7 Tips for Writing a Standout College Admissions Essay

Writing a great college essay is one of the most important things you can do to increase your chances of being accepted into the university.

As the founder of Elite Student Coach where we help students get admitted to the college of their dreams, I personally know how challenging this can be.

A good college essay shows your ability to think critically and creatively.

It reflects your ability to tackle complex topics, think outside the box, and connect personal experiences to larger themes or goals.

Where test scores, GPAs, and extracurricular activities help – an essay is your personal window into the world which colleges want to see.

Here’s 7 tips on how to improve your essay before you submit the application.

1- Show, Don’t Tell

It’s a common piece of advice but essential for engaging your reader.

Instead of merely stating your interests or accomplishments, illustrate them through stories and specific details.

For example, don’t just say you like biology; describe a moment in the lab and the experiment that captivated your interest.

When you “show” rather than “tell” in your essay, you allow the reader to experience the story through actions and senses instead of explanations. Descriptive details and vivid scenarios pull the reader into your world.

“If you tell a story about you in the lab working on a biology experiment, your essay is going to be 10 times more interesting,” I said in my reaction video.

This technique not only makes the essay more engaging but also demonstrates your enthusiasm and commitment through real-life examples, making your statements more believable and impactful.

Instead of asserting your qualities, demonstrate them through narratives that reveal your thought processes, decisions, and adaptations.

This method helps the admissions committee see your potential to thrive in their academic environment, proving your fit through actions and experiences rather than mere claims.

2- The Pickup Test

Imagine your essay is in a pile without your name. Would a friend recognize it as yours? 

  • Avoid generic details that could apply to anyone. Instead, make your narrative so distinct that only you could be its author. Specificity is key in ensuring your essay stands out from the rest.
  • Your completed essay should feel like an extension of your mind and ideas.

If you’re in a group of students – try this as an exercise:

Remove the author from each essay and a group of friends try to guess who’s is who’s.

If they guess right it means your personality is there, which is exactly what college administrators want to see.

3- Avoid Overused Phrases and Generic Truisms

Clichés and broad, sweeping statements weaken your essay.

They’re overused and detract from the personal touch that can make your essay shine. 

Instead, strive for originality in your expressions and thoughts. Make your points with unique perspectives or anecdotes that are authentically yours.

Here’s a few of these so you know what to look for:

“I learned the true meaning of hard work”.

Many students use this phrase to describe an epiphany moment, but without specific details, it fails to convey the personal significance or impact of the experience.

“This experience taught me more than I could have ever imagined”. 

This kind of statement is vague and can appear as a filler without examples or vivid descriptions to back it up.

“At the end of the day”

This is a conversational filler that is often used to sum up an argument but usually adds little substance to an essay.

“In this day and age”.

This phrase is a generic preface that doesn’t add meaningful context or urgency to your narrative.

“More than meets the eye”.

While aiming to suggest depth or hidden qualities, this phrase has become trite through overuse.

“Make the world a better place”.

This is a noble goal, but without detailing how you specifically plan to contribute, it remains just a lofty and generic statement.

4- Use Your Real Voice

Like I advised in my reaction video, “Your essays should be conversational and it should sound as if you are actually talking to the admissions officer.”.

Your “real voice” is just that – like how you’d talk to your parents or your friends.

By using your real voice, you foster a genuine connection with the reader.

This authenticity makes your application stand out as it reflects a confident and comfortable self-presentation.

It’s not just about what you say, but how you say it—your tone, style, and choice of words all contribute to the overall impression you make.

It’s also important to maintain consistency in your voice throughout the essay.

This consistency helps reinforce your personal brand, making your application memorable.

When you write as you speak, it also tends to simplify the writing process, easing the flow of ideas and reducing the likelihood of stilted or overly formal prose.

Remember to avoid using a “Passive Voice” when writing.

Passive voice is when the subject of the sentence is acted upon by the verb, rather than performing the action itself. This contrasts with active voice, where the subject performs the action.

The use of passive voice can make sentences feel weaker, less direct, and more complicated. For example:

Passive Voice: “The ball was thrown by John.”

  • In this sentence, the action (throwing) is being done to the subject (the ball), not by the subject.

Active Voice: “John threw the ball.”

  • Here, the subject (John) is actively performing the action of throwing.

5- Be Creative with Essay Structure

Traditional essay formats can sometimes stifle the natural flow of your narrative.

I encourage you to have flexibility in essay structure. This is not your typical five-paragraph English essay, so feel free to be a little bit creative.

By breaking the mold, you can emphasize different aspects of your story, making your essay more dynamic and engaging.For example, a single-sentence paragraph can serve as a powerful pause, drawing attention to a crucial point or insight.

This also makes your essay stand out from the crowd.

Experimenting with structure can also mirror the uniqueness of your story, reinforcing the personal touch that makes your essay stand out.

Whether through fragmented narratives, a series of anecdotes, or integrating multimedia forms if applicable, creative structures can captivate the reader’s attention and make your essay a standout piece.

Just remember not to get lost in this too much – the essay should be coherent and easy to read.

6- Choose Unique Essay Topics

Choosing a unique topic is crucial for capturing the attention of admissions officers.

Even mundane subjects can shine if approached creatively. I challenge you to look beyond conventional essay subjects and explore aspects of your life or interests that truly reflect your individuality.

By writing about less common topics, you also avoid direct competition with countless other essays on more predictable themes.

This can be particularly advantageous in a highly competitive admissions environment, where a fresh and intriguing topic can set your application apart from the rest.

Here are the 5 most common themes:

  • Overcoming Adversity: This theme involves students writing about significant challenges they have faced and how they overcame them. These can be personal, academic, or social obstacles. The focus is often on resilience, perseverance, and personal growth.
  • Leadership and Impact: Essays on this theme explore instances where the student took on a leadership role and made a tangible impact on their community, school, or another group. This theme highlights qualities like initiative, responsibility, and the ability to motivate others.
  • Career Aspirations: Many students choose to write about their future career goals and the passion that drives those aspirations. These essays often link past experiences and interests to future plans, illustrating a clear path of personal development and ambition.
  • Cultural or Family Background: Essays that delve into a student’s cultural heritage, family history, or traditions that shape their identity are quite common. These essays provide a personal narrative about the influences that have shaped the student’s life and values.
  • A Personal Passion or Hobby: Students often write about a personal interest or hobby that is significant to them, such as music, sports, art, coding, or volunteering. These essays are used to show depth in an area of interest, detailing how it contributes to the student’s identity or skills.

7- Seek Professional Feedback

If possible, getting feedback from someone experienced, like a college essay coach or a mentor (like myself), can provide valuable insights that refine your narrative and ensure your essay makes the strongest possible impression.

They might suggest things you’ve never thought about or important details you’ve accidentally forgotten to mention.

For example, we’ve had many students ask for my feedback on their essays and I’ve offered my thoughts on improvement.

Many of these are from the list I’ve shared with you in this article.

The closer you can get to the source the better.

If your dream college publishes these essay’s, look at the previous work other students have submitted so you can get an idea of what works best.

In summary, a successful college essay is one that is personal, engaging, and reflective of your unique voice and experiences.

By following these tips, you can craft an essay that not only meets the expectations of college admissions officers but also provides a compelling glimpse into who you are as an individual.

Remember, the goal is to stand out in a sea of applicants by being authentically you.

This is one of the most personal things you’ll ever write in your academic career and you should be proud at what you’ve done.