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How to Write a College Essay that Will Wow!

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

The Summer of 2020 is certainly one for the books. Everything is “different,” “unprecedented,” and “unexpected.” But for rising high school seniors, one thing has not changed at all: It is July which means that it is time to get cracking on your college applications. That means writing compelling and powerful essays that will wow college admissions officers and reflect who you are!

So, exactly what are college admissions essays and why do colleges ask for them? There are several reasons that colleges want to see your writing, but most importantly, it gives them the chance to learn more about you and see who you are beyond your grades and test scores.

For undergraduate college admissions, the personal statement, or college essay, is the one place where you have complete control over what you share. These 650 words are your golden opportunity to show a college what makes you unique and why you will be an asset to their community. You get to shine and show your strengths beyond who you are on paper. It is your time to show the admissions committee what kind of community member you would be on campus.

Why It Matters

Traditionally, some of the most important components of college admissions are the “hard skills,” analyzed specifically through grades and test scores. For the Class of 2021, in the age of COVID-19, most colleges are “test-optional,” meaning that many applicants will not be able, or will choose not, to submit standardized test scores. This year, the “soft skills” that aren’t as easily quantified will be more crucial than ever. These skills are highlighted in your essays, recommendations, activities, and personal character.

The essay, when done with thought, patience, and care, can offer admissions officers valuable insight into who a student really is, what motivates them, and what they will bring to a college. Your essay weaves your personality into your application and lets you show a more personal side of you. Imagine two students: Julia and Matt. Both have 3.8 GPA’s and 32’s on their ACT’s. Julia lives in Vermont and is the captain of her school lacrosse team and editor of her school paper. Matt lives in South Carolina and has started a non-profit sustainable garden that is helping to feed people in his community. They both work as lifeguards in the summer and plan to attend law school. As similar as they seem on paper, Julia and Matt are very different and bring their own backgrounds and perspectives to their current and future communities. Julia writes about her experience writing an article about law enforcement in her community and how that inspired her to want to study law. Matt writes about his experience with helping families grow and enjoy healthy nutrition and how he is determined to create sustainability policy. Both applicants will bring their own intellectual diversity to their college community, and this is made clear through their essays.

Here are tips for creating a personal essay that will help you stand out and showcase who you are.

Have Fun With It and Get Creative.

Choose a subject that is personal to you and you are excited to write about. If you love writing it, the chances are that your audience will enjoy reading it. It doesn’t need to be lofty or impressive. That’s what your grades and test scores are for. This is your chance to show your readers your personality, your humor, your compassion, your interests, or all of the above. Your writing should be natural and organic. It should sound like your voice speaking to a friend, rather than a formal academic report or account of events.

Show, Don’t Tell.

Bring your reader into your world and into your story rather than just recounting and reporting events. For example: “I fly off the blocks with adrenaline coursing through my veins, my only thought: speed, speed, speed” is more interesting than “ I dove in and I knew that I needed to swim as fast as I could.” Your writing will be more interesting when the reader gets to feel what you are feeling rather than just hearing you talk about it. Set the scene and bring the reader into your story.

Reveal Something New and Different.

The essay is not a time to reiterate your activities or accomplishments. If you have filled your application out correctly, the college already knows what a science wiz you are, how you rocked the Model UN circuit, or how you play the oboe. Take this opportunity to write about something that has meaning to you and that has shaped you, whether it was an experience, a moment in time, or a passion. The best essays allow you to express something that will surprise your reader about you.

Start Early and Take Your Time.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and your essay won’t be either. Don’t procrastinate and get started as early as possible. One of the most important parts of the essay process is editing, and like most things, it will get better with practice. Keep reviewing, editing, and then have the time to put it away and look again in a few days with fresh eyes. Be prepared to write a few drafts of different ideas before settling on what feels right.

Bring Your Best Writing Skills.

Colleges want to see that you have the skills to excel in college classes. Your essay is your best opportunity to highlight your writing skills and express something that you are really proud of. Make sure that your ideas and voice come through. Use specific details and examples appropriately and avoid generalizations. This doesn’t mean that your writing needs to be complex or intellectual. It needs to be clear, concise, and organized. No matter what, your essay cannot have any language errors, spelling mistakes, or typos, so make sure to proofread your writing several times. A mistake will hurt you with admissions officers.

Write About What Matters to You.

Don’t write about what you think admissions committees want to hear, because chances are they have heard it before. Write about what is meaningful to YOU! When it comes to your topic, there really is no right answer and there are very few wrong answers. A great topic is not only something you are excited about, but it is also something that has had an impact on you. The impact doesn’t have to be huge. It just needs to be real. Be specific and detailed about how the experience has affected the way you think, or what you have learned, or what you got out of it. Dig deep and go beneath the surface to describe why what you are writing about is important to you.

Be Specific.

The best way to write a killer essay is to focus on your main idea. Don’t try to tell your whole life story or about all your amazing accomplishments. Rather, focus on a specific idea, topic, or experience that means alot to you. How much you love summer camp is probably too broad, but how and why you loved being the Camp Color War Captain is more specific and allows you to show who you are. Talking about your internship working for a politician is likely to be too general, but talking about how you got that internship may give your reader some real insight into what makes you tick. Use descriptive and relevant details to bring your reader into your own unique story in a way that lets them get excited to keep reading.

Use Your Voice.

Your college essay is not a homework assignment, where your job is often to show what you know. Instead, it is a chance for you to be you. No need to be particularly formal or even scholarly. The best essay will sound like how you speak when you are your most articulate, compelling, and engaging self. Focus on using clear and simple language that evokes a feeling of emotion, rather than using vocabulary to impress. Using idioms and humor is fine. Using slang is probably not, unless it relates to your narrative.

Most of all, your college essay is your chance to be your authentic self and have fun with a process that can otherwise feel impersonal, and often stressful. Enjoy it and Happy Writing!

Contact for help creating college essays that wow or for any part of your college admissions process.

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