11 Great Tips for College Essays

“Summer is a great time to get a jump on your college applications.” Sounded great last spring, didn’t it?

Well it’s August, and between the beach, friends, summer jobs and sports schedules, your average rising senior hasn’t done much beyond look at the Common App essay questions and sigh.

Before you begin to panic, (or worse, nag) take a deep breath. There’s still plenty of time before school starts to find an angle and write a draft. We talked to experts, read the books and found 11 great tips. Some are for parents, some are for kids, but sharing these is a great starting place for both of you.

Finding the Topic

1. Dig deep. You need to explore your real, authentic self and be willing to take risks. Think about difficult situations you’ve overcome, a challenging relationship with a parent or sibling, your greatest fear, a time you messed up, or a time when you let a good friend down. The things that make you human are the experiences that help you grow and the stories that make you stand out in a crowd.

Matt and Stacey Baker
Riley Baker Educational Consulting

2. Great topics for a personal essay: After-school jobs, travel, volunteering, quirky hobbies and experiences that made you learn something new about yourself.

David C. Bennett
Director of Admissions for Enrollment
Lake Forest College

3. People are fascinating and you are a person. By happy coincidence, there is no topic in the world about which you are better prepared to write. If all the applicants in the country suddenly wised up and wrote about themselves, most would have good essays. Everyone is different, and people are endlessly interesting.

Edward B. Fiske and Bruce G. Hammond
Fiske Real College Essays that Work” (Sourcebooks, 2011)

Topics to Avoid

4. Skip the following topics:

  • Bragging of any kind.
  • Political/social/controversial public issues, including world hunger, homelessness and the environment
  • Trips/events that cost a lot of money
  • Topics that cause the admissions committee to question your judgment, integrity or ethics
  • A crime, misdemeanor, drunken or sexual experience or other inappropriate behavior (Editor’s note: You may think one of these would make a hilarious story that college admissions officers would love, but you’d be wrong.)

Lillian Luterman and Jennifer Bloom
In! College Admissions and Beyond” (Abbeville Press, 2011)

5. Your essay should not be one long excuse for academic issues.  If you have a rough academic record, tell us quickly what happened and then tell us why things are changing.  We have seen too many essays about how “I didn’t get along with my teacher.”  Tell us the solution not just the problem.

David C. Bennett
Director of Admissions for Enrollment
Lake Forest College

6. Avoid “resume prose” where your essay is an endless list of activities and accomplishments. And don’t write about unicorns or prom!

Rafael S. Figueroa
Director of College Guidance at Albuquerque Academy in New Mexico
Former Admission Office at Occidental College and Wesleyan University

Writing Style

7. Ninety percent of the applications I read contain what I call McEssays—usually five-paragraph essays that consist primarily of abstractions and unsupported generalization. They are technically correct in that they are organized and have the correct sentence structure and spelling, but they are boring.

Parke Muth, former Senior Assistant Dean and Director of International Admission

University of Virginia

8. Your first paragraph should be a short, punchy sentence or two that gets the reader’s attention…Your story should start out with the most interesting, exciting detail. One that is sensory and concrete.

Linda Metcalf
How to Say It to Get into the College of Your Choice” (Prentice Hall Press, 2007)

9. Proofread! Spell check isn’t your friend. Go through the essay looking for basic grammar mistakes, like homophones: their/there/they’re, its/it’s, stationary/stationery or holy/holey/wholly.

Parental “Help”

10. My experience with hands-on parent editing is that it usually turns a good kid essay into a mediocre lawyer essay.

Sarah Myers McGinty
The College Application Essay” (College Board, 2006)

11. Essay topics are like dinner parties–there are good ones and bad ones, but at 17 you’ll probably want to avoid those that are cooked up by your parents.

Evan P. Cudworth
Senior Assistant Director of Admissions
Director of Content and Media
University of Chicago

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