7 Tips for Writing a Killer College Essay

I can honestly say that I’ve never been a helicopter mom. I’ve never stayed up later than my kid to put a few “finishing touches” on her science project. I don’t schedule meetings with teachers or principals or send carefully worded “concerned” texts to mothers of my kids’ friends. I don’t have tracking devices on their phones.

For years I’ve been cool. I’ve been laid back. Except when one of my kids puts a piece of writing in front of me. Before I know what I’m doing, I’m reaching for a red pen. The itch to edit or tease something sublime from each sentence is simply too great to resist. I MUST put my mark on it.

Now my oldest son is applying to colleges and it’s essay-writing time. All my exercises in restraint have led to this point. Now, not only is it my last chance to be a Butt-in-ski, it’s a really important situation.

The urge to insert myself has been so great I’ve needed an intervention of sorts. So I called on my friend Gad Meiron, tutor extraordinaire and founder of The Gad School, to help me put together suggestions for a killer college essay. (Tips which, by the way, will uplevel any form of writing.)

If you’re an anxious parent begging your son or daughter to let you “just take a little look,” stop hovering. Instead, print this out, give it to your kid, and let it go.

Dear (insert name):

Your essay is not about achievements, and it’s not a résumé. The colleges already have that in your application. Unfortunately, most of the thousands of applications colleges receive look pretty similar. How can you separate yours from everyone else’s and stand out? Write a killer essay.

College admissions officers look at your essay like it’s an interview. It’s their only way to get to know the real you if you don’t interview in person. Your job is to show your best you. Here are some basic guidelines to help you make a great impression.

  1. Start with a story. Use the first person and make it personal. Admissions officers want to know the essence of who you are. What matters to you? How do you think and feel? Choose a topic that evokes a real emotion in you. Remember, however, that your story has to be a response to the question prompt. Be sure it’s relevant. What story will you tell? A school counselor shared that a popular topic she’s seeing is around identity. Who am I? Where do I fit in? This could revolve around gender, immigration status, being artistic versus intellectual, etc. Start there, if it’s a great story. If not, don’t. You want to stand out. Maybe you choose an event in your life that affected you deeply and changed you for the better.
  2. Use a great opening line. Admissions officers read thousands of essays every year, and they’ll gloss right over yours if it sounds dull or formulaic from the start.
  3. Don’t waste words restating the prompt question. That’s a recipe for rejection.
  4. Be truthful. Don’t say you cured cancer if you’ve never touched a test tube. Admissions officers can tell when you’re making things up.
  5. Avoid emotionally distressing, painful topics, like death, divorce, and cancer. The loss of a loved one or a life-threatening illness may make a compelling story, but it might also put off the admissions officer. Your essay can include elements of tension, conflict, and controversy, but keep the tone positive overall. Remember, you want to show them your best you.
  6. Keep it interesting by using a variety of sentence structures. Don’t begin every sentence with the formulaic “I, verb, noun.”
  7. Cut all unnecessary words like so, very, really and limit adjectives and adverbs.

And most importantly? Be yourself. Do your best and then relax. Nothing will keep you from your path.

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