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Writing Better College Essays

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

With many schools deemphasizing standardized tests and embracing holistic admissions, essays are generally considered a more important part of the college application. This belief is supported by recent surveys by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which show essay importance in the decision process rising again. With this is mind, we have collected some key thoughts from our recent conversations with admissions officers regarding essay 'best practice':

Regional representatives at more competitive schools increasingly stress the importance of supplemental essays. The general consensus is that while schools do gain information from standard Common Application essays, students should pay particular attention to their supplemental essays. The representatives say that the essays include the additional questions that admissions departments feel they need to ask to make informed admission decisions. Most representatives we speak with feel that students have a tendency to focus less on supplemental essays, a practice that many consider to be the biggest mistake an applicant can make.

In addition to making sure that a student writes to their specific essay prompt, many representatives feel that applicant essays often seem to forget that the point of the essay is to increase the odds of an applicants admission at a specific school. In brief, essays should attempt to make the reader like the student and see them as a part of their school community--any information that takes away from these goals is a distraction.

In terms of making a student attractive to a specific school, representatives feel that most students don't seem to focus their common application essay on their top choice school, or their supplemental essays on the schools they are written for . While we use data scrapes and other methods to uncover the specific values of individual institutions, simply getting familiar with a school's mission by reading key customer-facing portions of its website can make essays more powerful for their targeted reader.

Remember that representatives generally read a large quantity of essays; in fact, many representatives stress that after a day of reading, the personal manifesto of a seventeen-year-old is far less interesting than a good story. While there is no set formula for essays, there is best practice. Writing a descriptive opening that takes the reader to the event of the essay without making its conclusion obvious is a good way to get the interest and attention of the reader. In brief, try to have a 'strong' opening sentence or two--paint a vivid picture for the reader while avoiding 'preaching'.

The applicant should be able to mention a 'self-realization' at the end of the essay, opposed to something learned at the advice of another. Further, it's important to highlight some specific examples of how the lessons learned have affected one's actions. Ideally, these examples highlight other parts of the application, giving the author credibility and providing otherwise inaccessible background. Overall, the essay should display an applicant's 'growth mindset ': an optimistic view of their world and eagerness to enter it.

Beyond these recommendations, we believe that reading the essay aloud and making sure it keeps the listener interested is a sure technique to improve one's essay. All of these suggestions can be undertaken with or without outside help. For those seeking support, we're ready to provide it.


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