Here’s a brutal truth about applying to college: On paper, most teenagers are not very unique. Some three million high school graduates send applications into universities every single year, and that’s just within the United States. Seasoned admissions officers—particularly at elite schools—know how to spot cookie-cutter applicants and toss them into the reject pile in seconds.
Luckily, you do get a modest chance to distinguish yourself. Universities in the US and across the world are increasingly looking away from test scores and grade point averages and toward one particularly unique component of students’ applications: the essay. If done exceptionally well, it’s a catapult to an acceptance offer. So what exactly is the best way to sell oneself to Harvard in a thousand words or fewer? Reporters and editors across Quartz’s newsroom have come together to offer some foolproof advice.
Forget “writing from the heart”
Parents and teachers will often tell students who are just starting out on their essays to “write sincerely,” “write about your feelings,” “write about what matters to you.” That advice, while well-intentioned, is not helpful. An essay can be completely heartfelt—and terrible.
Instead of starting from such a broad place, begin with the narrow strategy of researching the worst college-essay clichés; that way, even if you don’t have the faintest idea what to write about, you at least know what you have to avoid. Examples of hackneyed essay characteristics that immediately make admissions officers roll their eyes include:
- Dictionary definitions (“Webster’s defines ‘courage’ as…”)
- Epigraphs or references of famous writers (“It was the best of times…”)
- Sound effects (“Whizz! Snap! Whew! went the rocket that I built…”)
- Sentences that are just strings of SAT words (“The fortuitous phenomena that transpired on the fortnight of…”)
- Overused metaphors
- “Let me tell you a story”
- Repeating information from other parts of your application, i.e. re-listing all your extracurriculars
- Talking about the university instead of yourself
- Over-using passive tense, instead of telling an engaging story
- Sticking too close to the prompt (“A time I overcame an obstacle was when…”)
Don’t be interesting. Be interested
Now, what to write about? Essay prompts are intentionally open-ended, and there are several ways to go about choosing a topic. Here’s a nearly foolproof one: Write about a person, place, or idea that you genuinely—perhaps to the point of geeky, nervous-laughter embarrassment—love.
“Write about what you’re interested in, not what you think is interesting about you,” says Quartz lifestyle reporter Jenni Avins, who wrote about her part-time job in high school making crepes in a coffee shop: “I was really interested in the people who came into this creperie, and this little world. It was an observational piece about having this window on a community.”
But this doesn’t mean you should ramble on pointlessly for five paragraphs. Make sure your topic reveals something about yourself, or why you want to study and pursue the things you do. Jenni’s essay highlighted her curiosity toward others. Quartz science editor Elijah Wolfson wrote his essay about pizza joints in New York—but it was really a tale of moving across the country and coming to terms with loss.
Yale’s dean of admissions Jeremiah Quinlan told Quartz last year that the university is explicitly “looking for passion” in the kids it admits; you can bet that the admissions offices at Stanford, MIT, and other top-tier schools are hunting around for the exact same. Don’t worry about your topic sounding too boring or pretentious—the raw emotion underneath matters more.
Pull out unflattering memories
It can be instinctive to paint the best picture of yourself possible in your essay, but put aside vanity and pride for a moment. You’ve already spent the rest of your college application flourishing your immaculate GPA, club leadership, and volunteer work. Oftentimes, the most powerful essay topic is one that lets some of your imperfections seep through.
You can start by thinking of a time that you struggled, made a mistake, or were embarrassed. Quartz technology reporter Mike Murphy, for example, wrote his essay on being stranded at the bottom of the Grand Canyon as a kid. He begins by setting up the scene: “I’m sorry, but 3:30 a.m. is never the same as 4:00 a.m.” He goes on to explain how he and his relatives were accidentally separated on the trip, walking the reader through the challenges he faced on his way back to safety, and ending on a tone of humility and lesson-learning.
Good essays don’t all need to hype up an applicant’s superpowers: They can expose weaknesses, demonstrating subtlety and self-awareness.
Tell a story—however you want to
When it comes to the college essay, taking a risk—however small or big—is better than playing it safe. Try writing different versions of your essay, maybe in completely different formats, just to see if one of them resonates more than the others.
“Admissions officers have to read so many essays that physically look the same. An essay that stands out is simply more memorable,” says Quartz growth editor Jean-Luc Bouchard. “I wrote a series of thematically linked poems for my admissions essay, and even though the poems were probably pretty bad, I think I got points just for trying something different.”
You may recall the news this spring about Ziad Ahmed, a student who got into Stanford by writing “#BlackLivesMatter” a hundred times on one of his essay prompts. Such ventures may come off as gimmicky—and we certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone repeating this exact idea in a future year—but they’re effective at one thing: grabbing the reader’s attention. Ziad, who had interned for Hilary Clinton and was recognized by Barack Obama at a White House dinner in 2015, was already more than qualified. What his essay did was make admissions officers pause in their tracks for a moment, and peer a tad more closely at the rest of his application.
Tinker with your essay. Think of it not as an essay in the academic sense, but an unlined blank canvas you can use to present whatever you want. That said, no sound effects—please.
Run your essay through spellcheck. Ask a teacher, friend, parent, or counselor to read it over—then ask five more people to do the same. Admissions officers barrel through dozens of essays a day, and the rote tedium of it can cause them to be hyper-critical of even the smallest of typos and grammatical errors. Show them this small respect, and you’ve already beat out many others kids for that coveted acceptance letter.
Read this next: How to go to college for free in America
The Savvy Student’s Guide to College Education—Chapter Four
Savvy Student’s Guide to
- Selecting the Right College for You
- Selecting a College Major
- The College Application Process
- Writing Effective College Application Essays
- Researching Scholarship Opportunities
- Financing a College Education
- Benefits and Pitfalls of Student Loans
- Career Prospects of Different Majors
- Career Trends: Where the Jobs Are
- Writing an Effective Résumé
- Giving a Successful Interview
- Your First Day on the Job
The Big Picture
Many students don’t think the college essay matters all that much in the college application, but since this is the only time students can “talk” to a college, the essay proves to be very important. Since colleges are reading the essays to get a sense of the student’s “voice”, you’ll want to write a personal essay that shows them how you think, how you feel, and what matters to you in the world. The “Why Us” essay asks students to explain what they see in the college that makes it a special place to them, and how they plan on making the most of what the college has to offer. In answering both of these kinds of essays, the student will want to make sure they communicate in an honest way that completely answers the question, and that they do so in their own words. Students will also want to make sure they aren’t being too personal in their responses, and that they select an editor for their essays who is willing to support the student’s efforts to write their own best essay, and nothing more.
In many ways, the essay is the most important part of the college application. Think about it: the grades you’ve earned in your high school classes tell part of the story of who you’ve been, and so do your test scores. But where do the colleges get to find out who you are now, and learn more about what matters to you, what you think about, and what you’d like to do in the future? All of those answers can be part of a strong college essay, where sharing the story of your life can make all the difference between bringing your application to life, and being just another applicant with a bunch of numbers.
But most students don’t see it that way. They view the college essay as just one more part of the application, another item on the college checklist they have to take care of. Besides, writing is hard. It takes a long time to put together a book report, or a research paper—and that essay on what I did on my summer vacation? Please!
It’s easy to see that most of the writing students do is hard—but a lot of it is pretty easy, too. Think about all the writing you do that has nothing to do with school. Texting your friends. Posting captions with your pictures online. Talking about who did what at a recent concert, or what someone wore to the music awards show. It isn’t hard to write then—in fact, most students love to write then. You put an opinion out there, someone responds, you post an answer, someone else jumps in the conversation, and suddenly, there’s a real exchange of ideas going on. Nothing stuffy or boring, but the real you, talking about real ideas.
If it’s done well, that’s exactly what a good college essay does—inspires ideas. If they could, the college you’re applying to would have you come to campus, take a tour, talk with the admissions officer for an hour or so, get some lunch, talk a little bit more with the admissions officer, grab some swag at the bookstore, and then head home. If they did that, they’d really know who you are, and what matters to you. But if they did that with every applicant, they’d need 20 years to decide who gets admitted.
Since they can’t do that, they ask for your side of those conversations in writing—and just like a face-to-face conversation or a really good text discussion, the quality of the conversation in the college essay is all up to you. Instead of seeing this as one more part of the application, think of it as the best chance you’re going to get to show them who you are, and your goal is to get them so focused in your world, that they’ll look up at the end of the essay and wonder where you went, because they’ll feel like you’ve been talking with them. You can do that with a good post to social media, so you can also do it with a good college essay. It isn’t quite the same thing (no LOLs in a college essay), but the tone is very similar.
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Kinds of College Essays: The Personal Statement
There are three different kinds of college essays, and the personal statement is the one most students are familiar with. Personal statements give the student an idea, or prompt, and ask the student to write about it. These prompts can be very detailed, like this one from The Common Application that’s used by over 500 colleges:
Some students have a background, identity, interest or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
In the world of college applications, this is like your best friend texting you and asking, “What’s up?” It isn’t like a math problem, where there’s just one answer, and it isn’t like an English quiz, where they ask about just one part of the book. Here, you get to pick a part of your life to share with the college, and what it means to you. Where the story goes, and how you get there, is pretty much up to you.
To be honest, this is where most students blow it. Rather than see this as a chance to tell their story, they think they have to give a speech, or write a book report, which makes the tone of the essay very stiff and boring. Worse, some students think they don’t have anything important to say. Since they haven’t cured cancer, or won six Grammys, they feel like the college doesn’t really want to hear their story. It’s almost like the student is thinking, “They don’t really care about me.”
But here’s the thing—they do care about you, or they wouldn’t be asking the question—and if you had already cured cancer or won six Grammys, you wouldn’t be going to college anyway! Think about the student who wrote about taking a plane ride. He didn’t save anybody’s life, or have to land the plane all by himself without radar—it was just a plane ride. But who he ran into on the plane, and how he interacted with them, created such a great personal statement, he was not only admitted to an Ivy League college, but got a handwritten note from the admissions officer, saying this was the best essay he’d read in two years.
This essay was about something lots of people do, but that wasn’t what made it special. It was special because of the way the student told the story, showing what happened, and what it means to the student now that the experience is over. That’s an important part of a good essay—show them, don’t tell them. Consider the beginning of this essay, where a student talks about their experience on the track team:
One of the most important parts of my ninth grade year was when I ran track. I was a freshman at the time, running the 400, and I was taking Algebra I, History, Earth Science, French I, and American Literature.
If you aren’t bored reading this already, you should be. First, the student’s already told us they are in the ninth grade, so we know they’re a freshman. Second, the student’s schedule is already on their grade report, or transcript. Does it really have anything to do with the story?
Most important, the tone isn’t really bringing us into the story—and it needs to. The goal of a good personal statement brings the reader to you, not you to the reader. Something like this:
They ran out of space when they built our high school, so the football field and the track were built on the edge of a swamp. That made for an inspiring spring track season in ninth grade, when the humidity was so high it made 400 yards on asphalt feel like slogging through the Sahara with an empty Aquafina bottle.
This essay puts the reader right on the track with the student. It still shows the student is running the 400, and still shows the student is in ninth grade, but it brings the reader right into the student’s world. It’s like the difference between this picture and this picture. Both show you a track, but one gives you the feeling of the track. In personal statements, feeling is important.
That’s important to keep in mind at the end of a personal statement. Now that you’ve told your story, the college wants to know what the story means to you, and why it’s important—you could write about all kinds of stories, so why did you write about this one?
Again, you want to avoid sounding like a narrator, so this approach isn’t quite what we’re looking for:
Looking back, I can see how much I grew as a person thanks to that track season. My GPA went up, I participated in several track camps over the summer, and I won the league championship the next year.
This is OK, but it’s really more of a list than a description of what the experience meant to them. In addition, the college can already see the list of camps and awards in another part of the application. It’s better to use the essay to share new ideas—like this:
I taped the laces from my track shoes inside my locker at the end of freshman season. I replaced them with the league medal I won the next year, and replaced that with the medal I won junior year. If I learned anything from the heat of the swamp, it’s knowing how to make the most out of each challenge, and to keep finding new ones. It’s the only way you grow.
The end of this personal statement is a powerful glimpse of how the student sees the world, and that’s a key part of a successful essay.
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The “Why Us?” Question
Another essay topic colleges use is the “Why Us” question, where they want to know why you’re applying to their college. There are thousands of college choices out there, and tools like The Common Application make it possible to apply to dozens of schools by completing just one application. Colleges want to make it easy for students to apply, but they also want to know the student is serious about applying. That’s why they ask the “Why Us” question.
Take a look at this “Why Us” question from the University of Chicago:
How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago.
This is a pretty typical “Why Us” question, and it has three parts:
What do you know about us?
A strong answer has to show the college you’ve taken a close look at what they have to offer. This is more than liking their location, their football team, or a few of their most popular majors. It means you’ve looked past the first few pages of their website, or did more than just take the standard tour when you visited campus. It’s great if you want to go to a college to study Biology, but what does the college offer that makes you want to study Biology there? A special research program? A professor or two who are highly recommended by a friend? If it’s the atmosphere of the college, what makes that school special? Student activities? The way the students interact with the teachers? The more details you know about the college, the better the chances you’ll pick one that meets your needs.
What does college mean to you?
For many students, college is the first time they have a choice about where to go to school. That means it’s important to think about what you’re looking for in a college, and what you’d like to get out of the experience. All colleges offer classes and degrees, and most let you study in another country. What are you hoping to get out of those classes? Do you have some idea what you’d like to do once you’re out of college? Are you a “hands-on” learner, looking for a chance to work closely with professors? Do you do better with large classes? Colleges want to know what you’re looking for, so they can make sure they’re offering what you need to make sure college is a happy, successful experience for you.
How well does our college meet your goals?
Once you show the college what you know about what they have to offer and what you’re looking for, you have to show them how the two fit together. This may seem obvious, but it’s an important connection many students overlook—and colleges want to know what you see in making that connection. Consider this answer to the University of Chicago question:
The University of Chicago is located in one of the richest, most diverse urban areas in the United States. Relying on its strong history of scholarly excellence, UChicago places high demands on its students, and expects as much from its students outside the classroom as it does within.
This is a very nice summary of the college—but where does that leave the student? There’s no connection here between personal goals and how the college can help meet the student’s needs—and the essay is asking the student to answer that very question.
Then, there’s this approach:
That hot, humid spring on the freshman track team taught me a lot about setting new goals, and the importance of looking far and wide for answers that can help me grow. As I begin my career in Social Work, UChicago’s history of success teaching students how to help others, and the rich diversity of the city of Chicago, provides the wide array of resources I’m used to working with, and making the most of. When it comes to moving new ideas forward, UChicago and I have a lot in common.
This is a great answer for three reasons. First, it starts with the student talking about them. Most students don’t answer a “Why Us” question this way, but they should, since the question basically asks the student to tell the college what it has to offer the student—and the only way to know that is for the student to start by saying, “Here’s who I am.”
Second, this answer has the right balance of fact and feeling. The student did enough research on The University of Chicago to learn about its Social Work program; they combined this with the student’s feelings about the importance of setting new goals, and put together a strong conclusion.
Finally, this answer is great because it draws on parts of another essay. In this case, the student used the track story from the first essay to bring home a point in the second essay. Creating this kind of bridge, or theme, across essays is something very few students to, and it’s something colleges look for. This allows the student to create one larger story with the answers from two smaller essays, with an impressive result.
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Application Essay Do’s
Once you’re finished with your essays, use this checklist to make sure you’ve followed these important rules:
Answer the question
If the college asks you to name someone who’s inspired you, and they still don’t know who that is once they read your essay, that’s one reason for them to consider not admitting you. It’s more than OK to be creative with your answers; just make sure your response addresses what’s been asked.
Give more than a Yes or No answer
Some essay prompts may be written in a way where it would be easy to just agree or disagree. Not only is that the easy way out; it’s also not a very interesting answer. If someone asked you in person if you’re worried about global warming, you wouldn’t just say Yes or No. Since the essay is really a conversation on paper, you want to give more of an answer here, too.
Include a mix of head and heart in your answer
Some prompts might also suggest they only want to know what you think about an issue, or what you feel about an issue. In almost every case, a good college essay includes both. “The wide array of studies supporting the idea of global warming requires us to study the issue more closely. I want my children to be able to study and come to love the wide variety of nature as much as I do.” It isn’t enough to talk about a feeling; tie it to a fact you’ve seriously thought about, and you’re off to a good start.
Begin with an explanation, rather than an answer
Our student in the example didn’t start his essay with “I joined the ninth grade track team.” Instead, the author started with a description, drawing the reader in right away, while still letting them know where they were, and what they were doing. Let the reader jump into the story.
Show them to someone else to read
The person you choose should have a good understanding of grammar and you. While this usually is an English teacher, someone who doesn’t know you won’t be able to tell if the essay “sounds” like the way you talk and express yourself, and that’s pretty important. If your grammar expert doesn’t really know you, show it to two people, but no more.
Copy and paste the entire answer, and check to make sure you do
Since most college applications are online, students will write their essays on one computer program, then paste them into the online application. That works, as long as the entire essay makes it onto the application. Make sure it does, by reading the entire essay; and watch out for times when sentences in the middle of the essay have disappeared (it sounds weird, but it happens!)
Spell check is a great thing, but “I think night is my best time to study” doesn’t mean the same thing as “I thin knight is my best time to study”—but spell check thinks both sentences are just fine. Do this proofreading once the essay is on the application.
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Application Essay Don’ts
There are also a few things you want to avoid in your essays—here’s the list.
Don’t try and figure out what the “right” answer is
If the admissions office asks you to describe a place where you feel comfortable, they’re not hoping you’ll answer with “the library” or “the classroom.” If you really do feel comfortable there, that’s the answer for you—but if it’s in the pool or at your aunt’s house, those answers will work just as well, as long as you can show them why.
Don’t write on a topic that’s used a lot
Having just said that there is no such thing as a “right” answer, it’s also important to know that some answers get used a great deal, and that can make it harder to write an essay on that topic that will get noticed. Many essays are written about being on a sports team. If that’s only one example in the essay of how you’ve learned a lesson in life, you’re probably OK; if it’s the only example, you’re running a big risk. If sports means a lot to you, be sure to expand your focus in your essays.
Sports can also cause problems with the “Why Us” question. Any part of your answer that talks about your lifelong desire to be in the student section rooting on the Eagles or Knights or—well, you get the idea—is usually seen as being a little shallow, even if the college has a strong sports program. Focus more on the other parts of being a student and a member of the community, and keep the sports references to one, if that.
Don’t address an overly personal topic
Just like you don’t have to have won a Nobel prize to write a great essay, you don’t have to write about something extremely personal in an essay that asks you to describe a time you overcame adversity. One admissions officer tells students to think carefully before writing an essay about any of the 4 Ds—Drugs, Dating, Divorce, or Death—and to that, I would add a fifth D—Depression. This isn’t to say the colleges don’t care about these things; it’s just that the goal of the essay is to show what you’ve learned about these challenges, and how you’ve moved on from them. Genuinely big challenges can take time to get over, and if you try and write about your experience too soon, the message you’re trying to get across may suffer. If the topic for your essay involves something this personal, be sure to talk about it thoroughly with your counselor; it might be better for them to mention in their letter, freeing you up to write about something else.
Don’t use another college’s name in the essay
It’s never a good thing when an essay sent to the University of Michigan ends with “And that’s why I hope you’ll give me a chance to be a student at Michigan State.” It’s more than OK to use parts of some essays to answer questions from different college applications, as long as the essay still answers the question—but changing the names of the colleges is a must.
Don’t start being funny
The number of students who decide to begin their careers as comedians with their college essay is almost amazing as the number of students who get denied admission because their “funny” essays just aren’t that funny. It’s important to keep growing as a student, but the college essay shouldn’t be the place to launch your practice as a poet, rapper, or comic. Rely on the voices you’ve used with confidence as a student and as a person, and lead from your strengths. Essays should show you, but they should show the best of you.
Don’t let someone else write the essay for you
Some students—and, unfortunately, their parents—are convinced colleges don’t know the difference between an essay that’s written by a high school senior and one that’s been “heavily edited” by a tutor, a student already in college, the applicant’s parents, or someone on the internet who does this for a living. The truth is, the colleges can pick this up in a minute—and no, I’m not going to tell you how. Doing this violates the statement of integrity you sign when you apply, and it can serve as the reason to remove you from the college at any time if you end up going there. That’s too much to risk; write your own essays, and use your editors lightly.
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Common Application Essay Prompts
8 Tips for Crafting Your Best College Essay
Ten Tips for Writing a College Essay
9 Essay Tips to ‘Wow’ a College Admissions Officer
How to Write a ‘Why Us’ Essay
7 Cliché College Application Essays you Should Avoid
19 Common Application Essay Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
The Best and Worst Topics for a College Application Essay
25 Creative College Essay Prompts
William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White, The Elements of Style, 4th ed. (Longman, 1999).
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