35+ Best College Essay Tips from College Application Experts

college essay tips

This blog has over 100 posts.

Know what that means?

It means I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about college essays.

But guess what?

A lot of other people have too.

So I thought I’d ask my brother, who helps me with my website, to reach out to some of my favorite college admissions experts—some current and former admissions officers—and ask one simple question:

WHAT’S your favorite piece of advice about writing a college essay?

Below are the results.

College Essay Tips from University Admission Administrators

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #1

Ken Anselment, Marquette University graduate and Vice President for Enrollment & Communication at Lawrence University.

Know that the best ideas for your essay—the perfect opener, a great twist, a brilliant insight—often come when you least expect them. That’s why it’s a good practice to keep a reliable collection system with you at all times as you’re preparing to write your essay. It could be your phone. It could be index cards. It could be a Moleskine notebook (if you really want to do it with panache). Just don’t store it in your own brain thinking that you’ll remember it later. Your mind may be a magnificently wonderful idea-making machine, but it’s a lousy filing cabinet. Store those ideas in one place outside your brain so that when inspiration hits you in the bathroom, in the car, on a hike—wherever—you’ll have a place to capture it and come back to it later when you need it.

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #2

Jaclyn Robins, Assistant Director of admissions at the University of Southern California. The tip below is paraphrased from a post on the USC admissions blog.

Do not feel pressure to share every detail of challenging experiences, but also do not feel that you need to have a happy ending or solution. Your writing should provide a context within which the reader learns about who you are and what has brought you to this stage in your life. Try to tie your account into how this has made you develop as a person, friend, family member or leader (or any role in your life that is important to you). You may also want to make a connection to how this has inspired some part of your educational journey or your future aspirations.

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #3

Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admissions at Georgia Tech. The tip below is paraphrased from a post on the Georgia Tech Admission blog.

Read it aloud. There is something magical about reading out loud. As adults we don’t do this enough. In reading aloud to kids, colleagues, or friends we hear things differently, and find room for improvement when the writing is flat. So start by voice recording your essay.

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #4

Dean J, admissions officer and blogger from University of Virginia. The tip below is paraphrased from a post on the University of Virginia Admission blog.

We want to learn about growth. Some students spend a lot of time summarizing plot or describing their work and the "in what way" part of the essay winds up being one sentence. The part that is about you is the most important part. If you feel you need to include a description, make it one or two lines. Remember that admission offices have Google, too, so if we feel we need to hear the song or see the work of art, we'll look it up. The majority of the essay should be about your response and reaction to the work. How did it affect or change you?

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #5

Chris Peterson, Assistant Director at MIT Admissions. The tip below is paraphrased from the  post “How To Write A College Essay” on the MIT blog.

Be specific. Consider these two hypothetical introductory paragraphs for a master's program in library science.

“I am honored to apply for the Master of Library Science program at the University of Okoboji because as long as I can remember I have had a love affair with books. Since I was eleven I have known I wanted to be a librarian.”

vs.

“When I was eleven, my great-aunt Gretchen passed away and left me something that changed my life: a library of about five thousand books. Some of my best days were spent arranging and reading her books. Since then, I have wanted to be a librarian.”

Each graf was 45 words long and contained substantively the same information (applicant has wanted to be a librarian since she was a young girl). But they are extraordinarily different essays, most strikingly because the former is generic where the latter is specific. It was a real thing, which happened to a real person, told simply. There is nothing better than that.

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #6

Jeff Schiffman, Director of Admissions at Tulane University and health and fitness nut.

Tell a good story. Most people prefer reading a good story over anything else. So... tell a great story in your essay. Worry less about providing as many details about you as possible and more about captivating the reader's attention inside of a great narrative. I read a great essay this year where an applicant walked me through the steps of meditation and how your body responds to it. Loved it. (Yes, I'll admit I'm a predisposed meditation fan.)

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #7

Kim Struglinski, admissions counselor from Vanderbilt University. The tip below is paraphrased from the excellent post “Tips for Writing Your College Essay” on the Vanderbilt blog.

Write like you speak. Here’s my favorite trick when I’ve got writer’s block: turn on the recording device on my phone, and just start talking. I actually use voice memos in my car when I have a really profound thought (or a to do list I need to record), so find your happy place and start recording. Maybe inspiration always seems to strike when you’re walking your dog, or on the bus to school. Make notes where and when you can so that you can capture those organic thoughts for later. This also means you should use words and phrases that you would actually use in everyday conversation. If you are someone who uses the word indubitably all the time, then by all means, go for it. But if not, then maybe you should steer clear. The most meaningful essays are those where I feel like the student is sitting next to me, just talking to me.

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #8

Parke Muth, former associate dean of Admissions at the University of Virginia (28 years in the office) and member of the Jefferson Scholars selection committee.

Verb you, Dude! Verbs jump, dance, fall, fail us. Nouns ground us, name me, define you. “We are the limits of our language.” Love your words, feed them, let them grow. Teach them well and they will teach you too. Let them play, sing, or sob outside of yourself. Give them as a gift to others. Try the imperative, think about your future tense, when you would have looked back to the imperfect that defines us and awaits us. Define, Describe, Dare. Have fun.



COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #9

Mark Montgomery, former Associate Dean at the University of Denver, admissions counselor for Fort Lewis College, founder of Great College Advice, and professor of international affairs at the Hong Kong University of Science and TechnologyKansas.

Keep the story focused on a discrete moment in time. By zeroing in on one particular aspect of what is, invariably, a long story, you may be better able to extract meaning from the story. So instead of talking generally about playing percussion in the orchestra, hone in on a huge cymbal crash marking the climax of the piece. Or instead of trying to condense that two-week backpacking trip into a couple of paragraphs, tell your reader about waking up in a cold tent with a skiff of snow on it. The specificity of the story not only helps focus the reader’s attention, but also opens the door to deeper reflection on what the story means to you.

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #10

Hanah Teske, admissions counselor at the University of Illinois. This tip was paraphrased form Hanah’s blog post on the University of Illinois blog.

Start preparing now. Yes, I know it’s still summer break. However, the essay is already posted on our website here and isn’t going to change before the application opens on September 1. Take a look, and start to formulate your plan. Brainstorm what you are going to tell us — focus on why you are interested in the major you chose. If you are choosing the Division of General Studies, tells us about your passions, your career goals, or the different paths you are interested in exploring.

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #11

Abigail McFee, Admissions Counselor for Tufts University and Tufts ‘17 graduate.

No one's idea of a good time is writing a college essay, I know. But if sitting down to write your essay feels like a chore, and you're bored by what you're saying, you can imagine how the person reading your essay will feel. On the other hand, if you're writing about something you love, something that excites you, something that you've thought deeply about, chances are I'm going to set down your application feeling excited, too—and feeling like I've gotten to know you.

college essay tips

College Essay Tips from College Admissions Experts

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #12

Nancy Griesemer, University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University graduate and founder of College Explorations who has decades of experiencing counseling high schoolers on getting into college.

Think outside the text box! Put a little pizazz in your essays by using different fonts, adding color, including foreign characters or by embedding media—links, pictures or illustrations. And how does this happen? Look for opportunities to upload essays onto applications as PDFs. It’s not always possible, but when it is, you will not only have complete control over the ‘look’ of your essay but you will also potentially enrich the content of your work.

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #13

Brad Schiller, MIT graduate and CEO of Prompt, which provides individualized feedback on thousands of students’ essays each year.

Write like a journalist. "Don't bury the lede!" The first few sentences must capture the reader's attention, provide a gist of the story, and give a sense of where the essay is heading. Think about any article you've read—how do you decide to read it? You read the first few sentences and then decide. The same goes for college essays. A strong lede (journalist parlance for "lead") will place your reader in the "accept" mindset from the beginning of the essay. A weak lede will have your reader thinking "reject"—a mindset from which it's nearly impossible to recover.

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #14

Dr. Rebecca Joseph, professor at California State University and founder of All College Application Essays, develops tools for making the college essay process faster and easier.

I promote an approach called “into, through, and beyond” that pushes kids to use examples to push their amazing qualities, provide some context, and end with hopes and dreams. Colleges are seeking students who will thrive on their campuses, contribute in numerous ways, especially “bridge” building, and develop into citizens who make their worlds and our worlds a better place. So application essays are a unique way for applicants to share, reflect, and connect their values and goals with colleges. Admissions officers want students to share their power, their leadership, their initiative, their grit, their kindness—all through relatively recent stories. I ask students: “Can the admissions officers picture you and help advocate for you by reading your essays?” Often kids don’t see their power, and we can help them by realizing what they offer colleges through their activities and life experiences. Ultimately I tell them, “Give the colleges specific reasons to accept you—and yes you will have to ‘brag.’ But aren’t you worth it? Use your essays to empower your chances of acceptance, merit money, and scholarships.”

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #15

Janine Robinson, journalist, credentialed high school English teacher, and founder of Essay Hell, has spent the last decade coaching college-bound students on their college application essays.

Get personal. To me, personal stuff is the information you usually keep to yourself, or your closest friends and family. So it can be challenging, even painful, to dig up and share. Try anyway. When you open up about your feelings—especially in response to a low point—you are more likely to connect with your reader(s). Why? Because we've all been there. So don't overlook those moments or experiences that were awkward, uncomfortable or even embarrassing. Weirdly, including painful memories (and what you learned from them!) usually helps a personal statement meet the goals of a college application essay—you come across as humble, accessible, likable (this is HUGE!), and mature. Chances are, you also shared a mini-story that was interesting, entertaining and memorable.

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #16

Maggie Schuh, a member of the Testive Parent Success team and a high school English teacher in St. Louis.

Just make sure that the story you’re telling is uniquely YOURS. I believe everyone has a story worth telling. Don’t feel like you have to have had a huge, life-changing, drama-filled experience. Sometimes the seemingly smallest moments lead us to the biggest breakthroughs.

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #17

Myles Hunter, CEO of TutorMe, an online education platform that provides on-demand tutoring and online courses for thousands of students.

Keep it simple! No one is expecting you to solve the issue of world peace with your essay. Often times, we find students getting hung up with “big ideas”. Remember, this essay is about YOU. What makes you different from the thousands of other applicants and their essays? Be specific. Use vivid imagery. If you’re having trouble, start small and go from there. P. S. make sure the first sentence of your essay is the most interesting one.

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #18

Mike McClenathan, founder of PwnTestPrep, which has a funny name but serious resources for helping high school students excel on the standardized tests.

Honor your inspiration. My parents would have much preferred that I write about sports or youth group, and I probably could have said something interesting about those, but I insisted on writing about a particular fish in the pet store I worked at—one that took much longer than the others to succumb when the whole tank system in the store became diseased. It was a macabre little composition, but it was about exactly what was on my mind at the time I was writing it. I think it gave whoever read it a pretty good view of my 17 year-old self. I'll never know if I got in because of that weird essay or in spite of it, but it remains a point of pride that I did it my way.


here is another great exercise if you're still stuck: "brainstorm: 21 details"


COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #19

Dhivya Arumugham, Kaplan Test Prep's director of SAT and ACT programs.

Revise often and early. Your admissions essay should go through several stages of revision. And by revisions, we don’t mean quick proofreads. Ask your parents, teachers, high school counselors or friends for their eyes and edits. It should be people who know you best and want you to succeed. Take their constructive criticism in the spirit for which they intend—your benefit.

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #20

Mira “Coach Mira” Simon, Independent Educational Consultant and professionally trained coach from the Institute of Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC), who combines her expertise to help high school students find their pathway to college.

Write about things you care about—the most obvious things make great topics. What do I mean? Colleges want to learn about who you are, what you value and how you will contribute to their community. I had two students write about their vehicles—one wrote about the experience of purchasing their used truck and one wrote about how her car is an extension of who she is. We learned about their responsibility, creative thinking, teamwork and resilience in a fun and entertaining way.

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #21

Ashley McNaughton, Bucknell University graduate and founder of ACM College Consulting, consults on applicants internationally and volunteers with high achieving, low income students through ScholarMatch.

Don't tell them a story you think they want, tell them what YOU want. Of course you want it to be a good read and stay on topic, but this is about showing admissions who you are. You don't want to get caught up in thinking too much about what they are expecting. Focus your thoughts on yourself and what you want to share.

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #22

Lauren Gaggioli, NYU graduate, host of The College Checklist podcast, and founder of Higher Scores Test Prep provides affordable test prep help to college applicants.

Be yourself. A sneaky thing can happen as you set about writing your essay: you may find yourself guessing what a college admissions committee is looking for and writing to meet that made up criteria rather than standing firm in who you are and sharing your truest self. While you want to share your thoughts in the best possible light (edit please!), avoid the temptation minimize the things that make you who you are. Show your depth. Be honest about what matters to you. Be thoughtful about the experiences you've had that have shaped who you've become. Be your brilliant self. And trust that your perfect-fit college will see you for who truly you are and say "Yes! This is exactly who we've been looking for.”

college essay tips

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #23

Suzanne Shaffer is a college prep expert, blogger, and author who manages the website Parenting for College.

Parents should NEVER write a student's essay. Admission officers can spot parent content immediately. The quickest way for a student to be denied admission is to allow a parent to write or edit with their own words. Parents can advise, encourage, and offer a second set of eyes, but they should never add their own words to a student's essay.

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #24

College Basic Team. College Basics offers free, comprehensive resources for both parents and students to help them navigate through the college application process and has been featured on some of the web’s top educational resource websites as well as linked to from well over 100+ different colleges, schools, and universities.

Don't just write about your resume, recommendations, and high school transcripts. Admissions officers want to know about you, your personality and emotions. For example, let them know what hobbies, interests, or passions you have. Do you excel in athletics or art? Let them know why you excel in those areas. It's so important to just be yourself and write in a manner that lets your personality shine through.

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #25

Find a way to showcase yourself without bragging. Being confident is key, but you don't want to come across as boasting. Next, let them know how college will help you achieve your long-term goals. Help them connect the dots and let them know you are there for a reason. Finally (here’s an extra pro tip), learn how to answer common college interview questions within your essay. This will not only help you stand out from other applicants, but it will also prepare you for the college interview ahead of time as well.

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #26

Jessica Velasco, former director of admissions at Northwest University and founder of JLV College Counseling.

Be real. As a former college admissions officer, I read thousands of essays—good and bad. The essays that made the best impressions on me were the essays that were real. The students did not use fluff, big words, or try to write an essay they thought admission decisions makers wanted to read. The essays that impressed me the most were not academic essays, but personal statements that allowed me to get to know the reader. I was always more likely to admit or advocate for a student who was real and allowed me to get to know them in their essay.

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #27

Sally Rubenstone, senior contributor to College Confidential, author of the “Ask the Dean” column, co-author of several books on college admissions, 15-year Smith College admission counselor, and teacher.

Don’t begin with “throat clearing.” Dive right in.

“As I consider all the challenges I have faced in my life, I find myself most affected by the experiences I have had working at a high-end coffee shop, where I learned some important lessons about myself.”

That’s a major throat clear ... and definitely not a shot of espresso for your readers. They’re snoozing already! So start instead with:

I know her name is Amy but when she orders the vanilla macchiato she instructs me to write “Anastasia,” on the cardboard cup, deliberately pronouncing each letter as if it weren’t the hundredth time I’ve heard it.

Skip the moral-of-the-story conclusions, too. Don’t tell the admission folks, “Now I know I can reach whatever goals I set.” If your essay says what it’s supposed to, they’ll figure it out.

Warm-up strategy: Read the first two sentences and last two sentences in a few of your favorite novels. Did you spot any throat-clearing or moral-of-the-story endings? Probably not!

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #28

Brennan Barnard, director of college counseling at the Derryfield School in Manchester, N.H. and contributor to the NYT, HuffPost, and Forbes on intentionally approaching college admissions.

Don't read the Common Application prompts. If you already have, erase them from memory and write the story you want colleges to hear. The truth is, admission reviewers rarely know—or care—which prompt you are responding to. They are curious to discover what you choose to show them about who you are, what you value, and why. Even the most fluid writers are often stifled by fitting their narrative neatly into a category and the essay quickly loses authentic voice. Write freely and choose a prompt later. Spoiler alert...one prompt is "Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. " So have at it.

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #29

Claire Carter, University of Maine graduate and editor of CollegeXpress, one of the internet’s largest college and scholarship search engines.

Proofread, proofread, proofread. Nothing’s perfect, of course, but the grammar, spelling, and punctuation in your admission essay should be as close to perfect as possible. After you're done writing, read your essay, re-read it a little later, and have someone else read it too, like a teacher or friend—they may find typos that your eyes were just too tired to see.

Colleges are looking for students who can express their thoughts clearly and accurately, and polishing your essay shows that you care about producing high-quality, college-level work. Plus, multiple errors could lower your chances of admission. So take the extra time and edit!


add some umph to your essay with my "feelings & needs exercise" here


COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #30

Debbie Stier, publisher, author of the same-title book The Perfect Score Project, featured on NBC’s Today Show, Bloomberg TV, CBS This Morning; in The New Yorker, The New York Post, USA Today, and more.

Take the pressure off and try free-writing to limber up if you are having trouble coming up with what it is you want to convey or finding the perfect story to convey who you are. Use prompts such as:

Share one thing that you wish people knew about you.

My biggest dream is ___________.

What have you enjoyed about high school?

Use three adjectives to describe yourself:____________, ___________, ________.

I suggest handwriting (versus typing on a keyboard) for 20 minutes. Don't worry about making it perfect, and don't worry about what you are going to write about. Think about getting yourself into a meditative state for 20 minutes and just write from the heart.

To get myself in a meditative state, I spend 60 seconds (set an alarm) drawing a spiral. Never let the pen come off the page, and just keep drawing around and around until the alarm goes off. Then, start writing.

It might feel you didn't write anything worthwhile, but my experience is that there is usually a diamond in the rough in there... perhaps more than one.

Do this exercise for 3-4 days straight, then read out loud what you have written to a trusted source (a parent? teacher? valued friend?).

Don't expect a masterpiece from this exercise (though stranger things have happened).

The goal is to discover the kernel of any idea that can blossom into your college essay—a story that will convey your message, or clarity about what message you want to convey.

Here is a picture of the spiral, in case you have trouble visualizing:

college essay tips

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #31

Charles Maynard, Oxford and Stanford University Graduate and founder of Going Merry, which is a one-stop shop for applying to college scholarships.

Show your emotions. Adding feelings to your essays can be much more powerful than just listing your achievements. It allows reviewers to connect with you and understand your personality and what drives you. In particular, be open to showing vulnerability. Nobody expects you to be perfect and acknowledging times in which you have felt nervous or scared shows maturity and self-awareness.

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #32

Jonathan April, University of Chicago graduate, general manager of College Greenlight, which offers free tools to low-income and first-generation students developing their college lists.

Be genuine and authentic. Make sure at least one “qualified” person edits your essay. Your essay should be a true representation of who you are as a person—admissions officers want to read essays that are meaningful, thoughtful, and consistent with the rest of the application. Essays that come from the heart are the easiest to write and the best written. Have a teacher or counselor, not just your smartest friend, review and edit your essays. Don’t let mistakes and grammatical errors detract from your application.


COLLEGE ESSAY GUY’S COLLEGE ESSAY TIPS

The following essay, written by a former student, is so good that it illustrates at least five essential tips of good essay writing. It’s also one way to turn the objects exercise (which you can find by clicking here) into an essay. Note how the writer incorporates a wide range of details and images through one particular lens: a scrapbook.

Prompt: Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.

The Scrapbook Essay

I look at the ticking, white clock: it’s eleven at night, my primetime. I clear the carpet of the Sony camera charger, the faded Levi’s, and last week’s Statistics homework. Having prepared my work space, I pull out the big, blue box and select two 12 by 12 crème sheets of paper. The layouts of the pages are already imprinted in my mind, so I simply draw them on scratch paper. Now I can really begin.

Cutting the first photograph, I make sure to leave a quarter inch border. I then paste it onto a polka-dotted green paper with a glue stick. For a sophisticated touch, I use needle and thread to sew the papers together. Loads of snipping and pasting later, the clock reads three in the morning. I look down at the final product, a full spread of photographs and cut-out shapes. As usual, I feel an overwhelming sense of pride as I brush my fingers over the crisp papers and the glossy photographs. For me, the act of taking pieces of my life and putting them together on a page is my way of organizing remnants of my past to make something whole and complete.

This particular project is the most valuable scrapbook I have ever made: the scrapbook of my life.

In the center of the first page are the words MY WORLD in periwinkle letters. The entire left side I have dedicated to the people in my life. All four of my Korean grandparents sit in the top corner; they are side by side on a sofa for my first birthday –my ddol. Underneath them are my seven cousins from my mom’s side. They freeze, trying not to let go of their overwhelming laughter while they play “red light, green light” at O’ Melveney Park, three miles up the hill behind my house. Meanwhile, my Texas cousins watch Daniel, the youngest, throw autumn leaves into the air that someone had spent hours raking up. To the right, my school peers and I miserably pose for our history teacher who could not resist taking a picture when he saw our droopy faces the morning of our first AP exam. The biggest photograph, of course, is that of my family, huddled in front of the fireplace while drinking my brother’s hot cocoa and listening to the pitter patter of rain outside our window.

I move over to the right side of the page. At the top, I have neatly sewn on three items. The first is a page of a Cambodian Bible that was given to each of the soldiers at a military base where I taught English. Beneath it is the picture of my Guatemalan girls and me sitting on the dirt ground while we devour arroz con pollo, red sauce slobbered all over our lips. I reread the third item, a short note that a student at a rural elementary school in Korea had struggled to write in her broken English. I lightly touch the little chain with a dangling letter E included with the note. Moving to the lower portion of the page, I see the photo of the shelf with all my ceramic projects glazed in vibrant hues. With great pride, I have added a clipping of my page from the Mirror, our school newspaper, next to the ticket stubs for Wicked from my date with Dad. I make sure to include a photo of my first scrapbook page of the visit to Hearst Castle in fifth grade.

After proudly looking at each detail, I turn to the next page, which I’ve labeled: AND BEYOND. Unlike the previous one, this page is not cluttered or crowded. There is my college diploma with the major listed as International Relations; however, the name of the school is obscure. A miniature map covers nearly half of the paper with numerous red stickers pinpointing locations all over the world, but I cannot recognize the countries’ names. The remainder of the page is a series of frames and borders with simple captions underneath. Without the photographs, the descriptions are cryptic.

For now, that second page is incomplete because I have no precise itinerary for my future. The red flags on the map represent the places I will travel to, possibly to teach English like I did in Cambodia or to do charity work with children like I did in Guatemala. As for the empty frames, I hope to fill them with the people I will meet: a family of my own and the families I desire to help, through a career I have yet to decide. Until I am able to do all that, I can prepare. I am in the process of making the layout and gathering the materials so that I can start piecing together the next part, the next page of my life’s scrapbook.

Analysis of The Scrapbook Essay
(or)
Five Things We Can Steal from This Essay

A great thinker once said “Good artists borrow; great artists steal.” I’m not even going to tell you who said it; I’m stealing it.

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #33

Use objects and images instead of adjectives

Check out the opening paragraph of the Scrapbook essay again. It reads like the opening to a movie. Can you visualize what’s happening? That’s good. Take a look at the particular objects the writer chose:

I look at the ticking, white clock: it’s eleven at night, my primetime. I clear the carpet of the Sony camera charger, the faded Levi’s, and last week’s Statistics homework. Having prepared my work space, I pull out the big, blue box and select two 12 by 12 crème sheets of paper. The layouts of the pages are already imprinted in my mind, so I simply draw them on scratch paper. Now I can really begin.

Let’s zoom in on the “faded Levi’s.” What does "faded" suggest? (She keeps clothes for a long time; she likes to be comfortable.) What does "Levi's" suggest? (She's casual; she’s not fussy.) And why does she point out that they’re on the floor? (She's not obsessed with neatness.)

Every. Word. Counts.

Now re-read the sentence about her family:

The biggest photograph, of course, is that of my family, huddled in front of the fireplace while drinking my brother’s hot cocoa and listening to the pitter patter of rain outside our window.

What do these details tell us?

  • The biggest photograph: Why “biggest"? (Family is really important to her.)
  • Fireplace: What does a fireplace connote? (Warmth, closeness.)
  • My brother's hot cocoa: Why hot cocoa? (Again, warmth.) And why “my brother’s” hot cocoa? Why not “mom’s lemonade”? How is the fact that her brother made it change the image? (It implies that her brother is engaged in the family activity.) Do you think she likes her brother? Would your brother make hot cocoa for you? And finally:
  • Listening to rain: Why not watching TV? What does it tell you about this family that they sit and listen to rain together?

Notice how each of these objects are objective correlatives for the writer’s family. Taken together, they create an essence image.

Quick: What essence image describes your family? Even if you have a non-traditional family–in fact, especially if you have a non-traditional family!–what image or objects represents your relationship?

Based on the image the writer uses, how would you describe her relationship with her family? Close? Warm? Intimate? Loving? Quiet? But think how much worse her essay would have been if she’d written: “I have a close, warm, intimate, loving, quiet relationship with my family.”

Terrible.

Instead, she describes an image of her family "huddled in front of the fireplace while drinking my brother’s hot cocoa and listening to the pitter patter of rain outside our window.” Three objects--fireplace, brother’s hot cocoa, sound of rain--and we get the whole picture of their relationship. We know all we need to know.

There’s another lesson here:

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #34

Engage the reader’s imagination using all five senses

This writer did. Did you notice?

  • Fireplace (feel)
  • Brother’s hot cocoa (taste, smell)
  • Pitter patter of rain (sound)
  • Biggest photograph (sight)

And there’s something else she did that’s really smart. Did you notice how clearly she set up the idea of the scrapbook at the beginning of the essay? Look at the last sentence of the second paragraph (bolded below):

Cutting the first photograph, I make sure to leave a quarter inch border. I then paste it onto a polka-dotted green paper with a glue stick. For a sophisticated touch, I use needle and thread to sew the papers together. Loads of snipping and pasting later, the clock reads three in the morning. I look down at the final product, a full spread of photographs and cut-out shapes. As usual, I feel an overwhelming sense of pride as I brush my fingers over the crisp papers and the glossy photographs. For me, the act of taking pieces of my life and putting them together on a page is my way of organizing remnants of my past to make something whole and complete.

The sentence in bold above is essentially her thesis. It explains the framework for the whole essay. She follows this sentence with:

This particular project is the most valuable scrapbook I have ever made: the scrapbook of my life.

Boom. Super clear. And we’re set-up for the rest of the essay. So here’s the third thing we can learn:

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #35

The set-up should be super clear

Even a personal statement can have a thesis. It’s important to remember that, though your ending can be somewhat ambiguous—something we’ll discuss more later—your set-up should give the reader a clear sense of where we’re headed. It doesn’t have to be obvious, and you can delay the thesis for a paragraph or two (as this writer does), but at some point in the first 100 words or so, we need to know we’re in good hands. We need to trust that this is going to be worth our time.

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #36

Show THEN Tell

Has your English teacher ever told you “Show, don’t tell?” That’s good advice, but for a college essay I believe it’s actually better to show THEN tell.

Why? Two reasons:

1.) Showing before telling gives your reader a chance to interpret the meaning of your images before you do. Why is this good? It provides a little suspense. Also, it engages the reader’s imagination. Take another look at the images in the second to last paragraph: my college diploma... a miniature map with numerous red stickers pinpointing locations all over the world... frames and borders without photographs... (Note that it's all "show.")

As we read, we wonder: what do all these objects mean? We have an idea, but we’re not certain. Then she TELLS us:

That second page is incomplete because I have no precise itinerary for my future. The red flags on the map represent the places I will travel to, possibly to teach English like I did in Cambodia or to do charity work with children like I did in Guatemala. As for the empty frames, I hope to fill them with the people I will meet: a family of my own and the families I desire to help, through a career I have yet to decide.

Ah. Now we get it. She’s connected the dots.

2.) Showing then telling gives you an opportunity to set-up your essay for what I believe to be the single most important element to any personal statement: insight.

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #37

Provide insight

What is insight? In simple terms, it’s a deeper intuitive understanding of a person or thing.

But here’s a more useful definition for your college essay: Insight is something that you’ve noticed about the world that others may have missed. Insight answers the question: So what? It's proof that you’re a close observer of the world. That you’re sensitive to details. That you’re smart.

And the author of this essay doesn’t just give insight at the end of her essay, she does it at the beginning too: she begins with a description of herself creating a scrapbook (show), then follows this with a clear explanation for why she has just described this (tell).

Final note: it’s important to use insight judiciously. Not throughout your whole essay; a couple times will do.

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #38

Trim the fat.

Here’s a 40-word sentence. Can you cut it in half without changing the meaning?

Over the course of the six weeks, I became very familiar with playing the cello, the flute, the trumpet, and the marimba in the morning session while I continually learned how to play the acoustic guitar in the afternoon sessions.

Wait, actually try cutting this (in your mind) before scrolling down. See how concise you can get it.

 

(No, really.)

 

Okay, here’s one way to revise it:

In six weeks, I learned the cello, flute, trumpet, and marimba in the mornings and acoustic guitar in the afternoons.

There. Half the words and retains the meaning.

COLLEGE ESSAY TIP #39

Split long sentences with complex ideas into two.

This may sound contrary to the first point but it ain’t. Why? Sometimes we’re just trying to pack too much into the same sentence.

Check this one out:

For an inquisitive student like me, Brown’s liberal program provides a diverse and intellectually stimulating environment, giving me great freedom to tailor my education by pursuing a double concentration in both public health and business, while also being able to tap into other, more unconventional, academic interests, such as ancient history and etymology through the first year seminars.
 

That’s a lot for one sentence, eh?

This sentence is what I’d call “top heavy.” It has a lot of important information in the first half–so much, in fact, that I need a break before I can take in the bits at the end about “ancient history” and “etymology.” Two options for revising this:

Option 1. If you find yourself trying to pack a lot into one sentence, just use two.

Two sentences work just as well, and require no extra words. In the example above, the author could write:

For an inquisitive student like me, Brown’s liberal program provides a diverse and intellectually stimulating environment, giving me great freedom to tailor my education by pursuing a double concentration in both public health and business. I also look forward to pursuing other, more unconventional, academic interests, such as ancient history and etymology through the first year seminars.

Option 2: Just trim the first half of the sentence to its essence, or cut most of it.

That might look like this:

At Brown I look forward to pursuing a double concentration in both public health and business, while also tapping into other, more unconventional academic interests, such as ancient history and etymology.

And just for the record (for all the counselors who might be wondering), I don’t actually write out these revisions for my students; I ask questions and let them figure it out. In this example, for instance, I highlighted the first half of the sentence and wrote, “Can you make this more concise?”

college essay tips

What’s your best college essay tip? Post it as a comment below.