, teachers, siblings, coaches and confidants to find out what you can do to make your college application essay(s) stand out. You don’t know where to start, how to narrow your options, whether you should try to make it funny or academic— or both? First of all, stop talking to everybody else. They will only plant seeds in your mind that may lead to an eventual writer’s block. I see it every year. This is a personal essay. It’s you. However, the essay is the most important aspect of any college application, so you must execute it well. If there are a few basic pointers that I could give any high school senior they would be:


Photo by Bright Meadow

  1.  Give yourself something to start off with. Invent a first line and it can be as boring as, “The paint on the wall hadn’t been redone since I moved into this room . . .” or something more forceful, “I found myself in the middle of this party, alcohol was all around me and I had an interesting decision to make” . . . .  You can even start with a quote (although I would advise against using something a bit too cliche (i.e. no Robert Frost, Dr. Seuss, Benjamin Franklin, etc . . .). Just get started with something and see where it can take you. You may end up getting a great essay out of it and then scrapping the opening line in the final edits. Who knows? Give it a shot.
  2. Remember that college admissions counselors read these essays. These are men and women who, more often than not, read college application essays for a living. They are closer to your age than they are to your parent’s. They are getting a little tired of reading the same old story about learning patience from a broken leg or community service by building a house in Costa Rica or the meaning of life from a family member’s death. Certainly these are all possible college essay topics and they could work, but if that’s your basic premise, you’re in trouble. Although these events are certainly significant, many have broken a bone. Many, also, have volunteered. Too many have experienced tragedy. Strike them with something shocking, interesting, innovative, or even just a good story.
  3. But to do any of this, you have to write it well. If they don’t get your humor, sarcasm, dialogue or metaphors, you’re likely to be in for a disappointing piece of mail. You must write it well. Try short sentences. Use your own vocabulary. Express yourself- and do it clearly. I always tell students that I don’t care if they write about staring at a goldfish swimming around in a bowl, just as long as they transport me with their words to help me imagine their experience.
  4. Write formally. Do not write like you speak. Don’t use “I feel” when you really mean, “I believe” or “I think”.
  5. Embrace the creative freedom that you are given. Even on supplemental essays that only allow a very minimal amount of space, you can still create something entertaining and compelling.
  6. Which brings me here, if you try to write an essay for the person reading it, you’re going to be just another one of the masses. Remember, your job is to explain why you’re different from all those other applicants who share similar GPA and SAT/ACT scores. If you’re writing to please someone else, that’s going to be very obvious. This comes back to my first recommendation. When others read your essay, don’t let them deter you with comments like, “are you sure you should write that?” or “Do you think they’ll like that idea” or, my favorite, “that seems a little risky”. Ahh, RISK! This is what the whole process is about: taking risks. Right? Now if somebody remarks that your grammar is poor or they are having trouble understanding what point you’re trying to make, then you should reassess. But if risk comes through to those who read it, I think you’re on the right track.
  7. Get someone who has some relatively recent experience who can objectively read your essays and help you brainstorm if you need it. You can always write or call me. Visit my blog,, if you’re looking for some experienced, honest feedback!

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