College Essay

Keys to a Great College Admission Essay

by | Jul 15, 2020

This time of year, many students are struggling with college admission essays. A great college admission essay can be the factor that leads a college admissions officer to select your application—over those of others with similar test scores and GPAs—from the pile. And in the era of COVID-19, many colleges will weight qualitative factors, like essays and recommendations, even higher than they usually do.

What Do Colleges Look for in an Admission Essay?

Colleges use admissions essays in several ways. Some colleges look to them for evidence of a student’s ability to write. A well-written, thoughtfully crafted essay shows that a student has the skills it will take to succeed in college, where writing is a critically important skill. Second, essays help admissions officers put the elements of a student’s extracurricular and academic work in context, explaining how they all tie together into a consistent whole. Third, admission essays help colleges understand how you will fit into their community and what you will bring to the campus. And finally, they demonstrate a student’s character and inner passion, helping colleges see what difference you intend to make in the world.

Secrets of Writing a Winning Admission Essay

Our previous webinar on “,” with Jane Hirschhorn, laid out some great tips. The video is below.

Dos and Don’ts for a Great Admission Essay

Your College Essay Is About You

The most important thing to remember about an essay is that it is really about you, no matter what the essay’s topic is. This idea is hard for some teenagers to accept. Many high school English teachers forbid the use of the word “I” in any school assignment, so it takes work for students to learn how to write about themselves without sounding awkward or phony.

One student we worked with wrote an essay about building a computer from scratch. He intended the story to show his resourcefulness and passion, but he had filled it with details on the computer: the cladding for the cooling tubes, the processor, the memory chip, and so on. His task was to refocus the story on the process, rather than the computer. That allowed the story to flow naturally, and what emerged was a story about a smart, resourceful young man who figured out how to build a computer using scrounged-up parts.

Pay Attention to Beginnings and Endings

Beginnings and endings are the most critical part of your essay. For your opening, use an image, metaphor, or sentence that intrigues your reader and draws them in. Ask yourself honestly whether you’d be intrigued by this sentence.

For your ending, make sure you leave the reader with the message you mean to convey. Too many essays meander off at the end. Ask yourself how you can end the essay with a line that expresses a meaningful positive message about your character and the difference you intend to make in the world. 

For example, one student wrote an essay about his interest in cryptocurrency – currencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum that are alternatives to actual money. It was a great story about his intellectual curiosity and passion for research, but cryptocurrencies are an abstract topic and, therefore, hard to write about. After some coaching, he decided to begin the story with a line that confronted people’s false cryptocurrency image head-on. Here’s how the essay started.

“I am not a drug user or a terrorist, but when I talk to people about cryptocurrency, they wonder if I am one.”

That made for an opening any essay reader would find intriguing.

Another student – a nationally ranked chess player – wrote an essay about teaching chess to senior citizens, some of whom were battling Alzheimer’s Disease. He ended his piece this way (names changed to protect the student’s identity)

“I began teaching chess because I wanted others to experience the same thrill I felt when I played the game the first time. Instead, I find myself learning from them so much more. If Bill can fight the stagnation that comes with age, and Zachary can face down the debilitating disease that is degrading his memory, then surely I can fight against any problems I face – on the chessboard or outside it.”

That was his message, and it was a powerful way to end the story.

Pick a Meaningful Topic

Many students write essays about “how I helped poor people,” or “I went on this amazing trip.” College admissions officials have read hundreds of these essays, and they aren’t interesting anymore. So pick something genuinely meaningful in your life. One student wrote about their passion for building robotic underwater vehicles. One wrote about her experience helping researchers at Stanford on a summer project, which she found incredibly tedious but also transformed her understanding of science.

Here’s what she wrote about it:

“My old perception of science embarrasses me now. I viewed the workday of scientists as a fuzzy, almost mystical scenario: people wandering around and knowledge simply appearing in their minds. Before, when I read scientific studies with massive data sets, I never considered that someone calculated each point on a scatter plot or designed a system to collect it.”

A story like this highlights a moment of genuine transformation in someone’s life. That makes it powerful.

These examples aren’t meant to provide templates you can copy, but you can learn from them. When you write your essay, don’t try to imitate someone else’s story. It’s yours, and that is what makes it unique. 

Begin Early and Seek Help

Finally, the most critical key to writing an essay is to write many drafts. Virtually no one can write a great essay the first time out, so the key to success is relentless editing and refinement. A good essay coach can help, and many students applying to selective universities use coaches to brainstorm and revise their essays.

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Venkates Swaminathan

Venkates Swaminathan

Venkates Swaminathan (Swami) is the founder and CEO of LifeLaunchr, the world's first virtual college admissions coaching platform, and a member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Swami has been an executive in the education and technology industries for over 25 years. He has an M.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of Illinois, and a B.Tech in Electrical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi. He is the father of a child in college, and in his spare time, he is a jazz and Indian classical singer and pianist.

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