Craig Heller

Five Keys to an Outstanding College Application Essay

May 21, 2021

Summer is around the corner and juniors may be thinking about their college essay. We asked Craig Heller, President of College Essay Solutions, to share his expertise and tips for writing a college essay.  

College Essay

Having worked with hundreds of rising seniors on their college application essays, over fifteen years as an essay coach, I have developed a good sense of what makes an effective essay. No list of such guidelines could possibly be complete, and outstanding essays are written every year that break all the rules. But, to get you started, here are five keys I believe will put you on the road to 

an essay that will enhance your chances for acceptance to your first-choice college. 

  1. Write something only you can write.

The college application essay is not the place to put forth your ideas for solving world hunger or establishing peace across our planet. College admissions officers want to know about you, the person behind the GPA, test scores, and extracurricular activities. They want to better understand your values, goals, outlook on life, your level of maturity, and what kind of citizen you might be on campus. Therefore, in choosing a topic for your essay, it is critical that you write something only you can write. 

Approaching your essay with this in mind will usually lead to a narrative – a story that illuminates an aspect of your personality, what you have learned so far in life, or how you react to adversity – which is another plus. The narrative doesn’t have to center around a momentous event; it’s fine to go small. It just has to have had a clear and recognizable impact on you. 

Finding this topic, of course, will take significant brainstorming. There will probably be moments where you’ll think, “I’m not interesting!” Or, “I haven’t done anything in my life!” This feeling is natural and common, but also not true. You are a high school senior and no one expects you to have discovered a new planet during spring break. 

  1. Demonstrate deep thinking

Once you’ve chosen a topic, you need to explore it on a level that demonstrates your ability to assess events in your life with a high degree of self-reflection, intelligence, creativity, and perception. Although the specific actions and events of your narrative are important, it is your reaction to those events – how you felt, what you learned, how they affected you moving forward – that will establish you as an attractive candidate for admissions. Instead of spending a lot of time describing the specifics of the Christmas toy drive you spearheaded, describe your emotions when you saw a homeless, five-year-old girl playing with a donated doll. Rather than explain who’s related to whom at your family reunion, let the reader know how moved you were to be a part of such a loving lineage, and the responsibility that entails.

  1. Don’t sell yourself

The Admissions Committee member who will be reading your essay is fully aware that you are trying to make a good impression. Yet students who come on too strong risk arousing “push back” in the reader. When confronted by an essay that is little more than a student’s advertisement for him or herself, the reader’s attitude can quickly turn sour. Instead, wry self-deprecation can be both charming and disarming. A touch of healthy humility can enhance your likability and bring a smile to a reader’s face.

More specifically, avoid turning the essay into a narrative resume, with the general rule being, don’t put the spotlight on activities and accomplishments that are listed elsewhere in the application. You can mention them in context, of course, or explore them in fine detail, but the focus of the essay should not be to aggrandize yourself by touting what you’ve done. Bragging is a turn-off, wherever it occurs. 

  1. Employ the highest writing standards

Your college application essay should be the best writing you’ve ever done, using all the techniques you have learned in high school. These include, show don’t tell, avoid repetition, vary sentence structure and length, choose specific rather than general language, and build your points logically and sequentially. I also believe that shorter paragraphs will work in your favor, as they increase the reading pace and look more attractive on the page. Do not use a word for the first time in your essay; an experienced reader will quickly recognize over “thesaurus-ing.”

It’s also important to give your writing an emotional component. College admissions personnel are human. They have emotions and they can be stirred. If you can get them to laugh, cry, feel compassion, wonder, or admiration, your essay will naturally be more memorable. 

  1. Lead the reader to the conclusion you want them to have (we must have this student in our freshman class!), without letting them know you’re doing it.

In presenting yourself in the most positive light possible, you need to be absolutely clear about the impression you want to make. “I am…

  1. a leader
  2. compassionate
  3. a person with a clear worldview
  4. a computer genius
  5. a tireless writer 
  6. dedicated to public service 
  7. courageous
  8. resilient
  9. all of the above
  10. Your choice.

Next, you need to be sure your essay demonstrates that quality or qualities, with the emphasis on “demonstrates” and not “comes out and states it.” If done effectively, the Admissions Committee member will be silently noting, “This young woman stands up for her values,” or “This young man has a rare empathy for others’ distress,” or “This person has the ability to inspire others.” Allowing readers to arrive at this idea on their own (leading them as opposed to announcing it to them) will give them a stronger investment in your essay, and a more positive overall impression. 

In preparing to write your application essay, you will most likely read many articles like this one, plus get a healthy dose of input from teachers, counselors, parents, college reps, older siblings, and even, if asked, your next-door neighbor with the yappy long-haired dachshund. Everyone has an opinion about the essay, and no one is shy about expressing it or believing their experience to be the most representative. But this is your essay, so listen politely, take what you can get from every resource, decide what’s going to work for you, then sit down and kill it.

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Craig Heller, Author

Although Craig Heller has written for film, television, books, theater, newspapers, and some of the world’s largest corporations, and despite his four Emmy’s and Writers Guild award, no endeavor has given Craig as much satisfaction as assisting students with their college application essays. In business since 2005, his service is comprehensive and highly individual, dedicated to helping students make their application essays the best writing they have ever done. To learn more, check out CollegeEssaySolutions.com.

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