What Makes A Great College Application Essay?

The college application essay has become one of the most popular genres of writing in the US in the last 10 years. It’s been mentioned in movies (Lady Bird, Flight) and the New York Times often invites students to send in their submitted essays on different themes and publishes what they think are the best of them.

When parents and students get in touch with me for guidance, they’re often in states of high stress — feeling overwhelmed and certain they will never figure out a way into and out of this essay! Often, students have an idea about what they want to write but they don’t know how to get started. Others wrote a draft in a “Let’s Write Your Common App Essay” exercise in school, but it’s 1000 words long — which is 350 words longer than it can be. And they have no idea how to cut it. Or if it’s “good enough.” 

As a professional writer and editor, I share the anxiety they feel. This essay assignment is tricky, hard to crack, and, in most cases, unlike anything a student has been required to write in all their years of schooling. The fact that it’s a going to be used to judge their admission to college adds a layer of anxiety that is the sworn enemy of good writing.

Students frequently ask me, “What are they looking for? What do they want me to say?”

I always answer: “They don’t want you to say anything specific. They want to find out who you are.”


“What you love. What you care about. What you find fascinating. What’s on your mind — or what in your background has shaped you, inspired you, gotten in your way, and made you who you are.”

The Common Application Essay — also known as the Personal Statement — is wide open. You can write about a situation in your life that sets you apart, about an event that made a difference, a subject you absolutely love, a time you messed up badly and what you learned from it — or anything else that conveys something that matters to you as a student or a citizen of the world.

Keep in mind:

Colleges will look at ALL of you, not just your essay. Your essay is one piece of the pie, so it does not need to include everything about you. Your grades, scores, teacher recommendations and extra curricular activities give the colleges a lot of information that’s crucial in evaluating you. The essay is something extra — the sense of your beating heart, your enthusiasms, your struggles.

Keep your language simple. It should not sound like an academic paper but a letter to a friend, maybe even a diary entry, a conversation with someone who wants to know you better. It needs specific details, precise language, and some serious reflection about your subject, whether it’s the story of:

  • your first job scooping ice cream and how it helped you grow;
  • why you love math;
  • how growing up as the only child of two much older parents has affected you;
  • why you love old-fashioned paper maps — and where they’ve taken you;
  • what being Jewish in a very non-Jewish town has meant to you;
  • how moving from one region of the country to another affected you — from conservative Houston to liberal Boston or vice versa;
  • the weekend-long leadership conference that changed your outlook and your ambitions.

It’s also important that your essay matches the rest of your record. If you’re a top student with stellar grades, many AP courses, and impressive extra-curricular activities, your essay should sound like the person we see elsewhere in the application. If your record is uneven and you’ve struggled through high school, it’s fine to write about a subject you didn’t struggle in — or a struggle you overcame.

Facing the blank page can be terrifying. Writers have a few tricks for avoiding that: if you have an idea what you want to write but don’t know how to get started, don’t sit at the computer with your eyes firmly on the screen in a state of panic. Instead, carry around a notebook (you’re heard of those?) or your phone, and jot down notes whenever they come to you, even if it’s just a word. Do some free writing either by hand or on the screen. Forget about sentences and paragraphs and just write out whatever comes to mind on the subject. An hour later – or a day – go over what you’ve written and underline the strongest phrases and sentences — underline what you want to keep and start your essay on another page or farther down the screen. And then tell the next line of the story you’re telling.

Your essay does not have to be about a topic no one has ever written. Colleges are not looking for originality but authenticity – your real voice, your real concerns. 

 I work with students at all stages of the process, in whatever ways they might find useful. If you’ve written an essay and want a review, I can do that. If you’ve written an essay and need an editor, ditto. Or if you’re groping around in the dark about what to do or how to do it, I can help you with that too. 

Shoot me an email or give me a call (East Coast):



And thanks for visiting.