12 Tips for Writing College Essays


  1. Like a fingerprint, sharing a story from your distinct viewpoint, in a way that no one else could ever write, will leave your imprint and define your essay as yours. You are a one-of-kind original. Take the time to brainstorm topics and ideas you want to share to help the admissions committee see you.

  2. Write in your 17-year-old voice.  While humor can be entertaining, sarcasm and slang do not always translate. Including words and phrases that you use every day, and in ways that you speak, will make your essays sound like you.

  3. Remember who your audience is and think of engaging and inviting them into your world. Admissions representatives are well-read essay readers with limited time.  They’ve read 1000s of essays, so avoid clichés, over-used metaphors, and stories. Do the originality check. If the story you are thinking about writing: a) reminds you of something you have read, b) you heard that a senior two years ago wrote about that topic or c) falls into the ’how you were changed by volunteering on a service trip’ category, think twice about writing what may be a well-worn story.  

  4. Be specific and add details. Make your story tactile (think five senses) so the admissions reader will be drawn in. Writing big ideas can work if you ground them in concrete examples..

  5. Be confident that you can write your essay.  Think of your essay as an interview on paper. What do you want schools to know about you?  While it may take some time and even some coaching or support, the story you tell is the one the admissions representatives want to hear.        

  6. If you need support, get the right help.  Find someone you trust with expertise with the college essay process, who has the time to help -- that could be a high school college counselor, a writing workshop professional, an online essay expert or an essay coach. Determine if you will need one or multiple reviews to make sure you have the support you need and are not left out in the cold in September.

  7. When finalizing your essays, read them out loud, and check for spelling, grammar, and details.  Have someone put a second set of eyes on your essays for spelling, grammar, and sentence flow before you submit.  Spell-check does not catch everything. Typically, most seniors find someone other than their parent to do a final read. 


  1. If you write about a challenge, make sure to shift the focus onto steps you took to overcome or address the problem.  An essay about a challenge is a moment to show your resilience, grit, and character.

  2. Avoid typical tropes: the final seconds in the championship game, writing about a family member (admissions representatives want to know who you are, not Auntie Jo) or even what you learned from Harry Potter.  While Harry Potter books are the cherished book series for an entire generation, tread carefully when choosing how to write about your connection to them whether that be what you learned about raising dragons from Hagrid, or the bias Hermione experienced as a Muggle and how it relates to your life. Writing and defining your perspective in a way that is meaningful and unique is part of the challenge and will ultimately distinguish you from the crowd.

  3. Strong verbs, interesting nouns, a smattering of adjectives, and correct punctuation can create momentum and rhythm in a story. What usually falls flat is indulging in the temptation of the thesaurus. If you don’t use a word in daily conversation, college essays are not the time to insert a $10 word.  The caveat--if you do have a robust vocabulary, corral your desire to build a cornucopia of over-written sentences, and be sure to include space, pauses, and punctuation that lets your reader soak in the complexity of your essay and who you are.

  4. It will be tempting to have your family brainstorm or edit. You live with them. They have known you your entire life. They may remember a particular story that they feel defines you. There are ways parents and family members can support you, but ultimately you should decide what story to tell. This is your essay to write, and your time to shine. Admissions representatives want to hear your authentic voice, not a fabricated or branded version of yourself – and after years of reading essays, they can tell the difference.

  5. While your early-on focus should be on developing your essay, spelling, punctuation, any off-color words can undercut your writing and what you’re trying to say — proof, proof, proof.

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