Admissions Experts’ Top 7 College Essay Tips

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Admissions Experts’ Top 7 College Essay Tips
portrait of Michelle Kelley
by Michelle Kelley
Published on October 21, 2021


If you're applying to colleges, crafting a compelling college application essay can be crucial. According to a 2018 survey from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 56.4% of admissions counselors said the application essay plays a considerable or moderately important role in admission decisions.

If you want to write a winning essay, keep reading. This post covers seven expert-approved tips to help you write a polished personal statement for college.

Why Is the College Essay So Important?

Each year, admissions committees review thousands of college applications from high-achieving students. With so many qualified candidates, it can be tough to stand out from the crowd. Thankfully, a well-written college admissions essay can leave a lasting impression.

"[The college essay] is an opportunity for students to make themselves three-dimensional — more than just data points," said Kate Sonnenberg, founder of KS College Success and a former Princeton application reader.

In some cases, the application essay may even be the deciding factor in admission decisions.

"When you have thousands of students … the personal statement is what the committee uses to decide who they think will have the best chance of succeeding," said Lauren Tingley, creator of Simply Well Balanced and a former college admissions advisor.

Ultimately, whether you get into your top school will depend on several factors, including your high school GPA, extracurricular activities, and recommendation letters.

Still, your essay could be what sets you apart, especially if your academic record is similar to that of many other applicants. The personal statement is arguably the biggest opportunity you have to demonstrate what makes you unique.

Admissions Experts' 7 Biggest College Essay Tips

The college essay can play a decisive role in whether you get into the school of your choice, so it's important to get it right. We spoke to two experts to find out their top college essay tips.

1. Start Early

Start working on your college application essay early. That way, you'll have time to write and revise your essay well before the application deadline.

"I recommend students set aside some time in the summer between junior and senior year to work on their essay," Sonnenberg said.

During the spring of your junior year, you may be busy with finals and AP exams. However, senior year could be even busier, so it's best to get started by the summer before 12th grade at the latest.

And try not to wait until after college applications open in August to start brainstorming. "At that point," Tingley warned, "you will be working on applications … and you won't have a lot of time for essay writing."

2. Clearly Answer the Prompt

Many colleges, as well as the Common Application, provide prospective students with essay prompts. When responding to a prompt, it's important to stay on topic. According to Sonnenberg, not adequately answering essay prompts is a common mistake among applicants.

Before drafting your response, read over the prompt several times to ensure you understand what it's asking of you. Circling keywords and working with an outline also can help keep you from veering off course.

3. Make Yourself the Star

In your essay, be sure to showcase your own attributes and accomplishments — not someone else's.

"No matter how amazing your dad, sister, or cousin is, the personal statement needs to be all about you," said Tingley.

"I tell students they want the reader to fall in love with them, to feel like the campus needs them and will be enriched by their presence there," Sonnenberg echoed.

The college admissions essay is your time to shine, so keep the focus on you.

4. Put a Positive Spin on It

Few topics are off-limits in a college application essay. If, however, you choose to write about a taboo idea or negative experience, it's important to tread carefully. Students tackling tough subjects should try to put a positive spin on their experiences.

"If a student wants to write about a mental health challenge, which is sometimes considered 'taboo,' they need to make sure that the personal quality they are conveying in that essay is a strength, like resilience," Sonnenberg advised.

5. Write in Your Authentic Voice

One of Sonnenberg's biggest pieces of advice: "Write like you speak."

Some applicants write essays loaded with obscure vocabulary words because they think doing so will impress the admissions committee. However, studies suggest that when writers use plain language rather than jargon, readers are more likely to judge them as intelligent.

Be authentic in your writing while avoiding excessive informality. Never use texting acronyms or emojis in your essay either. And, of course, leave out the profanity.

6. Prioritize Experiences Over Goals

It's important to focus on what you've already accomplished rather than what you hope to achieve.

"The admissions committee can't give you points on your application for something you want to do — no matter how impressive it may be," Tingley explained. "They can only judge what you have already done."

Instead of detailing your aspirations and plans, Tingley advises applicants to showcase their leadership skills. Describing aspects of your everyday life, such as how you help out at home, can give the admissions committee a clearer sense of your leadership potential.

7. Proofread, and Get Feedback

Once you've finished your first draft, you may think it's flawless; however, it's important to get a second opinion.

"No matter how great you think your essay is, it's a good idea to have someone else take a look," Tingley said.

You could ask a parent or teacher to look it over. While their feedback may bruise your ego a bit, ideally their suggestions will help improve your essay.

Proofreading is also crucial. According to Tingley, "not checking for grammatical errors" is one of the biggest mistakes college applicants can make. Similarly, Sonnenberg cites carelessness and sloppiness as common pitfalls.

"The essay is a writing sample, too," said Sonnenberg, "so students need to write clearly."


With Advice From:

Kate Sonnenberg is a graduate of Princeton University and the Columbia University School of Law. Prior to launching KS College Success, Sonnenberg worked as an application reader at Princeton, where she read thousands of applications each year. She brings that experience, as well as her background of teaching English, to her work with students. Sonnenberg believes in the transformative power of a college education, which is why she loves helping students navigate the application process.

Lauren Tingley spent 10 years working as a college admissions advisor for the University of California, Davis' College Opportunity Programs. In this role, Tingley helped high school students write their college application essays. She has received staff training on writing admissions essays from the University of California, Stanford University, and the Common App. Currently, Tingley is a working teacher-mom of two who shares her tips for fun family activities, homemaking, and parenting on Simply Well Balanced, a site geared toward families looking to create more balance in their homes.


Feature Image: Hill Street Studios / Stone / Getty Images

Applying to college can be tricky. Use these nine tips to increase your college admission chances and help you craft a memorable application. BestColleges has created a guide to help college applicants write an essay that is sure to get the attention of the admission committee. The Common App essay can make or break your college application. Learn about the Common App essay prompts and get tips for writing a stand-out statement.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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