How can I write a great college essay?

Great writers don’t tell their audience about a character, they show their audience their character.

Why is the Essay Important?

Your college essay breathes life into your application. The transcript demonstrates your academic progress and your essay shows your heart. It tells a college how well you can communicate and express ideas. Along with the college interview, the essay is the most personal part of the application.

What Do I Want the College to Know About Me?

Consider a unique perspective you can bring to the essay prompt. Go beyond the obvious response and write from experience. If you are answering the question, “Why do you want to study your selected major?” avoid trite and forgettable answers such as “I want to help people,” or “The world needs good engineers.”

An essay that captured my heart described a student’s life in a small town in New Hampshire. He reflected on the many kind people and interesting characters who gave his hometown its unique personality. The last line in his essay was “This is treasure.” It was obvious young man completely understood and valued community living. Another favorite essay described an applicant’s interest in the effect of putting ping pong balls in a microwave oven. Her passion for physics was clear throughout the essay and the last sentence in the first paragraph “Curiosity trumped common sense” captured her excitement for learning perfectly.


Keep in mind the first rule of writing—be kind to your reader. Make sure your essay leads the reader through an easy to follow trail of thoughts and ideas. Check carefully for spelling and remember, spell check is not 100% reliable.

There is beauty in brevity. Most college admissions officers have just 20-25 minutes to read your entire application, so the more concise your essay is, the better. Making it shorter hones the central message.

Do not use words that you need to look up before you use them. Use a thesaurus only for clarity and variety, not to try to sweep the reader off their feet with big words. Do not try to be cute, profound, or cerebral. Review your essay with a trusted family member or friend to make sure it captures who you really are and sounds like you.

Stay close to your heart. Choose a passion such as an influential event, a special hobby, or a familiar place. None of these topics need to be special to anyone but you—it’s your job to help the reader understand why they are.

Pick an upbeat topic. If world hunger is your cause, start with the day you worked at the soup kitchen and then write about the gratitude of one person you served. Describe the moment: their smile, the way they made you feel, or something else that is immediate, vivid, and personal.

Paint a picture. Use words that describe texture and color in ways you that are natural for you. How you would describe the scene to a friend in a casual conversation? Forget you are writing an essay and tell a story instead. Imagine you’re sitting around a campfire with the college admissions staff, entertaining them with a tale about your life.

Have more than one person read your essay. Ask a friend to read it and ask them if the essay conveys who you are. Ask someone you don’t know well to find out how they would describe you after they’ve read the essay.

Read your essay out loud to check for repeated words, mistakes which would not be caught using spellcheck, awkward constructions, and any other roadblocks to clarity. If anything sounds clunky to you, it will sound that way to the reader.

Eat dessert first. Don’t be afraid to lead the essay off with a specific experience. Most students start the essay with generalities which relate to the prompt and then lead up to a description of their experience. They leave the “dessert”—the good stuff—to the end. Put the heart of the essay front and center. If the first thing that occurs to you when you read the prompt is “Oh, that makes me think of the time when…(fill in the blank with an experience, insight, etc.)” then, go ahead and describe what happened first and then close the essay by tying the experience in the with the prompt.

And here are some parting thoughts about your essay topic from a past Westport Educational Consulting client:

For your essay, don’t try to talk about something just to impress the school.  The essay is their one and only way to try to get to know you, and they know when you’re trying to “show off” so it doesn’t really work.  Try to be as reflective and honest about yourself as you can while creating an interesting story that reveals your message.  Use your essay to show them what you’re like, don’t tell them.  And your essay doesn’t need to come to some conclusion where you’ve solved all the world’s problems or figured out who you are (or something like that) because you’re still in high school and have the whole rest of your life ahead of you.  So it’s likely that you haven’t figured that out yet.  Also, if you think about it from the college’s end, they’re reading tons of applications each day and the one interesting part of each application is the essay, so make the most of that opportunity to seal the deal.  Have fun with it, talk about something you love and that’s true to you, and make them remember you.



We cannot thank you enough for your help with all of her essays, etc. You offer a tremendous service and were so accessible. Thank you, thank you!



Thank you for the time and attention you gave to Ella’s materials. Your thoughtful feedback on her essays was especially helpful. We’ve gotten “unstuck” and are moving along.