4 Secrets to Writing a Killer College Essay

After years of working in various college admissions offices, I found the same problems over and over again with essays that resulted in applications getting moved to the “look at again if none of the others are better” or the “reject” pile.  Students wrote boring, messy essays that had so many errors in the first paragraph, it resulted in failing the 20 second scan rule of most readers. 

20 second rule? Yes, if the essay has grammatical or spelling errors in the first few sentences or the intro is a giant run-on sentence, admissions review staff push that application off their pile and move on to the next one. 

Essentially, you, as the applicant have 20 seconds to grab the reader’s attention and get them to read to the end of your essay. How do you do that? Well, it is easier than you might think; however, it takes some time and focus to get it right! If you know the four secrets behind how to write a college essay you will be amazed at how powerful your application will be! 

The 4 secrets:

  1. Select the best essay topic for you.

  2. Brainstorm.

  3. Write.

  4. Edit/Revise/Rewrite/Repeat

Seriously, that’s all there is to writing a great college essay to help you stand out and seal the deal for you, once you meet or exceed all the other qualifications for a school. 

Most students don't go the extra step when working on their essay. They whip out a 500 word essay that marginally addresses the prompt and “call it good”. They believe that their grades and extra-curricular activities on their application are what admissions staff care about. 

And they are wrong. 

A solid college admissions essay is often the “tie breaker” when all else is equal in the application process. This means selecting the best topic for you, to craft your response. A typo, sentence fragment, or poorly written last-minute essay can mean the difference between an admission invite and a rejection letter.

Don’t wait until the deadline to start your essay! 

Why is it such a big deal? The essay is where the school gets to know the person behind the grades and test scores. What makes you tick? Why are you, you?

Colleges want to know basically two things about you from the essay as a prospective student: 

  1. Have you been met with challenges in your life? What did you do in the face of adversity? How did you feel? What was your knee jerk response to the event? What did you choose to do? What internally drove you to make the decisions and choices you ultimately made in the moment? 

  2. What is your hope/dream/chosen path for YOUR future? If you don’t know it completely…do you know the direction you are hoping to go, based on your personal values or internal compass? What impact did the significant moment have on your thoughts or decisions about your future direction?

Secret #1 

Select a prompt from either the Common App or one of the schools you are applying for admissions. Which one is best? The one that you instinctively seem to keep gravitating toward and which you have some relate stories or experiences that immediately come to mind.

Secret #2 

List stories, ideas, feelings, personal insights, values, relationships between events, and so on. Just do a giant brain dump on paper of anything that arises from reflecting on the prompt you choose.

Secret #3 

Once you have a brain dump, you have enough to begin writing your first draft of your essay. This does not have to be perfect. This is a draft and it is most important to begin giving some organization and form to your ideas. The most important element of this draft is coming up with a “hook” for your intro that gets the reader’s attention and keeps their attention so that they continue reading your essay to find out more!

Secret #4. 

Read what you wrote and make corrections. This is revision #1. Put your essay down and go for a walk, a run, or play with your dog. Do something completely different than writing. Ideally, you put it down for at least 2 hours but NOT 2 days! 

Revision #2. Come back to your essay and this time, read it aloud to yourself. Note where you stumble, where words are not flowing, where you bore yourself, and make the necessary revisions.

Revision #3. This time just go through the essay and look at all the words ending in “ing” and the verbs that are forms of “to be” (am, are, is, was, were, etc). Is your writing predominantly passive voice? Can you change the verb endings to make the voice more active and interesting? Do you use lots of empty words like “really” and “very” often? Edit those out and see if the essay reads more fluidly and is more interesting? 

Revision #4. Now let’s just look at the prompt you chose, your lead, and your close. Does your writing clearly address the prompt? Is the lead interesting and capture the reader’s attention immediately? If not, how can you improve that? How do you close the piece? How do you tie up all the loose ends in your essay in a manner that keeps the reader interested? Make sure no new information is suddenly plunked in the last paragraph. Does it also convey your dreams for the future? 

Bring in a Pro: Now you are ready to either hire a proofreader or engage a trusted English major to read your essay to catch any of the last minute mistakes in grammar, spelling, syntax, etc. that you may over look. 

Once you have done all of this, you are ready to submit your essay/personal statement to the admissions staff. 

Jump on a call with me to discuss your student’s college search and application process I’d love to chat!

Share this with a high schooler you know! 

Shannon Evans

The Scholar Coach