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What Makes A Great College Essay?

College admissions officers want to know more about you than what your application and high school resume say about you. It may seem like an easy task to write about yourself at first, but after brainstorming ideas and trying to get the right words on paper, you may find yourself at a dead end. How do you narrow down something captivating about your life story into a short word count? Where do you even begin that may not seem compelling enough for the competitive landscape of college admissions? What can you say that will stand out in the eyes of admissions officers? What are they actually looking for in an essay? It may seem daunting, and the pressure to get this right can be stressful.

Here are a few things to help you make a great college essay:

Humanize The Data

College admissions committees have the arduous task of sifting through thousands of applications every year and have a short amount of time to narrow down the list of applicants before making decisions in a few months. Therefore, everything they receive in an application becomes data points and numbers on scales. This allows them to organize everyone quickly on a chart and decipher an applicant's uniqueness on a scale that is measured and compared. Granted, it is not the fairest approach. Still, most admissions committees try their best, though imperfectly, to balance the needs of the university with an attempt at an equitable system for admitting students that merit admission.

But your GPA, ACT score, class rank, number of AP classes, and other measurable academic and extracurricular data do not paint the whole picture! There is more to the story in every college-bound student, and everyone's experience gives context to the data that is analyzed. Of course, you cannot write a memoir about your life, but you can share an experience that highlights your values or describes a challenge you overcame. Sharing a story in a visual way can unveil your persona and writing ability. It can be used as a core sample of the greater you and highlight key attributes that make you the right fit for the school for which you are seeking admission. It can help provide contextual information behind the data that will help admissions officers understand your interests, work ethic, and readiness for college.

Communicate Your Values

The fundamental question that the reader of your essay wants to answer is - who is this person? They don't want to read a timeline of your life because they already have your biographical information from your application. They don't want to read a list of things you have done if those things are already listed in your application. Instead, they want to know if your essay will describe the value you will bring to their campus. What are some underlying attributes about you that make you a great person, leader, student, athlete, chess player, brother, artist, etc.? Can you write specific stories about how you gained these values in a way that demonstrates other core values? Or can you describe how you lived your life with one crucial value and cite one or a few anecdotes?

There are many ways to communicate your values, but first, you should take inventory of the values important to you when you begin brainstorming your college essay. Make a list and reflect on your top three values and why they are important to you. Simply by doing this, you will start to get some story ideas that you can jot down on paper or begin using in your first (terrible) draft. This exercise may be the impetus to answering the simple question - who is this person?

Make It Personal

Write about something that is important to you and reflect on it. It is okay to show some vulnerability in your essay. It can be about your relationship with your father, a job you had, a mistake you made, your experience on a trip, a challenge you faced, an essential book in your life, your mother's cooking, your identity, or anything else that personalizes the story in your essay. When you recount any of these things, go beyond a play-by-play description and describe what you learned from the experience, how it impacted your life, or how it made you who you are today. Be honest, don't contradict anything in your application, and be genuine. Your unique qualities will shine through your essay, and ideally, it will tie into one, or some, of your core values.

Paint a Picture with Words

Good storytelling first draws a reader into a visual setting that they can imagine. This does not necessarily mean that you should write a whole paragraph about the room in which your story took place. But if you creatively activate the five senses for the reader, then more than likely, they will join you in your story. So while you want to be careful not to be too wordy, you want to hook the reader with something descriptive that sets the stage and makes them interested to find out what happens next.

A very helpful exercise to give you descriptive material is to make a list of any physical objects in your life that have any level of significance to you. For example, you can try to make a list of 20 items that give you a close connection to either important memories, favorite events, a person or group of people, specific values, certain emotions, etc. They can be anything like the ball cap your grandfather gave you that reminds you of the baseball games he took you to and the memories you shared with him. It can be your favorite pen that you use every day to write in your journal, and looking at it reminds you of the many times you have reflected on the good times and the challenging moments in your life. You get the idea.

These physical objects of varying importance can serve as the material you can choose to use when you need something meaningful and visual. Furthermore, they can highlight deeper aspects about you that help humanize your application.

Write Well (In Your Own Voice)

The dean of admission at Marist College was recently interviewed about college essays and said what a vast majority of college admissions officers feel, "Your essay is your chance to 'speak' directly to the admission committee. Take advantage of it! Think less about what the admission committee wants to hear and think more of what YOU want to tell us." This notion is common among college admissions officers, in which most of them say that the hallmark of a great college essay is one that is genuine and honest. Therefore, don't try to sound like someone else; the lesson is to be true to your voice and ensure your message is clear.

Your essay is an opportunity to provide context and establish a first impression of who you are. For many schools, the college essay is your interview. It is one of your last opportunities to shine in your application. Of course, it goes without saying that good grammar and writing are a must, but equally important to a great college essay is a good story that allows your values and character to shine.

For more information on navigating the college admissions process or to receive one-on-one essay coaching, contact Steve Colley at or explore our Services Page.

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