What to Know When Writing Your College Admissions Essay

The following piece was written by Zach Kwartler. Zach is a graduate of Princeton University and the Marketing Manager for Story To College, an admissions consulting service. He can be reached at zach.kwartler@storytocollege.com.


Imagine you’re applying to Harvard. You attend one of the top high schools in your area, are ranked in the Top 10 in your class, scored above 700 on all three sections of the SAT, and just returned from a 5-week immersion trip in Argentina. With these numbers, how can you not get into a great college?

Now, imagine you’re on the Harvard admissions committee. You received over 36,000 applications for the Class of 2017 but you can only accept 3,000 students. You have over 6,000 applicants with perfect SAT scores and over 10,000 applicants with GPA’s above 4.0. With these numbers, how can anyone get into a great college?

Your essay is the only way for you to cut through the pile of perfect students and stand out in your college applications. Admissions officers say that most students write generic essays that do nothing to increase their chances for admission. Based on my experience working with hundreds of students on their college application essays, here are a few tips to ensure you write an essay that actually helps you get into college:

Do: Write about a moment of inspiration and what you did with it.

For obvious reasons, colleges want to accept students who are intellectually curious. The best way to demonstrate your intellectual curiosity is to tell a detailed story about a specific moment when you were hooked on the subject matter or the approach to what you were studying. Maybe there’s a quote from The Great Gatsby posted above your computer that you read every day. Write an essay that describes how this quote influences your everyday life.

Don’t: Write a biography of your academic career.

“In ninth grade, I started high school and I had to adjust to the workload. In tenth grade, I started taking AP classes and I really connected with my English teacher. In 11th grade, I buckled down and really improved my SAT score. Now it’s 12th grade and I’m a transformed person.” Does this sound original? No. Many students make the mistake of trying to cram their life story into a 500-word essay. Don’t fall into that trap. Instead, focus on a specific moment from your academic career that shows you learning, changing, or making a difference.

Do: Write about a conversation on the subway.

Imagine you just went on a life-changing summer trip to Argentina. You want to show colleges that you adapt to difficult situations and like taking risks, so you decide to write about this experience. That’s a great idea. To make this work, focus on a specific moment that shows how you connected with a foreign culture. Maybe you were on a crowded subway in Buenos Aires and you spoke broken Spanish with a crazed Argentinean soccer fan. Write an essay that describes how this specific moment changed your view of the world.

Don’t: End your essay by saying “My summer abroad showed me how everyone is connected.”

One of the biggest mistakes students make when they write about a summer experience is telling a long story that starts when they got off the plane and ends when they returned home with a changed worldview. Again, the more generic your story, the less likely it is that a college will remember you. If your goal is to show a college admissions committee that your view on the world changed as a result of your trip, tell a story that shows what you did as a result of your changed perspective. Don’t write a step-by-step summer travel-log with a concluding paragraph that starts with, “This is what I learned in Argentina.”

Remember, you need to stand out on your college admissions essays. To do this, avoid the temptation to write a general story about very broad life experiences. Instead, focus on moments in your life that make you unique. If you do this, you will give yourself the chance to be the one student that the Harvard admissions committee actually remembers at the end of the year.


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The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.