College Essay Tips

The college essay is:

a.) torture beyond belief
b.) a unique opportunity to define yourself
c.) the subject of every single argument with your parents
d.) of the above

But don't despair. You have the skill to write a great college essay. There are only three things it has to do to be successful:

  1. Tell a good story. Think movie scene. Remember, admissions officers read THOUSANDS of essays. Will they read your whole story because they can't wait to see how it ends?
    • Try jumping into the middle of the action
    • Use present tense and strong verbs. Avoid "is" and "was."
    • Creating a story with a setting, mood, tone by using descriptive detail
  2. Show important personal qualities and values. Is this a story that shows your perseverance? Loyalty? Compassion? Passion and Commitment? Work ethic? Global citizenship? Courage? Bravery? Have a reader tell you if it demonstrates positive qualities and values. Don't tell the reader you are compassionate. Show them with your action, words, and descriptive detail. Check it yourself - if colleges know one thing about me, is this the personal quality and characteristic I want to share?
  3. Be error-free. Get a few people to read it for different things. Here's a basic checklist:
  • Organization of ideas and flow
  • Descriptive and concrete details
  • Consistent, engaging voice that is yours.
  • Clear and varied sentences.
  • Word choice and voice (No slang, clichés, generalizations, flowery language, or bloated vocabulary)
  • Spelling
  • Consistent verb tense and subject/verb agreement
  • Complete sentences (no run-ons or fragments)
  • Punctuation and capitalization

The Writing Center can help you:

  • Generate ideas and choose a theme
  • Organize your ideas
  • Develop details
  • Choose words and structure your sentences
  • Copy edit

When 500 Words Isn't 500 Words

Submitting your College Essay Electronically

As seniors diligently work to submit their college essays on time, a number experience glitches in the uploading process. After weeks of editing and shaving words, you may find that when you upload your "500 word" essay, it is still getting cut off. These last-minute glitches can cause typos and errors that can be avoided by planning for the unplanned. And, the Writing Center is always available for last minute proof-reading as well as essay development and revision.

The College App software actually accepts a file size of no more than 500 KB. This in turn translates into about 500 words. states: "Because the essay is an uploaded document, the online system cannot enforce a word count. Nonetheless, applicants are expected to adhere to the instructions specifying a range of 250-500 words. Since this essay must be uploaded, the file cannot exceed 500 KB in size and should be in .doc, .docx, .wpd, .rtf, .xls, .xlsx, .pdf, or .txt format" ( Essentially, the message is that you should check both the file size and the word count if you want to ensure that your essay will fully load.

An additional problem is that when you preview your application, you notice that some of the text is cut off. indicates that the program generates a pdf, and in doing so, shortens the application. Their suggestion is that you always preview your application before submitting it. If you find text is missing, you should shorten your response until it fully appears when in the preview mode. Below is the exact response from

My text is cut off when I preview my application.

Not all answers that 'fit' on the online application will 'fit' on the PDF of the Common Application. While the answers you provide on the online application are below the character limit for a given field, it is possible that those answers may be truncated when the PDF of your Common App is generated. There is often very limited space on the PDF of the Common App. In these cases every attempt has been made to fit the maximum amount of text but still preserve the readability of the information.

It is critical that you preview your Common App and check for truncated information using the Preview link in the top menu bar and the Print Preview link on the Signature page. Because your colleges will see exactly what you see, if you preview the Common Application and find some of your text is missing, you should attempt to shorten your response to fit within the available space. If necessary, you can add more information in the Additional Information section of the Common Application. Colleges that use the Common Application are aware that there is limited space on the PDF.

Why should I be happy about writing an essay?

You have a distinct advantage-for four years of high school you have been asked to reflect on your work. You have addressed your strengths and your passions during your Division One Exhibition; this process also asked you to consider obstacles that had prevented your success in certain areas. These skills of self-reflection will help you in presenting yourself to colleges and universities.

You already know how to write an essay focused on a belief or strong opinion. You know what strategies help you with your writing-outlines, prewriting, brainstorming, etc. You know that a good essay can persuade the reader. You know that in order to persuade your readers you must organize your ideas, grab their attention, prove your main idea with specific details and evidence, and reaffirm your argument in your conclusion. You know the importance of proofreading your work. The purpose of this packet, therefore, is not to provide instruction in writing; instead, we have focused on helping you write a strong essay about your beliefs and/or experiences.

The college application requires the exact same information from all high school students-grades, ranks, scores, courses, etc. The essay, on the other hand, requires you to be yourself, a unique individual with distinct experiences, philosophies, and modes of expression. The essay offers admission officers a chance to "hear" your voice. The essay also provides them with an opportunity to see your writing skills applied to a topic with which you are most familiar-yourself.

What are admissions officers looking for in my essay?

Admission officers will read your essay to determine who you are, how well you write, if you are willing to become an active member of their community, and if you have learned from your life experiences so far. They need to know if you are ready to live independently and make good choices. No matter what the actual question, here are the things that your readers want to know:

1. Who are you?

You may be asked how a friend would describe you; to discuss your best quality; to describe a significant event and its impact on you; to discuss a risk and its impact on you or others close to you; to discuss one way to improve a weakness you have noted in yourself. The question might be stated in a very open-ended way-"Tell us about yourself," or "What else would you like us to know about you?"

The purpose behind this type of question: The school is looking to explore your self-confidence, your sense of well-being. They want to know what experiences you have had that have prepared you for a more independent life. Don't' hold back-you are an expert on you! You have written personal essays every year of your school life-you know how to do this.

Caution:Do not start your story with the day you were born. Select one incident or chapter of your life. Make sure that every single word pushes your story forward. This style signals an informal tone and a strong voice. Remember that the story is in the details!

Another caution is to make sure that your story could not possibly be confused with someone else's. If, for instance, you choose to write about a parent or the loss of a grandparent, avoid clichés-do not ever say that someone "was there for you." That conveys nothing to the reader, and your job is to get noticed by the admissions director-who reads thousands and thousands of essays each year.

2. How will you contribute to our school?

This question focuses on how well you have researched the particular college or university about which you are writing. What will you join? What will be the focus of your leadership skills?

The purpose behind this type of question: Your college wants to build a life-long relationship with you. This begins with ensuring that your personal philosophy and needs match theirs. Do you participate in co-curricular activities? Will you be a member of student government? Are you an active citizen? What have you learned about this school's mission, its programs, and its reputation? Your response to this type of question will demonstrate your knowledge of yourself and of their institution. If you have a strong interest in a specific course of study, use this topic to connect with their course offerings and/or their reputation in that field.

Caution: Don't gush. State your concrete knowledge of the school and draw connections to your own philosophy or experience. If you know students currently attending this school, mention that. If one of your teachers has recommended this particular school to you, mention that.This is a question of connections.

3. Can you tell a story?

Often this question is phrased as a request to describe a significant event and its impact on your life. You may be asked to recount a challenge you faced. The question might ask you to describe your most important possession. The question might ask you to discuss a time when your values were threatened.

The purpose behind this type of question: Your response will demonstrate your writing ability, your skill in narrative. The reader will be looking for a focused piece of writing that conveys conflict and resolution of a singular event. Your response will also showcase your skill in reflection-your ability to make meaning of events and experiences. Your story must have a beginning, strong details, and a logical ending.

Caution: Use strong verbs, not mushy adjectives. Tell your story simply. Don't tell the reader the lesson you learned-show the reader that you have learned something.

4. Are you thoughtful and creative?

This question might ask you to discuss a current social issue or historical event; it might ask you to discuss your favorite teacher, or your favorite character in literature, history, or film. It might ask you to choose some historical figure that you would most like to meet. You might be asked to name three people with whom you would most like to sit at a dinner party. You might be asked to discuss your personal hero. You might be asked to comment on a quote. You may be asked to consider what a study abroad program would offer you, or to discuss the effect of attending a university with an international population.

The purpose behind this type of question: Colleges use this type of question to assess your abilities as a Complex Thinker and Skilled Information Processor. The reader will be examining your ability to write a cohesive, structured response, filled with very specific details. Have you mastered the skills of formal written expression? Do you know how to think? Are you an insightful individual? Do you write with authority? Are you knowledgeable about history, literature, or current events? Can you connect those disciplines in a way that helps you to make sense of the world?

Caution: This is a serious topic, requiring a more formal tone than some of the others. These types of questions require the ability to write persuasively, to organize your thoughts, and to demonstrate depth of knowledge. This type of question most closely mirrors essays you have written for English, social studies, and science courses. You know how to do this, but take the time to write several drafts.

Final Checklist

You have spent twelve years writing for a variety of audiences. You have written personal narratives, research papers, and essays of reflection. You have the skills you need to do a good job. Each of you, however, will approach this task in a slightly different way. You may outline, map your ideas, write many drafts, seek help early, or beg for help at the last minute. Regardless of your preparation to complete this work, please use this checklist to increase your writing proficiency. There is nothing magical or mysterious about writing the college essay. The requirements are the same for any effective writing task.

***Note: The last step in the editing process is to winnow your essay to no more than 500 words. It is sometimes hard for an author to cut words, so this is a good place to ask for help.

Your essay has:

  • An introduction that grabs the reader's attention by jumping into the action.
  • Paragraphs that offer specific details that support your thesis.
  • Strong verbs.
  • You limit the number of times you have said, "is" and "was."
  • A variety of sentence lengths.
  • No fragments or run-on sentences.
  • Clear and simple language.
  • No slang, clichés, generalizations, flowery language, or bloated vocabulary.
  • Been read out loud to improve the flow and rhythm of the sentences.
  • Been proofread a hundred times.
  • Been read by someone other than you.
  • Been edited, revised, refined, and proofread again.


McGinty, Sarah Myers. Writing Your College Application Essay. NY: The College Board. 1986.