How to Write a Great College Admissions Essay

Five Tips for a Great Admissions Essay From a Former College Admissions Officer

College admission and scholarship application essay prompts might make you feel like a contestant in some nightmarish pageant. “In 250 words or less, describe yourself, your future goals, and your plans to achieve world peace.” Why do college admissions departments and scholarship foundations even require an essay? After all, they have your grades, test scores, and letters of recommendation from teachers. Why make it more complicated?

Admissions and scholarship officers recognize that grades and scores do not always tell the whole story. They want a balanced picture of you. Aside from an interview, the essay is the only personal part of your application.

Consider these 5 tips before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to create an essay that makes a great first impression.

Remember your reader. Neither friend nor foe, admissions officers and scholarship coordinators would like to get to know you better, but they have little time to muddle through convoluted writing. They must read hundreds, or even thousands of essays. Many applicants will have high GPA’s and SAT scores, volunteer in a local organization, or be the president of a club or captain of a sports team. Admissions officers are looking for something, anything, to distinguish your essay from the pile. You need to grab your reader’s attention and hold it. But how?
Write what only YOU can write. Your essay should sound like you. If it were read aloud among thousands, your best friend or mom could say, “That’s Joe’s essay!” Admissions and scholarship officers recognize that grades and scores do not tell the whole story. Your essay should not be merely a writing sample or laundry list of your achievements , but a small slice of YOU. How do you accomplish this?
Show, don’t tell. Be specific, using vivid details to paint a picture for the reader. Instead of writing, “I led my soccer team to a state championship,” describe the winning game, including the sights, sounds, and sweat. Avoid passive verbs like “I am,” or “I was” and use powerful, active language to convey your ideas.
Use a fresh set of eyes. Ask a friend, parent, guidance counselor, boss, someone else to read your essay before submitting it, and not only to check for the usual suspects like spelling and punctuation errors. Ask, “Does this sound like me? Is it interesting?”
I have edited essays for students who gained undergraduate admission to Duke, Cornell, Stetson, the University of Florida as well as MBA programs at Wharton, Kellogg, and Ohio State University. My editing packages available range from a basic spelling and grammar check to helping you take an idea to outline to rough draft to completed work. For more information, check out my website at