Three Important Tips for Writing College Application Essays

Each year prospective students anxiously await the mail to see if they got the thin envelope or the thick one, the rejection or acceptance letter.  Which they get is determined largely by their application essay. Writing college application essays is a daunting task for many students.  That’s why it’s a good idea to start planning well in advance, and to write some practice essays.

One of the main challenges is that in the essay, a student has to engage in self-promotion, which is counter to our cultural admonition against bragging.  Also, students are often unsure about what will work–what admissions officers are looking for.  There is a lot of advice available, but I would like to focus on three key strategies: creating a match, telling a story and demonstrating excellence.

Creating a Match

Most colleges are looking for students who fit with their culture, mission and academic standards.  For instance, a college that focuses on majors in technology, like MIT, will look for students with strong math and science backgrounds and the drive to enter a competitive field in engineering, etc.  This helps ensure a better experience for students and better retention rates for the college.

If you can show that you are a good match for the college, you stand a better chance of getting accepted.  Do your research.  Get copies of the course catalog, student handbook and other publications.  Go on the website and read the descriptions of campus life and the promotional materials.  Chances are, you’ll see a few key messages repeated all over these documents.  In your essay, use the phrases and ideas the college uses to promote itself.  Give examples to show how you fit these key characteristics.

Telling a Story

Admissions staff read thousands of applications.  They are looking for the ones from students who will likely excel at their institution.  They want to be interested in what they read.  To do this, they must feel like they know something about you.  You can really show them who you are by telling an engaging story about yourself, a story that demonstrates your skills, personal philosophy or insights, and your determination to succeed.

Good stories invite the reader into an experience.  As you write your story, make sure you include details that bring your story to life.  Imagine you are telling the story to a trusted mentor and include information about how you felt and what you learned from your experience.  You may tell one longer story to illustrate your point in an essay, or you might want to include several short examples of your experiences to show what kind of person you are.  Make sure you meet the requirements of the application, though.

Demonstrating Excellence

The content of what you write in your essay should show you as a person who has strong skills in an area relevant to the college you are applying to.  It should show that your past successes are an indication of your future success throughout your education and career.  All of this will show you are a person who strives for excellence.

The way you write your essay will also show your excellence as a student and your attention to detail.  Make sure you address the question asked in the application.  Use excellent language, express ideas clearly, and show your own voice and style.  Be absolutely sure the grammar is correct.


Writing the essay can be scary because so much seems to ride on it.  You can make the process easier and write a better essay by starting early and spending your time crafting an essay that truly reflects your abilities.  For extra help, find the “College Application Essay Planning Table” under student resources at

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