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5 Pro Tips for Writing Successful College Application Essays

In this article, we provide expert tips and tricks to help you craft a compelling and memorable college essay. From brainstorming to proofreading and editing, here are ways to write a winning essay.

By Susie B.

February 3, 2023

Admissions committees are often tasked with differentiating amongst highly-qualified applicants who all meet or exceed the minimum academic, work, service, and extracurricular requirements. Additionally, most universities are not currently using test scores in their admissions decisions. In this reality, application essays become a defining factor when making final acceptance decisions.

As a professional college admissions coach with over 15 years of experience, I've reviewed thousands of students' essays. Here are a few of my proven strategies for those currently going through the application process. They will help you craft a compelling, articulate narrative and allow you to stand out from the many other applicants.

1. Take advice from the university’s enrollment services

The university’s enrollment services website has important information and advice. Don’t start writing your essays without carefully reviewing all the information the university has provided. Without understanding this, your essays could completely miss the mark and possibly put you out of the running for admittance.

2. Learn about the university's mission, principles, values, and vision

Your essays should correlate with the university’s stated mission, principles, values, and vision. Take the time to carefully read and learn what’s important to the university. Once you understand this, the most important thing you can do before you start writing your essays is to spend time reflecting and writing down ideas about how you relate and/or how you connect with the university’s goals.

Record specific examples of people, places, experiences, journeys, responsibilities, and so forth. Think of examples that demonstrate your experience with the university’s goals and/or how you value the goals. Consider how their goals align with your experiences and values. You should be able to demonstrate why you belong at that specific institution versus the many others out there.

3. Be genuine and unique in your essays

Your essays are the main way that the university gets to know you more on a personal level. This is done by writing compelling personal narratives that are unique and genuine.

After generating ideas about how you connect with the university’s goals, spend time brainstorming story ideas for the prompt(s). Think of events from your life that highlight the genuine "you" and that are unique to your experiences. You want to stand out, not blend in! Next, spend plenty of time identifying details and outlining your stories.

Here are some best practices to use as you brainstorm for story ideas:

  • Identify recent experiences (middle school and beyond are almost always best) that were important in shaping your values, spirit, character, perspectives, convictions, and contributions.
  • Be vulnerable. Tell the real stories. A manufactured "happy ending" isn’t what admissions officers are looking for. Life is complicated, no one gets it right every time, and not all stories have satisfying endings. What is critical is that the story is about you: your journey, your growth, and your transformation.
  • Use vivid details and engaging characters to make your stories memorable and poignant. Your stories can be far deeper and more nuanced than you initially think. Dig deep to remember details that make these stories bring out emotion in the reader.
  • Use memory joggers such as your home, favorite music, picture albums, phone pics, social media posts, friends, and family members.

4. Ask for help from essay mentors

In addition to parents, choose one or two other adults you know well who will be kind but honest in their feedback. Mentors can be your best advantage in writing excellent essays. Not only do they see and remember differently than you do, but they can also help brainstorm, add details and perspective, read drafts, and help you refine your content and structure.

Throughout the process of writing your essays, here are some questions you can ask your mentors:

  • Do my essays paint a “genuine” picture of my character, my values, and my potential as a student at the university?
  • Are the stories and examples in my essays unique and compelling? Do they have enough detail and depth to be remembered?
  • Are my essays easy to read? Do they sound like I’m having a conversation with you (instead of sounding formal and stilted)?

Useful feedback can be difficult to hear because it often feels like criticism— especially when you've worked hard and know your essays are way better than they were when you started. Try to put your ego on the shelf and remember that feedback from mentors can literally be an essay game changer. You never really know how your writing is coming across until someone else reads it!

5. Make a plan for success

Your next important step is to get out your calendar and make a specific plan for success. Why are planning and calendaring important? Because setting and reaching smaller goals that lead up to the big one—compelling, memorable essays—helps you in three important ways:

Less stress: You'll breathe easier knowing that you have a plan to get everything done on time.

Motivation: Staying on track by reaching your smaller goals will keep you motivated to continue on until you make it to the finish line.

Better essays: Strong, effective essays simply cannot be written in one sitting. Careful planning will result in the best results.

How do you make a plan for success? Count how many days you have between beginning your essays and submitting them. Divide that number by the number of essays to determine how many days to allot for each essay. For each individual essay, write down when you want to complete the following steps:

  1. Brainstorm: You can't spend too much time on this step. More time spent here equals more memories and ideas and insights to work with.
  2. Outline: Great essays are well organized.
  3. Drafts: Some essays are easier to write, so the number of drafts per essay differs.
  4. Get Feedback: If you’re not quite sure what the feedback from your mentors means, discuss your questions with them. Understanding feedback is just as important as receiving it!
  5. Revise: Use the advice you receive to improve your essays. That's what it's for — don't waste it!
  6. Final Edits: Wait a few days (or at least a few hours!) between finishing and submitting your essays. When you go back and reread them, you'll always find things you didn’t see before that you’ll want to change.

Looking for a professional who can walk through this process with you? I would love to help! I’ve created several coaching packages with pricing options to fit any budget. Click here to visit my coaching profile and book a free intro call.