Written By:


Daniel Chao
Princeton '19


A Guide to Writing Your College Admissions Essay – Part 1

If you’re reading this post right now, I’m willing to bet you’re thinking about the college admissions process. If so, you may fall into one of these categories:

  1. A rising senior or current senior applying to college and somewhat / completely lost on writing your college essay, in which case continue on reading.
  2. A high-schooler who does not fit into the category of number 1. Right now there’s better things for you to worry about, like your grades, SAT/ACT, extracurricular activities. So I highly recommend that you bookmark this page and don’t read this blog post until you fit into the category of 1.

I know the essay is important, but why?

The college essay is a way for the admissions officer to step into your shoes and see what kind of person you are from yet another perspective. The other perspectives, of course, include your grades, test scores, extracurricular activity involvement, etc. Often, when we (or at least me a few years ago) picture THAT kid who got into all the dream schools, we think about someone who has high test scores, high GPA, a wealth of extracurricular activities and leadership, some awards under their belt, and possibly more. Many applicants to these dream schools embody several of these characteristics, and there are way more students applying to these schools who have these “standout” qualities than the schools have room to accept.

What separates you from the thousands of other kids applying to your dream school is your personality, and the best way to convey that is through your essay. A good essay will be able to convey various aspects of the student’s personality such that the admissions officer(s) will be able to connect and/or relate with you after reading your essay. These admissions officers are looking for people who can contribute to the school both academically and socially (as in campus life and activities, NOT partying). The numbers part of the college app, and sometimes extracurriculars, speak about the academic side of a student, but it is in the essay and teacher recs where the student can really show whether or not they belong at the school, and it has the potential to set you apart from the rest of the crowd.

OK, but I have no idea where to start with my essay.

The only way you can get good at writing college essays is to write college essays. Do not be afraid of writing a bad essay; I probably wrote AT LEAST 10 different essays before writing the three that I sent with my Princeton application (and I am not the world’s greatest writer). Depending on your writing ability, you may have to put more or less effort into your first few drafts. That said, you below are a few guidelines and tips you should constantly have in mind as you’re writing your college essay.

When you write your essay, you should try to imagine that you’re telling a short story about an aspect of your life. This makes it entertaining for the admissions officer to read. But, keep in mind that this is still an essay. You will need to keep it unified under one idea, kind of like a thesis that is never explicitly stated, along with an introduction, to introduce your topic; body, to tell the meat of the story and more importantly, subtly reveal aspects of your personality to the admissions officer; and finally a conclusion to tie your essay together.

As long as your essay is interesting to read and shows lots of bits about your personality, you’ll end up with a very solid essay. But doing it is very hard to do, so below are some tips to achieve your goal. If this is your first exposure to a college essay, I suggest trying to incorporate as many of these elements as possible, but I think it is more important to get SOMETHING down on paper, and then looking back here and on my next blog post about how to improve your essay or your next one.

  1. When thinking of a topic, it may be better to think small. One of my essays was about swimming laps during one of my normal swim practices, and another was about driving home from practices. The process that you use to find success, like laps everyday in a pool, may reveal a lot more about your personality than the success story itself. I think it is also a lot easier to maintain focus in your essay and keep it interesting if the scope of your topic is small.
  2. Write about something you love and can talk on and on about. I hesitate to use “passion” because it is thrown around so much when it comes to college apps. Writing a story about it becomes so much easier, and the essay flows much better because they’re things you love. Don’t be afraid if this is something “silly.” A heart-felt essay about Rubik’s Cubes or LEGOs or an embarrassing childhood memory may have the potential to turn into a very powerful essay.
  3. On the same note of choosing a topic, focus less about what you think the college wants to hear, and more about what makes you, well, you! Don’t worry about what anyone else is writing. Just focus on what kinds of qualities define your everyday life, and that itself, will be able to set you apart from the crowd because everyone has a unique personality (cheesy but true).
  4. Avoid clichés. If you think that writing an essay about the hard work you and your team put in that eventually led to winning a championship will be an “impressive” essay, then you’re likely going to be sharing that same idea with thousands of other kids applying to that exact school. These essays are often quite boring and do not really offer a lot of unique information about you because so many of these essays have similar structure, story, and lessons learned.
  5. Whatever you write about, include information on how it affects your life today. Ultimately, no matter how funny or cool your childhood story is, the admissions officer still needs to know about what kind of person you are right now. Figure out how to make the connection between your topic and your traits, aspirations, etc. Some examples I have seen include using the funny story as an anecdote to lead into current life or using the story to draw parallels with their current life.
  6. Show, don’t tell. I think this is THE biggest thing to remember. Basically, instead of stating what kind of traits you possess and why, you would mix in some sort of description that reveals a trait you want to convey. It would then be up to the admissions officer to put together a picture of you based on those descriptions. For example, let’s say you open up your essay with something like, “I waited, with my heart racing at 180 beats per minute and sweat soaking my clothes, for my coach’s whistle to start my next 100 meter repeat.” Now, you have communicated that you’re very disciplined, hard-working, and motivated to do well, and you have a ton of room to open up into a deep story and, more importantly, a central theme to your essay that shows more about who you are. For example, that same anecdote could be used to lead into an essay about a love for working under pressure.
  7. Don’t try to be cute and don’t try to be fancy. If you’re like me and you’re not all that creative when it comes to assignments and essays, it’s in your best interest to not all of a sudden become one that does. When you search online, you’re going to see crazy good essays of people writing love songs and creating amazing drawings to supplement their essay. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO DO THIS. If you’ve always succeeded at being good and simple, keep doing that. Why change who you are to make yourself “look better” on your college app?
  8. Finally, keep it simple and true to you. Your essay does not have to reach the 650-word maximum in order to be great, and a shorter essay less than 500 words is not necessarily bad. It is far more important to keep your essay unified under a central theme (to prevent rambling or going off-topic). It is also super important that your essay sounds like you. Put the thesaurus away, don’t worry about making it sound more intelligent, and keep it somewhat colloquial: you want to show what kind of person you are, but you’re still writing to someone who is older and more powerful than you.

There is a book you should look at called “50 Successful Harvard Admissions Essays.” It offers many different types of well-written essays, along with analysis on why the essay was good, and what the writer could have done to improve. You will get some sort of idea on how to structure your essay and additional tips for writing it. But, keep in mind that these essays are personal, and they really only work for the people who wrote them. For a long time, I tried to mimic the style of these essays, and these essays all felt very forced and did not really fit into my personality. It was only when I stopped thinking about those essays when I began to write my best essays.

Also, none of these guidelines are not necessarily rules, and this post is not your bible. You should take this with a grain of salt, as you would other college advice. There will be a few examples that basically contradict everything that I say, but make a ridiculously good essay.

Coming up: So you’ve drawn up a draft of your college essay. So what now?