How to Ace the College Essay

These 20 tips for students have every angle covered

by Daniel Riseman

It’s ironic. Teenagers spend hours looking at themselves in the mirror — yet when it comes to writing about themselves in their essay for their college applications, they become queasy.

Writing about oneself is difficult and often leaves students with feelings of inadequacy. The question that most students ask is what they should write about.

Admission officers are reading hundreds of essays a day. Allow yourself to shine.

They need to know that writing college essays is not meant to be a painful process. The most powerful essays are written in less than an hour. Multiple rounds of edits may follow — but the core content is created within that hour. This is because college essays are works of passion.

The purpose of the essay is for colleges to get a sense of the student through “a slice of life.” Admission officers want to see an aspect of the applicant that is not apparent on his or her record or resume. Many students focus in on one aspect of their life or personality and pick a vehicle through which to tell their story. Colleges want to know about the student — not what he or she has done or where he’s gone. This is what colleges mean by “show and don’t tell.” Topics are limitless.

In addition to the 650-word main essay, many colleges have supplemental essays. It is critical that students do not blow off these supplements. Admission officers are looking for how students may fit into their college. Generic statements are insufficient; you must find specific aspects that truly attract you to that school.

With all of this in mind, here are insights into the essay-writing process, created after many years of guiding and mentoring students in the process.

Do:

  1. Brainstorm. Students should sit around the table and brainstorm ideas with their parents. While parents should never commandeer the essay, they know the student better than anyone else. Themes are likely to come out of such informal meetings.
  2. Use a stream of consciousness. Once they have an idea, students should write freely. Do not worry about transitions or grammar. Let the writing flow.
  3. Capture the moment. Great essays capture a moment in time. Try to avoid telling a lengthy story. Rather, focus on the moment in a creative manner.
  4. Sleep on it. Procrastinating on an essay can be devastating. Great essays are written early on and then thought about for days on end. Minor yet critical edits come through with extensive proofreading. Writing an essay at the deadline is setting yourself up for failure. This is your essay. You have the final say. Do not relinquish your authorship to someone else.
  5. Be limitless. Allow yourself to break free from conventions. Admission officers are reading hundreds of essays a day — allow yourself to shine.
  6. Grab the reader’s attention. The introductory paragraph is everything. You need to lock in your reader’s attention. Due to the mass quantity of essays read, you need to hold onto your reader.
  7. Be honest. No need to exaggerate your life experiences. There’s no reason to risk getting caught in a lie. Eighteen-year-olds are not expected to have run Fortune 500 companies. Working at a pool or the local deli will more than suffice. One of the best essays I ever read discussed a young man’s summer experience working at a gas station.
  8. Use your own voice. The essay must sound organic. Having a parent or private college counselor write it could hurt your chances.
  9. Let it go. Allow yourself to take risks. A good essay comes from opening yourself up.
  10. Embrace yourself. Your uniqueness is wonderful. Be proud to be you.

Don’t:

  1. Don’t give up the reins. This is your essay. You have the final say. Do not relinquish your authorship to someone else.
  2. Don’t be grandiloquent. Overusing a thesaurus can backfire. Admission officers will not be impressed with lofty prose.
  3. Don’t write about others. This is your essay. You must be the leading man or woman. Focusing too much on others will sabotage your work.
  4. Don’t make it too complicated. Some of the best essays are incredibly simple.
  5. Don’t shy away from tough topics. If you feel strongly about something, write about it. I have had several students write strong essays about divorce and death. Nothing is cliché if it has real meaning to you.
  6. Don’t have too many cooks. Too many editors can destroy your essay — they will pull you in too many directions. You must pick two or three people to edit your piece. I recommend your favorite English teacher and guidance counselor.
  7. Don't recycle. Many younger siblings want to reuse their older siblings' essays. This can be disastrous. Admission officers represent specific geographic districts. If they read something that sounds oddly familiar, your integrity can be destroyed, along with your chances of admission.
  8. Don't quote. Quoting famous authors, scientists, and politicians is unnecessary. It takes up valuable real estate that should be used for your own voice.
  9. Don't use informal language. College essays should not contain contractions. The only caveat is if you incorporate dialogue — then contractions are OK.
  10. Don't suffocate. Remember that writing college essays is supposed to be a fun and creative process — truly. The only restriction is word count.

Daniel Riseman, founder of Riseman Educational Consulting in Irvington, New York, has been counseling students and working with families for 16 years