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Expert Advice: 7 Tips for Writing a Standout College Application Essay

Aug. 15, 2014
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As summer wraps up and high school students start preparing for another year, many rising seniors have something else on their minds: where to apply to college this fall.

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But the college application isn’t only good grades and test scores; most require students to submit one or more personal statements, or essays, that paint a picture of life outside of academics and extra-curricular activities.

Your college application is your chance to shine in the eyes of admissions officers. Preparing well in advance — during the summer — will help you showcase your best self and take your college application from good to great.

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To help you put pen to paper, NerdScholar asked college admissions experts — who have spent countless hours reviewing college applications and personal statements — to shed light on what makes the best college essays.

[Want more career advice? Check out our Job Search Guide for Gen Y.]


1. Think it through.

No matter the situation, the best essays require a bit of planning. Words alone won’t impress your application reader, but the content of your essay should. Susan Hanks, the senior associate dean of admissions at Union College, recommends spending “as much time thinking about your topic as you do writing the essay. Start off by brainstorming about your passions and interests and thinking about what you want the college to know about you.”

2. Brainstorm with family and friends.

Because a college essay should highlight your traits and accomplishments, be sure to spend time coming up with ideas before you begin writing. Close friends and family can help you pinpoint your strengths. Kaitlyn Botelho, senior assistant director of admission at Lasell College, suggests talking with older siblings and parents who, she says, “make great sounding boards during the brainstorming process.”

Brenda Porter Poggendorf, vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions and financial aid at Roanoke College, adds that “parents [especially] love to brag about their children and might add some things a student could overlook.”

3. Understand the college’s values.

The key to writing a standout application essay is to convey how your goals align with the college’s mission. What about you will add value to the campus community and vice versa? Poggendorf suggests asking yourself: “What do they tell you about the profile of their successful students?  What can you address that will let them know how you fit in?”

To answer these questions, Hanks recommends students do some research on the college by “visiting the institution, perusing the college website and the college publications in order to discover what topics the college highlights.” Then, she says, “incorporate those topics into your essays.”

“If students are utilizing the Common Application,” Botelho advises looking to “the supplemental short answer questions to understand what the college values in an applicant. These prompts may elicit a creative response or a straightforward answer. For example, she says, “a college looking for a creative response to a supplemental question will probably appreciate the same from the Common Application prompts.”


4. Include your goals and aspirations.

According to John Chopka, vice president for enrollment at Messiah College, perfect grades and test scores cannot replace a compelling college essay. “Behind all of the statistics and lists of activities and achievements is a real person with goals and dreams. Students who are able to articulate who they are and what they hope to become will catch the eye of an admissions committee,” he says. Chopka further emphasizes how important it is “for students to be genuine and true to themselves in what they present in college application materials.”

5. Make sure the focus is on you.

According to Geoff Broome, director of admission at Albright College, “students often fall into the trap of telling us all about someone who is extremely important in their lives. By doing so we learn a great deal about that person but not about the student that we are trying to get to know.” Although application readers use the college essay to judge the quality of your writing, it is more important to show your ability to self-reflect and your passion for a better education.

“The other pitfall,” Broome says, “is to write about a common topic that is a little cliché. A mission trip or scoring the game-winning goal are very common topics.” Broome recommends avoiding these themes unless you’re able to add a truly unique perspective.

6. Be as descriptive as possible.

College essays should paint a picture of a specific moment in your life, a certain trait you have, or of a life event that means something to you. Be sure to describe the situation so the reader can get to know you, says Florence Hines, vice president of enrollment and dean of admissions at McDaniel College. “Admissions counselors want to know the details of your experiences, not just the facts.”

Though your college essays should be professional, Hines stresses that it’s worthwhile to show your creativity when telling your story. “It’s also OK to incorporate humor if you have used it successfully in your previous writing. However, your college essay is probably not the best venue to try it out for the first time,” she says. 

7. Proofread, proofread, proofread.

As with every paper you write in high school and college, be sure to proofread your college essays before hitting submit. It helps to have others read over your work, too. “I cannot emphasize enough to students how important it is to have a professional proofread their essay,” says Botelho. “The ideas should come from the student, but having a teacher or guidance counselor review your essay to ensure it is clear, concise and free of grammatical errors is invaluable.” 

If you’re considering asking your parents or older siblings to help you write your essays, think twice. According to Broome, “college admission offices are expert essay readers. We know what a high school student essay sounds like compared to an adult.” Remember, this essay should represent who you are and no one else.


Kaitlyn Botelho is the senior assistant director of admission at Lasell College in Newton, Massachusetts. She has been in the admission profession for five years.

Geoff Broome serves as the director of admission at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania, and is a former high school counselor. 

John Chopka is the vice president for enrollment management at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. 

Susan Hanks is the senior associate dean of admissions at Union College in Schenectady, New York, and has more than 30 years of admissions experience at highly competitive institutions. 

Florence Hines serves as the vice president of enrollment and dean of admissions at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland.

Brenda Porter Poggendorf is the vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions and financial aid at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia. She has three decades of college admission experience.


Essay writing image via Shutterstock