Student College Application Essays Tips
Here’s a brutal truth about applying to college: On paper, most teenagers are not very unique. Some three million high school graduates send applications into universities every single year, and that’s just within the United States. Seasoned admissions officers—particularly at elite schools—know how to spot cookie-cutter applicants and toss them into the reject pile in seconds.
Luckily, you do get a modest chance to distinguish yourself. Universities in the US and across the world are increasingly looking away from test scores and grade point averages and toward one particularly unique component of students’ applications: the essay. If done exceptionally well, it’s a catapult to an acceptance offer. So what exactly is the best way to sell oneself to Harvard in a thousand words or fewer? Reporters and editors across Quartz’s newsroom have come together to offer some foolproof advice.
Forget “writing from the heart”
Parents and teachers will often tell students who are just starting out on their essays to “write sincerely,” “write about your feelings,” “write about what matters to you.” That advice, while well-intentioned, is not helpful. An essay can be completely heartfelt—and terrible.
Instead of starting from such a broad place, begin with the narrow strategy of researching the worst college-essay clichés; that way, even if you don’t have the faintest idea what to write about, you at least know what you have to avoid. Examples of hackneyed essay characteristics that immediately make admissions officers roll their eyes include:
- Dictionary definitions (“Webster’s defines ‘courage’ as…”)
- Epigraphs or references of famous writers (“It was the best of times…”)
- Sound effects (“Whizz! Snap! Whew! went the rocket that I built…”)
- Sentences that are just strings of SAT words (“The fortuitous phenomena that transpired on the fortnight of…”)
- Overused metaphors
- “Let me tell you a story”
- Repeating information from other parts of your application, i.e. re-listing all your extracurriculars
- Talking about the university instead of yourself
- Over-using passive tense, instead of telling an engaging story
- Sticking too close to the prompt (“A time I overcame an obstacle was when…”)
Don’t be interesting. Be interested
Now, what to write about? Essay prompts are intentionally open-ended, and there are several ways to go about choosing a topic. Here’s a nearly foolproof one: Write about a person, place, or idea that you genuinely—perhaps to the point of geeky, nervous-laughter embarrassment—love.
“Write about what you’re interested in, not what you think is interesting about you,” says Quartz lifestyle reporter Jenni Avins, who wrote about her part-time job in high school making crepes in a coffee shop: “I was really interested in the people who came into this creperie, and this little world. It was an observational piece about having this window on a community.”
But this doesn’t mean you should ramble on pointlessly for five paragraphs. Make sure your topic reveals something about yourself, or why you want to study and pursue the things you do. Jenni’s essay highlighted her curiosity toward others. Quartz science editor Elijah Wolfson wrote his essay about pizza joints in New York—but it was really a tale of moving across the country and coming to terms with loss.
Yale’s dean of admissions Jeremiah Quinlan told Quartz last year that the university is explicitly “looking for passion” in the kids it admits; you can bet that the admissions offices at Stanford, MIT, and other top-tier schools are hunting around for the exact same. Don’t worry about your topic sounding too boring or pretentious—the raw emotion underneath matters more.
Pull out unflattering memories
It can be instinctive to paint the best picture of yourself possible in your essay, but put aside vanity and pride for a moment. You’ve already spent the rest of your college application flourishing your immaculate GPA, club leadership, and volunteer work. Oftentimes, the most powerful essay topic is one that lets some of your imperfections seep through.
You can start by thinking of a time that you struggled, made a mistake, or were embarrassed. Quartz technology reporter Mike Murphy, for example, wrote his essay on being stranded at the bottom of the Grand Canyon as a kid. He begins by setting up the scene: “I’m sorry, but 3:30 a.m. is never the same as 4:00 a.m.” He goes on to explain how he and his relatives were accidentally separated on the trip, walking the reader through the challenges he faced on his way back to safety, and ending on a tone of humility and lesson-learning.
Good essays don’t all need to hype up an applicant’s superpowers: They can expose weaknesses, demonstrating subtlety and self-awareness.
Tell a story—however you want to
When it comes to the college essay, taking a risk—however small or big—is better than playing it safe. Try writing different versions of your essay, maybe in completely different formats, just to see if one of them resonates more than the others.
“Admissions officers have to read so many essays that physically look the same. An essay that stands out is simply more memorable,” says Quartz growth editor Jean-Luc Bouchard. “I wrote a series of thematically linked poems for my admissions essay, and even though the poems were probably pretty bad, I think I got points just for trying something different.”
You may recall the news this spring about Ziad Ahmed, a student who got into Stanford by writing “#BlackLivesMatter” a hundred times on one of his essay prompts. Such ventures may come off as gimmicky—and we certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone repeating this exact idea in a future year—but they’re effective at one thing: grabbing the reader’s attention. Ziad, who had interned for Hilary Clinton and was recognized by Barack Obama at a White House dinner in 2015, was already more than qualified. What his essay did was make admissions officers pause in their tracks for a moment, and peer a tad more closely at the rest of his application.
Tinker with your essay. Think of it not as an essay in the academic sense, but an unlined blank canvas you can use to present whatever you want. That said, no sound effects—please.
Run your essay through spellcheck. Ask a teacher, friend, parent, or counselor to read it over—then ask five more people to do the same. Admissions officers barrel through dozens of essays a day, and the rote tedium of it can cause them to be hyper-critical of even the smallest of typos and grammatical errors. Show them this small respect, and you’ve already beat out many others kids for that coveted acceptance letter.
Read this next: How to go to college for free in America
Top 10 Tips for College Admissions Essays
In the admissions process, US colleges and universities generally use three criteria for determining which students to accept and which to reject:
- Previous coursework – your college preparatory work and grade point average (GPA)
- Standardized test scores – SAT and ACT are the two most respected.
- Admission/Entrance essays
Of the three criteria, the college entrance essay provides you with the greatest opportunity to distinguish yourself from your competition and show off the person behind the statistics. This article will help in writing a college essay and help you boost your chances of being accepted by an American university or college
Section 1: Planning Your Essay
Tip #1: Understand the Admissions Board Psychology
When you have compiled all the pieces of your application and sent it to the college/university of your dreams, all of your hard work gets placed in a pile with hundreds of other applications. Then a small group of admissions officers will review each application, looking over the scores and coursework and reading the college application essays.
The key to convincing the admissions officers is in understanding what they are looking for. They want students who will:
- Succeed once they are admitted;
- Contribute to the educational experience of other students; and,
- Bring honor and prestige to the university once they graduate.
In your college admissions essay, you want to portray yourself as a student who will meet those needs. Of course, the specifics of what qualifies as “succeed” or “bring honor” will depend a bit on the particular university, but all admissions officers share these three goals.
Before you write your college admissions essay, take a few minutes and jot down some answers to the following questions:
- How can I reassure the admissions board that I will succeed in their school?
- How will I show that I am determined and ambitious; that I will not get poor grades or drop out?
- How can I contribute positively to the educational experience of other students?
- How might I bring honor and prestige to the university?
- What are my long-term goals? Might I win an award someday, or start a business, or improve a scientific process?
Your answer to these questions will help you frame the content of your essay.
Tip #2: Determine Your Essay Goals
Along with the three questions above, you should contemplate how you want the admissions officers to perceive you. After reading your college admissions essay, what should they think of your personality and activities?
Most students want the college admissions board to view them as responsible, dependable, and academically ambitious. These are excellent essay goals, but you should also consider the essay in relation to your classwork. If your classwork already shows that you are studious and determined (because you have taken a wide variety of advanced classes), then you may want to highlight another feature of your personality.
Along with developing an image of your character, writing the college admissions essay allows you to feature other aspects of your life that are not reflected in your pre-college coursework. Some aspects to consider:
- Have I worked at an interesting or relevant job?
- Do I belong to any clubs or organizations?
- Have I demonstrated leadership or teamwork?
- Have I demonstrated compassion or community-responsibility?
Tip #3: Distinguish Yourself from the Other Applicants
This bit of strategic thinking should be fairly easy. As an international student, you by definition are different from the bulk of American citizens who apply to American universities. However, it is not enough to simply say, “Well, I’m not from around here.” Instead, you need to reference the strengths of your home culture. You don’t need to elaborate at length; a sentence or two should be enough to ensure that the admissions board pays attention to you.
Remember that you are more than just an international student from an interesting background; you are a complete person with a lifetime of experiences. You should take some time to think about what else makes you different from most the other hundreds of students writing college admissions essays. Add those features (plays piano, excellent at football, speak five languages) to your growing list of essay goals.
Tip #4: Contribute to the University
Remember that one of the goals of the admissions board when reading college admissions essays is to find students who will enhance the educational experience of other students. In other words, how can you contribute to other students’ learning? As with tip #3, you already have an edge by being an international student.
One of the general goals of education is to broaden people’s experiences, so that they come to realize the limits of their own intellect, and then grow beyond those limits. As an international student, you offer other students an opportunity for cultural diversity. As with Tip #3, it is not enough to assume the college admissions board will recognize this benefit. You need to highlight it in your essay. Again, a sentence or two should be enough to accomplish this goal.
Again, remember that you are more than just an international student. You have so much more to contribute to the campus social and learning environment than just your home culture. Take a few moments to consider what else you may contribute.
- Maybe you are excellent at study groups or other forms of collaborative work.
- Maybe you will join a student organization or athletic team.
- Maybe you will write for a student newsletter or blog.
Whatever you feel you can contribute, add that to your list of essay goals.
Tip #5: Understand and Answer the Essay Prompt
At this point, you’ve come up with more ideas than you can possibly fit into one essay. Now you need to focus your goals to only three or four ideas – the ones that will make you the most attractive to the college admissions board. No matter what the prompt asks, you want to ensure you include those three or four ideas in your college admissions essay.
The concept is to present a few ideas very well, rather than list all your ideas poorly. A narrowly focused essay will be much more effective than a general, vague one.
Reading and answering the prompt may seem a bit obvious, but it’s often the obvious that people ignore. You should take the time to read and re-read the essay prompt, so you can answer it fully. Don’t be intimidated; unlike some college exams, the college application essay prompt is not designed to trick you. However, you must demonstrate that you can read and follow directions. Think of that great pile of applications. The admissions officers are looking for a reason to disregard candidates. Don’t let them reject you because you hastily overlooked a sentence in the essay prompt.
On the other hand, the prompt is designed to give you some freedom for creativity, which will allow you to work in those three or four key ideas that you have developed through tips 1 through 4. You are encouraged to find novel ways of answering the prompt, so long as you do indeed answer the questions provided.
If you need more help choosing a topic, you can find some tips on our Choosing a Topic for Your College Essay page.
Section 2: Writing Your Essay
At this stage in the college admissions essay writing process, you have considered the goals and psychology of the college admissions board. You have produced a list of ideas/attributes/details about yourself that colleges will find appealing. You have narrowed that list to the three or four most important ideas – the ones that will get you into your preferred college/university. Now it is time to actually write the essay.
Tip #6: Write with Specific Details
The key to excellent and memorable writing is to write in fine detail. The more specific your essay, the stronger an impression it will make on the admissions board. If you are trying to show that you are a dedicated scholar, don’t write: “I never missed an assignment deadline, no matter how poorly I was feeling the night before.” Instead you write: “In my junior year, I came down with a terrible case of pneumonia. Despite having a 103 degree fever and being required to stay in bed, I still completed my draft speech on the possible impacts of global warming on agriculture.” The latter will make a stronger impression; and people vote for the people they remember.
As you are writing your essay, ask yourself:
- Is there a specific instance or example that shows this?
- Can I add imagery (colors, shapes) to make it more interesting?
- Can I replace general nouns (“class” or “car”) with something specific (“Honors Geometry” or “Honda Civic”)?
You may be thinking, “I don’t really like to boast about my personality; I prefer to let my record speak for itself.” While you should try to avoid sounding too arrogant, the college application essay is not the time for modesty. The admissions officers are expecting you to celebrate yourself, to underline your strengths and personality, so they can make a quick, accurate judgment about you.
Tip #7: Demonstrate College-Level Diction
Diction (word choice) is the fundamental structure of writing. Your word choice reveals a great deal about your personality, education and intellect. Furthermore, as an international student, you want to reassure the college admissions board that you have an excellent command of the English language (remember: they want you to succeed; they need to know that you can actively participate in English-only instruction).
With this in mind, you should replace lower-level words (bad, sad, thing, nice, chance) with higher-level words (appalling, despondent, phenomena, comforting, opportunity). You might consider looking up SAT/ACT vocabulary words and working a handful of those into your essay.
You should also remove any slang or casual diction; the university is not interested in casual language in their admissions essays.
Tip #8: Demonstrate College-level Style
An American proverb states, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” In other words, you want to present yourself as being ready for the next job. In this instance, you want to show that you already have college-level writing skills. So, in writing your college application essays, you should write with the following features in mind:
- Write primarily in complex sentences, rather than simple or compound sentences;
- Include figurative language such as a metaphor, a simile, personification; and
- Include a trope or scheme, such as chiasmus, oxymoron or anaphora.
As with tip #7, this serves two functions: 1) it distinguishes your essay from those that are poorly written; and 2) it reassures the admissions board of your excellent command of written English.
Tip #9: Have Someone Proofread Your Essay
This is one of the most important tips on this list. Everyone who writes knows that the words in your head don’t always make it onto the page the way they should. Because you know what it should say, it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking the essay says something that it doesn’t. For this reason, you should ask a friend or a relative (or an English teacher) to look over your essay and check your:
- Grammar: did you write in complete sentences? Do all your subjects and verbs agree?
- Diction: are all the words used properly for an American audience?
- Organization: have you grouped sentences together coherently?
Tip #10: Pay Attention to Deadlines
College admissions essays require a tremendous amount of work. As you work and rework the essay, pay attention to the admission deadlines and requirements. Every school has their own system for how and when to file your application. Do not assume that, because one school uses e-mails and PDFs, that another school does as well.
The best way to stay organized through the college admissions process (and at the university when courses begin) is to rigorously maintain a calendar that includes:
- Final deadlines
- Reminders of upcoming deadlines
- Process deadlines (breaking larger tasks into smaller steps)
Bonus Tip: Post, but Don't Panic
At some point, you will file your college admissions application. After you post it, please don’t panic. With these tips, and your determined intellect, you have an excellent chance of being accepted to an American university.
Take a look at our college essay samples to get an idea of what colleges are looking for in your essay.