Writing a College Essay That Admissions Will Love

July 16, 2017, 05:30 AM

Yes, it is college essay time again, when students and parents agonize over how to impress college admissions officers in 500-words or less (okay, now maybe 650 words or less). Yet too few students really know what topics colleges find compelling in an admission essay.  

So here are a few tips to get you started on the college essay, ones that we've used (and still do) with hundreds of students.

Tip #1: Don’t write on the first topic that comes to mind. Typically, and we're am not sure why, the first topic rarely becomes the one students actually write upon. Sometimes, there are “seeds” of other topics in the first one, but don’t decide too early on your topic. Brainstorm!

Tip #2: Find the “extraordinary” in ordinary things. Resist the temptation to write something “great” or “awesome” about yourself. Instead, take something “ordinary” and explain why it is so special to you. Talk about that summer job at the frozen yogurt shop: What’s it like to work there? Who did you meet? What did you learn from the job? All sorts of topics can be approached in this way by focusing on the beauty and profundity of ordinary things.

Don’t just take my word for it. Read some sample essays from several students admitted to Johns Hopkins University, a very selective private college.

Tip #3: Select a topic that does not repeat information already in the application. This is really important. The personal essay should reveal aspects of your life NOT already apparent elsewhere in the application. If they already know you play Varsity soccer, don’t write about soccer. If they already know that you love robotics, pick another topic. If listed tons of community service in the extracurricular section, don’t write about the topic for the college essay.

Tip #4: Avoid “Bad” Essay Topics. If you do anything, just promise us that you will NOT write on any of the topics below:

Death of Grandparent (or Pet)

Overcoming an Athletic Injury (or Athletic Victory)

Community Service Project in “Poor” Country

Expensive International Vacation Travel

Something You Got in Trouble For

While these may be interesting or meaningful experiences, it will be hard to “stand out” writing on these topics. Take the time to find a more original essay topic that only you could really write!

Tip #5: Be authentic. Don’t “pretend” to be someone you are not or write something that feels “fake” or boring. Don’t try to “impress” them. Just be yourself.

So relax, take a deep breath, and have fun with the process.

 Do you also need help studying for the SAT® PSAT/NMSQT® exam? Save 30% off your enrollment with code COACH30 when enrolling online at

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