4 Secrets to Writing a Spectacular College Admission Essay

Writing a college admission essay can be an anxiety-filled roller coaster of writer’s block, self-doubt, and indecision. A good essay can be the tipping point in gaining entrance into a student’s first-choice school. A lackluster essay can mean that the student’s application gets kicked to the dust heap with other also-rans.

With stakes that high, it’s no wonder that students (and parents) get tied up in knots when it comes to essay writing. But writing a winning college admission essay just takes a huge chunk of time, an equal measure of patience, and understanding what admissions officers look for.

1. Choosing College Admission Essay Prompts

The granddaddy of college admission essays is the 650-word masterpiece that high school seniors submit via the Common Application. For the uninitiated, the Common App is used by more than 750 private colleges (and a few elite public universities) so that a student can complete a single application and then submit it to multiple colleges. Applicants select from among seven prompts, and then get to writing. (Insider tip: the 2018-2019 Common App essay prompts will remain the same as the 2017-2018 prompts; you can find them here.)

There’s a caveat, though (isn’t there always?). Many universities that use the Common App also require supplemental essays. So, although the main essay is critical, the supplemental essays are equally important. By the time a single application is done, the student may write another 650 words – or even more.

Other university systems, such as the University of California, have different essay prompts. And, there are colleges that use their own application portals and require essays with still other prompts. That’s why it’s important for students to have a master list of colleges to which they’re applying, and then to choose essay prompts that are similar across the board. In doing that, they can repurpose one essay for multiple colleges rather than having to write essays on several different topics.

2. Making it Personal

Everyone understands that an essay needs to be personal, but many students make the mistake of thinking that their college admission essay doubles as their resume. Application forms already provide room to detail most or all of the student’s accomplishments, so repeating them in an essay is a waste of valuable space. Instead, a student should personalize their essay by revealing something about themselves and their world that sets them apart. Better yet, tell a story that stitches together various experiences over time into an overarching theme.

Telling a compelling story means being specific. Refrain from recounting that you were a leader; instead, paint a word picture demonstrating how your leadership made a difference. A good place to start is to write out the story – the who, what, and where; the challenge you faced; the steps you took; and what happened as a result. Make sure that the reader feels like they’re walking next to you every step of the way.

3. Starting Early

Students may have discovered that they can write an assigned class essay the weekend before it’s due and be in a great position. A college admission essay is a whole other story. Starting the essay during fall of senior year means the student is behind the curve. Having a working draft completed by that time is more reasonable, but there’s every reason to start even earlier.

High school freshmen, sophomores, and juniors can start working on their essay prompts at any time. It doesn’t matter which prompts they choose to answer; what matters is that they discover that they can be the narrators of their own stories. In the short term, students may end up with essays they can use for scholarship applications (remember, there are lots of scholarships available to ninth, tenth, and eleventh graders). When they do start writing their college admission essays, they’ll be able to use previous essays as fodder, or to map their development over the years.

Even if freshmen and sophomores don’t write essays, it’s important for them to write down their reflections at the end of each school year. They should write down what they learned about themselves, what they learned about human nature, and what they learned that ignited their passion. This helps provide vivid recall when it comes time to find touch points for their college admission essays.

4. Laying the Groundwork

Staring at a blank piece of paper is daunting. Students often don’t know where to start or what to write about. There are a number of activities a student can do to generate ideas. For example, they could ask friends or family members about their recollections of the student, or ask them for adjectives that they think describe the student. The student could take slips of paper and write down people, places, events, and accomplishments that hold meaning for them. They can then pin the slips to a bulletin board and discover previously unseen connections that could be developed into an essay theme.

Sometimes students work best in groups. When this is the case, it can be helpful to gather a group of five or six students who pick essay prompts out of a hat. The students have 10 minutes to write responses to their prompts. Afterwards, the students pass around their quick writes and their peers highlight or mark up the ideas or turns of phrase that stand out. Alternately, the students could respond to other types of prompts, such as, “When have you been a team player?” or “Who is the most important person in your life?”

At the end of the day, words need to get on the page. The first words might not end up in the final version, but that’s okay. If a student sets aside regular 60-minute blocks of time to write – initially free writing whatever comes to mind, later fleshing out their theme, and finally revising and editing – then the essay will eventually emerge.


A counselor once shared a good rule of thumb for college admission essays: the student should be able to drop their nameless essay on campus and have another student walk by, pick it up, read it, and immediately know whose it is. When a student can accomplish that, they’ll have a winning essay.

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About the Author:

Sally Smith is a college and scholarship coach who helps families navigate the path after high school. She facilitates in-person and online group workshops, and provides one-on-one coaching on a variety of topics. Sally can help families gain an understanding of the college selection, application, and decision process; pinpoint scholarship opportunities; write effective college admission and scholarship essays; decipher the FAFSA and CSS Profile; gather stellar letters of recommendation; and develop strategies for college entrance testing and test preparation. To learn more about the services she provides and to schedule a free 30-minute consultation, visit https://www.pathwayscollegecoach.com.

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