9 Tips for Writing a (Great) College Essay



Jovan Ellis is an Assistant Director of Admissions at Champlain College. This week, as someone who has read many essays during his time here, he has come up with nine tips on how to ace what might seem like the most stressful part of college applications.



‘Tis the season for college applications, and whether you’re confidently typing up your last paragraph, or you’re sitting in a fetal position trying to think of an accomplishment that “marked your transition from childhood to adulthood,” we at Champlain have got you covered. Below are nine tips for writing a great college essay.

1. Start with a Story

Admissions counselors only spend a few minutes reading each essay, so you need to engage us from the beginning. The best way to do that? Share an interesting moment from your life. An anecdote. It’s deceptively simple, but short stories naturally grab the reader.

2. Be Honest

One of the biggest mistakes students make is trying too hard to impress. Admissions folks have seen it all; don’t feel like you need to exaggerate your achievements. It’s okay if you were the National Honor Society treasurer rather than the president. Or if you didn’t hold an NHS position at all. Or if by “NHS” you actually meant “Anime Club.” Information that seems less-than-genuine tends to stand out in a bad way. You’ll feel better if you don’t strain to inflate yourself.

3. Be Yourself

Write about what matters to you, not what you think we want to hear. Successful essays come from the heart – they aren’t Pulitzer-winning novels. Once you choose a topic you like, take some time and jot down your thoughts. It shouldn’t take long. What are you passionate about? And how does your personality direct what you want to study? When you write from your heart, words should come easily.

Note: If a college doesn’t accept you for who you are, then maybe that school wasn’t the right place for you.

4. Take a Risk

Be controversial. Colleges are tired of reading about the time you had a come-from-behind win at the championship game or the time you went on a service trip to that foreign country. Show your creativity! If you must write about those topics, be sure to let your personality shine through.

Many people write vanilla essays because they’re worried about utilizing their voices. It’s fine to write about politics, religion, or serious issues as long as you are balanced and thoughtful. Give reasons for your views and consider other perspectives. Colleges are places for the discussion of ideas, and us admissions officers look for diversity of mind.

5. Be Vivid

Remember what I said about starting with a story? In your essay, give details to help the reader see and enjoy the setting. For instance, try to use the names of the people mentioned in the essay, rather than simply saying “my brother” or “my coach.” This makes the essay more human and it helps your reader form a connection with you and your personal story. Those specific, everyday snapshots are often much more interesting to read about than a vague list of accomplishments.

6. Say What Your Transcript Can’t

During reading season, most colleges don’t have the time to research each individual applicant. We’ll only know what we’re told. Did you move to a new school? Did a rough freshman year set you back academically? Also consider whether this additional information would be better left for the conveniently-named “Additional Information” section. If so, reserve your personal essay for a different topic.

Think: what do they really need to know about me? And where should I include these details?

7. Don’t Dwell on the Prompt

The actual prompt you choose does not matter. Prompts are meant to guide and inspire, and with the Common App’s 650-word maximum, the prompts are there to keep you focused. Anything can be the perfect topic as long as you demonstrate how well you think and an ability to hold the reader’s attention. That said, when choosing a prompt be sure to read the question carefully and answer it accurately. If your essay about “overcoming failure” has nothing to do with actually overcoming failure, I’ll begin to question my career choices.

8. Ditch the Thesaurus

Your communication can be effective without being overly formal. So feel free to write casually, just avoid highly informal language like slang, incorrect capitalization, or uncommon abbreviations. The personal essay is not a research paper, but it’s also not a text message. You are applying to a college, not asking me go to hang out at the mall (or wherever you whippersnappers hang out nowadays).

Remember, the purpose of the essay isn’t to impress us with sophisticated SAT words, it’s to show your mental vitality.

9. Proofread

This last one is obvious, but seriously, check your essay for small errors. Run spell check. Then read it out loud. Then get someone else to read it. You can even try reading it backwards, last sentence to first sentence. Are you really excited to attend Chaplain? Really? The funny thing about writing is that sometimes you become so familiar with your written voice, that you start seeing what should be there rather than what is there. As a wise man once said, “Your eyes can deceive you; don’t trust them.”

Bonus: The Essay Isn’t Everything

The application essay is important, but it’s not the only thing we consider. In Admissions we look at everything: transcripts, recommendations, extracurricular activities, class rank, SATs / ACTs, the whole package. Think of it this way: a strong essay helps – especially if your grades and test scores aren’t the best, and if you want to stand out among the competition. But a mediocre essay won’t hurt you. So be daring, write from the heart, and, most importantly, relax.