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About College Application Essays

Most students applying to college these days have to write one main personal application essay that goes out to all schools – the 650-word Common Application essay, based on one of five prompts. Many applicants must write some shorter supplemental essays for individual schools as well. A handful of colleges and universities don’t take the Common Application and instead provide their own college application essay questions. And some schools require no supplements at all.

Students naturally feel anxious about writing these essays. As admissions officers move away from an over-reliance on test scores, they are looking more closely at students’ writing. What do they hope to see? 

Care and creativity

First of all, they want to see that students put care and thought into every bit of writing they submit. That means that every supplement – even ones with limits of only 50 words – should be carefully crafted, revised and proofread. Indeed, supplements are in some ways more important than the Common App essay, since they show a student’s interest in – and suitability for – a particular school, rather than college in general. Poorly written or edited supplements signal a lack of interest, one that admissions committees are likely to reciprocate.

Under my Resources tab, you can read some great sample essays and find what admissions people at Yale, Tufts, Johns Hopkins and other universities have to say about what makes an essay work. But it all comes down to this: readers want to get a sense of a person who will thrive at their university. Students convey this by telling stories that illustrate their strengths, such as how they

  • Use humor to navigate tough situations
  • Seek out opportunities to learn
  • Notice details that others overlook
  • Get others excited about the things they love
  • Think about things in creative ways
  • Demonstrate humility and compassion
  • Challenge their own assumptions

None of these traits are stated explicitly. As the old saw goes, students must show, not tell, the reader what makes them tick. It’s not easy. But with guidance and support, every student who puts in the time and effort to write something great will succeed in doing so.

Essay-Writing Tips

Admissions officers read thousands of essays, so it’s important to grab their attention from the get-go. Here’s a list of some winning first lines from Stanford applicants.

In this five-minute video, a Yale admissions officer explains why essay writers should stay true to their own voice.

The folks at the Tufts admissions office are extremely generous with advice that applicants to all liberal arts colleges would do well to heed. See especially their samples of Past Essays That Mattered and tips on how to answer the “Why Tufts?” question – a staple for many colleges that’s important to ace.

“Make mistakes and plunge on... Writing is a means of discovery.”

– GARRISON KEILLOR