College Essay Writing Tips

Essay writing is an important part of the college application process. Using the Common Application, you will have to write one major essay, and possibly write a series of smaller essays for each school on their Supplement Forms (see Common App website for more information).

2015-16 Common Application Essay prompts will be available mid-March!

Here are some suggestions for writing your college essay, adapted from EssayEdge’s Harvard-Educated Admissions Essay Editors at

Question: Is it better to look at the essay question topics first and think of topics that only address those questions, or brainstorm interesting topics regardless of the questions. Answer: a little of both is important.

2. Narrow the list of possible topics. Which topics best reflect who you are and how you want to portray yourself to the colleges? Which topics best help you answer the essay question(s).

3. Look on the Undergraduate Admissions website (or Common App site) and locate the possible college essay topics.  You may see one or two questions that seem easier for you to answer than others.

4. Answer the question of your choice. You can write an excellent essay, but if you don’t focus on answering the question that the college is asking, you will likely not be admitted to the school.

5. Start with a creative lead. Capture the readers’ interest in the first two sentences.

  • Before: I volunteer as a Big Brother to a little boy. He lost his parents in a car accident a few months ago. From this experience, I hoped to help him cope with his loss and open up his personality by spending time with him after school on certain days.
  • After: While the other children played outside, eleven-year old Danny’s sad eyes focused on the white wall in front of him. He sat alone in a silence–a silence that had imprisoned him since his mother and father died in a tragic accident.

See how the first relays information in a passive voice, while the second paints an active picture? Feel free to start out by painting a vibrant picture of yourself too! Many college admissions counselors have said that the more unique your essay – the content and writing style – the more captivating it is to read.

6. Use details and concrete experiences. Show (paint a picture with words) rather than tell!

  • Before: I developed a new compassion for the disabled.
  • After: The next time that Mrs. Cooper asked me to help her across the street, I smiled and immediately took her arm.

7. Be Concise. Use word economy! The fewer words you can use to relay your message, the better. Such writing asks the writer to be more creative about the way phrases and sentences are worded.

  • Before: After Mike left, his loss hit me like a ton of bricks, out of which, when I was finally able to crawl, I had to come to terms with the difficult fact that best friends may come along only once in a lifetime, and it was unlikely I would find such a close friendship again since lightening doesn’t strike twice.
  • After: When Mike left, I lost the best friend I ever had, and I lost him forever.

See how eliminating extra words actually makes your point stronger?  Eliminating prepositions is a great, easy way to tighten your writing.

Essay writing tips adapted from Kelly Tanabe’s “Four Steps to Writing a Winning Admissions Essay, Part I”.


The following is information from “The Best College Admission Essays” internet edition:

DO’s and DON’Ts of College Essay Theme and Content:

DO write an essay that only you could honestly write. If it’s possible that the reader will read anything similar from another applicant, you need to start another essay.

DO convey a positive message and tone. Cynicism will not score points with the admission committee.

DO strive for depth, not breadth. Think deep not wide. Focus on an event or idea rather than trying to cover an entire subject. Think personal and anecdotal.

DO reject your first idea or angle. It’s probably been used a million times.

DO be interesting, but more importantly, be yourself. Convey your true and genuine thoughts and feelings. Don’t try to portray yourself as someone with interests, values, and opinions that aren’t really yours.

DO write about what you know and have observed or experienced, not things beyond your personal development as a teenager. Book knowledge or secondhand information does not convey to the reader any sense of who you are.

DO write about something about which you feel strongly. If you write on a topic in which you have little interest or knowledge, your lack of sincerity and enthusiasm will show.

DO write about other people as well as about yourself. We are defined as individuals largely through relationships and experiences with others.

DO be experiential, but avoid too much imagery. Relate to the reader the full scope of an experience – sights, sounds, and maybe even smells. Be careful, however, not to overuse imagery; otherwise the essay may sound forced, unnatural and give the reader the impression you are trying too hard to be creative.

DON’T let others – especially your parents – decide for you what to write. Feel free to brainstorm with others for ideas, but don’t ask: “What should I write about?”

DON’T try to sell yourself or prove anything by convincing the reader how great you are, how smart you are, or how accomplished you are. Your definitive theories and brilliant solutions to global problems will not impress the admissions audience. Admit it: you have many more questions than answers at this point in your life. Use your essay as an opportunity to wonder about life, to pose thoughtful questions, to probe and investigate, but not to tell the reader “the way it is.”

DON’T try to write an important or scholarly essay. A well-researched essay that shows off your knowledge of a particular academic subject tells the reader nothing about you. The reader will only suspect that your essay is a recycled term paper.

 Happy essay-writing!