How to Write an Outstanding College Application Essay

The Essay Could Turn a "Maybe" Into a Defininte "Yes"

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The college application essay is an essential part of the admissions process. However, when Prompt.com reviewed thousands of application essays, the company noticed that the average essay was rated C+.  A report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that grades in college prep courses were the most important factor, followed by admission test scores. However, the application essay was ranked much higher than recommendations from counselors and teachers, class rank, the interview, extracurricular activities and many other factors.

Since the college application essay is so important, ThoughtCo spoke with several experts to discover the best ways to write one that will win over college admissions officers.

Why the College Application Essay is So Important

So many elements are included in the application process that students may wonder why they need to worry about the essay. Brad Schiller, co-founder and CEO of Prompt.com, tells ThoughtCo that many applicants to the same schools may have comparable grades and test scores. “However, the essay is the differentiator; it's one of the few pieces of an application over which a student has direct control, and it provides readers with a sense of who the student is, how the student will fit in at the school, and how successful the student will be both in college and upon graduation.”

And for students with an uneven profile, the college application essay may provide a chance to shine.

Christina DeCario, the associate director of Admissions at the College of Charleston, tells ThoughtCo that the essay provides clues about a student’s writing skills, personality and preparedness for college. She advises students to view the essay as an opportunity. “If your profile is a little uneven, like you’re successful outside the classroom but your grades aren’t quite there, or you’re the valedictorian but you’re not a good test taker, the essay can push you from a maybe to a yes,” DeCario explains.

How to Choose a Topic

According to Schiller, such topics as the student’s goals, passions, personality, or periods of personal growth are all good areas in which to start brainstorming. However, he says that students rarely select topics in these areas.

Cailin Papszycki, director of college admissions programs at Kaplan Test Prep, agrees, and says the aim of the essay is to present the student as thoughtful and mature. “The key is to inspire using a personal story that captures this quality.” Papszycki believes that transformational experiences are great topics. “For example, did you overcome extreme shyness by shining in the school musical production? Did a family crisis change your outlook on life and make you a better child or sibling?” When students can tell a sincere and persuasive story, Papszycki says colleges believe they can bring distinct experiences to the college environment.

Creativity is also a good tool to employ when writing the essay. Merrilyn Dunlap, interim director of Admissions at Clarion University of Pennsylvania, tells ThoughtCo, “I still remember reading an essay about why the orange flavored tic tac is the best tic tac to eat.”

She also recalls an essay that was written when the MasterCard “priceless” ads were popular.

“The student opened the essay with something like:

Cost to visit five college campuses = $200.

Application fees for five colleges = $300

Moving away from home for the first time = priceless

In addition, Dunlap says she likes to see essays on why a student chose a particular field of study because these types of essays tend to bring out the student’s emotions. “When they write about something that they are passionate about, it is in their favor; they become real to us.”

So, what types of topics should be avoided? Schiller cautions against any subject that could portray the student negatively. “Some common poor choices of topics we see are getting poor grades due to lack of effort, depression or anxiety that you have not overcome, conflicts with other people that went unresolved, or poor personal decisions,” he warns.

Do’s and Don’ts to Writing a College Application Essay

After choosing a compelling topic, our panel of experts offer the following advice.

Create an outline.  Schiller believes that it’s important for students to organize their thoughts, and an outline can help them structure their thoughts. “First, always start with the end in mind – what do you want your reader to think after reading your essay?” And, he recommends using the thesis statement to quickly get to the essay’s main point.

Don’t write a narrative. While Schiller admits that the college essay should provide information about the student, he warns against a long, rambling account. “Stories and anecdotes are an integral part of showing your reader who you are, but a good rule of thumb is to make these no more than 40% of your word count and leave the rest of your words for reflection and analysis.”

Have a conclusion. “So many essays start off well, the second and third paragraphs are solid, and then they just end,” laments DeCario. “You need to explain why you told me all the things you wrote about earlier in the essay; relate it to yourself and the essay question.”

Revise early and often. Don’t just write one draft and think you’re done. Papszycki says the essay will need to undergo several revisions – and not just to catch grammatical errors. “Ask your parents, teachers, high school counselors or friends for their eyes and edits.” She recommends these individuals because they know the student better than anyone else, and they also want the student to succeed.

“Take their constructive criticism in the spirit for which they intend - your benefit.”

Proofread to the max. DeCario recommends having someone else proofread it. And then, she says the student should read it out loud. “When you proofread, you should check for grammar and sentence structure; when someone else proofreads, they will be looking for clarity in the essay; when you read it out loud, you’ll catch errors or even entire missing words like ‘a’ or ‘and’ that you didn’t catch when you read it in your head.”

Don’t cram for the essay. Start early so there will be plenty of time. “The summer before senior year can be a great time to start work on your essay,” Papszycki explains.

Use humor judiciously. “It’s fine to use wit and imagination, but don't try to be humorous if that's not your personality,” Papszycki advises. She also warns against forcing humor because it can have an unintended effect.  

Additional Tips

For students who want more information on ways to write a stellar college application essay, Schiller recommends a persona.prompt.com quiz that helps students identify their "personas," and also an essay outlining tool.