With so much written about how to create a “winning” college application essay, it can make your head spin. (Of course, those recommendations will include avoiding clichés like the one I just used.)

I like to keep it simple. If you want your essay to contribute effectively to your application, just remember these three things. First, it has to be personal. Second, it must be interesting and memorable. Finally, the essay needs to demonstrate your ability to organize and express your thoughts.

So why do so many students end up with dull essays? Don’t try this at home, but here is where you can go wrong.

Choosing a topic or approach that’s too big or broad – A big topic can lead you into the trap of writing as if you are preparing a report for a class or doing a newspaper article. Too often that means using lots of “telling” and explaining instead of “showing”. What you really want is plenty of rich detail that will capture and hold your reader’s attention. Keep in mind that the common application sets a limit of 600 words for your personal statement!

Likely to be Dull: “My Week in the Mountains”

Could be Good: “A Hike That Was Cut Short”

Telling a worn and tired story – You need to recognize that some stories have been told by applicants so many times that it will be very difficult for yours to stand out. Tired stories include the one about how you scored the winning goal, overcame the injury that threatened your season, learned what it was like to be poor on your mission trip to __________, will always remember the times you spent with your deceased ____________, etc. Keep in mind that the individual in the admissions office reading your essay may have already read twenty others that day!

One way to really test your essay is to ask yourself: “Is this something that only I could write?”


fine writing on paper