How to Write an Amazing College Essay: Three Tips for Success
A former admissions committee member outlines some of his best advice for writing a killer college application essay that will not only impress the AdCom, but also get you admitted into your dream school.
By Christian Hansen
September 7, 2022
As a former Associate Director of an MBA Program, Undergraduate Admissions Committee Member, and Financial Aid Counselor, I’ve helped hundreds of students get into their dream schools. The essays are one of the most important aspects of the entire college application, and it’s an area in which many students I’ve worked with have struggled. In this article, I will outline three of my top-secret writing tips that will make your essays shine.
To start, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room: strategies that work in your high school English class will not work for your college application essays.
Let me explain.
You Are Writing for a Fundamentally Different Environment
In high school, essays have one job: to prove to your teacher that you know the material covered in class. That’s it. And so most students THINK the same strategy applies in their college application essays. The problem is, success in college essays isn’t about being outstanding; it’s about standing out. If your essays are all about proving how clever you are, then you’ll get lost in the noise. Your number one priority should be to influence admissions readers to choose you.
This brings me to my first bit of advice.
Tip #1: Get to the point of your essay, and avoid unnecessary fluff. You’ve got less than 5 minutes to leave an impression.
It’s All About Timing.
In high school, your teacher only has one class’s worth of assignments to read (OK, maybe a couple of classes). But, the point is that you’re only competing with 20-30 students for a grade. Don’t get me wrong–that’s still a lot; however, when applying for college, you’re competing against thousands for a select number of spots. It’s a completely different ballgame.
In 2021, UCLA received THE MOST amount of undergrad applications in history: a whopping 137,000 students. That’s as if the entire population of Dayton, Ohio all applied to UCLA at the same time.
Well, that number is deceiving because it is standard practice in admissions to review every single application TWICE. So the UCLA Admissions team doesn't have 137,000 reviews to complete, they REALLY have 274,000 applications to review one by one! Does every college have similar eye-wateringly-high application numbers? No, but they commonly run into the tens of thousands. Hence, to cope with this deluge of essays, colleges often hire seasonal readers who are paid for each application that they review. That means they are incentivized to read apps as quickly as possible.
In one interview, a seasonal reader commented that he regularly gets through 100 apps a day. 100! If you do the math, that comes to less than five minutes spent on each application. If you knew that your application would be reviewed in less than five minutes, would it change how you write?
Tip #2: Make sure each of your essays follows a narrative format, and be candid and open about your experiences.
Remember that stories win every single time. In high school, your job is to learn how to harness and deploy facts in a reasoned and well-structured argument.
The problem is, if that’s what you do in your college application essays, you’ve likely just put the reader to sleep. And sleeping readers do not give high scores.
To avoid this, make sure that each of your essays is an actual story, not a boiled and mashed-up resume masquerading as a narrative. Countless research studies have shown that stories capture and maintain attention far better than facts, figures, and achievements. You can’t influence someone who isn’t paying attention to you. Stories–and not philosophical discussions–will keep their eyes riveted on your application… and not checking their watch.
So, how do you write a story? Well, start by having a beginning, middle, and end. Did you grapple with a problem? Cultivate an aspiration? Take action and come out changed on the other side? Help the admissions committee see how your experience has shaped your goals and vision of the future. Don’t be insincere and write what you think they “want” to hear. Own your unique story. No one does “you” better than you!
Tip #3: When writing your essays, be sure to read your writing standing up (yes, standing up!) and outside. You will catch simple mistakes you likely would have missed before.
Say it loud and proud.
It’s easy to get stuck in your head when you write and oftentimes you are “too close” to your own writing and overlook simple mistakes. In other words, you miss the forest for the trees.
To overcome this, try a little exercise: after you have completed a draft, print it out (on actual paper!), walk outside, and read it out loud, standing up.
You read that right: Outside, out loud, standing up.
You see, your high school teacher knows your writing style and cadence and can be forgiving at times. But an admissions reviewer will read your writing for the first time and the last time… only once. And, while your teacher can see your progress over time, college reviewers only get one glimpse. You need to make sure that your essays read well the first time, even to a new pair of eyes.
Our brains are pretty amazing, but even they can become bored. By changing scenery and initiating some body movement, you’ll kickstart your brain into a heightened state of awareness. You’ll catch mistakes you didn’t see before and be able to hear how it will come across to a stranger.
And hey, your neighbors will get to hear your essays too!
If I were to place a 100-meter sprinter and a marathon runner side-by-side, technically they are both runners. However, you would point out that they are trained to run very different races.
Similarly, everything you’ve learned about writing in high school is useful… for high school. College application essays are a completely different animal and a different race altogether. By using these simple tips (and I have TONS more!) you will easily raise your game and stand out from the crowd.
If you’d like to learn more about elevating your application essays, work with me on Leland. Book a free intro call on my profile to get started. I look forward to working with you to get into your dream school!