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Top Tips for a Winning College Essay

Updated: Feb 22

Ahh, the big essay. Or I should say essays, as you have the common application essay, which is sent to all the schools to which you apply, as well as any supplement essay questions that specific schools may require. If you’re in California, you probably also have the UC Personal Insight Questions to answer.

Students are often intimidated by the essay portion of the college application because of how open-ended it is. Which question should I pick? What should I say? What do they want to know? All anxious questions aside, the purpose of the essay is for the admissions officer to see who you are—beyond the scores, numbers and letters, which can hardly define a person.

Outlined below are a handful of tips to make this process much easier:

Start early

Rushed writing is rarely good writing. You need time to think about which prompt best connects with you, and which one of your life experiences best exemplifies who you are. Starting early also allows you to change the direction of the essay if you think of something better or realize that your idea does not work as well on paper as you thought it would.

Any writer or English teacher would tell you that writing should be fermented by time. That means write the draft, let it sit in your computer for a bit, and return to it with a fresh pair of eyes. Do that a couple more times. You will see that you find new edits and angles after some distance.

Ask for feedback, but not too much

Throughout that process, you should ask a couple friends and adults whom you trust to give feedback on your draft. A different perspective can help you identify room for improvement that you did not see before. However, there is such a thing as eliciting too many editors, especially for writing that is meant to be personal. Too many opinions may lead to contradictory, confusing feedback that dilute the most important thing in the essay—your voice.

Answer the prompt

For some admissions officers and teachers, a major pet peeve are students who do not answer the prompt. Feel free to be creative, but make sure your work does not stray too far from what the question is asking.

Show us you’re human

Do not make the mistake of repeating your accomplishments in your resume or transcript in the essay, or feeling the need to underscore your greatest glory moments through an essay. This portion of the application is about showing the reader the ways in which you are human—the emotions, challenges, mistakes and unexpected triumphs.

A brilliant essay written by a Johns Hopkins applicant and eventual student is about tying a knot in a bakery where she worked, and how difficult it was. A seemingly minor experience was made significant as she explains to the reader how the knot, to her, signifies perseverance, patience and the string theory.

Don’t be funny

The college admissions officer may not share the same type of humor as you or your friends and family who find you funny. Humor in an essay can often fall flat and come across as snarky or cringey. Focus on being vulnerable and genuinely let us into your heart.

Are you planning to write the UC essays (PIQs)? Preview them ahead of time so there are no surprises! Download our completely free UC Essay Preview Guide here:

Robert Powers (M.A. Johns Hopkins) is the college consultant at College Torch. He is an expert in colleges and the college admissions process. Follow College Torch by joining our Facebook group for Parents of College-Bound Students.

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