The College Essay

Amid the stress of application season, one task gives seniors more anxiety than any other — their essays.  Unfortunately, some level of anxiety is justified. After an applicant’s academic record, essays are one of the most important factors in admissions, often serving as a tiebreaker among applicants with similar records. But the anxiety is manageable if applicants treat the essay as an ally in their campaign for admission. For this to happen, they need to understand its true role.

Self-Focus is Essential

In writing an essay, applicants should be self-focused and be in tune with what is important to them and what they are passionate about. This seems counterintuitive, but it’s the right way to approach the task. To write a strong essay, students need to look inward. They must tell a story that has their inner thoughts as its core. Admissions Officers (AO)s evaluate essays for what they reveal about the student’s maturity, character, personality, and motivation.  It’s an opportunity to learn something about the student that may not be evident anywhere else in the application.

The essay is a way for applicants to introduce themselves to a college as a person rather than merely a set of numbers. But applicants need to be aware that AOs also expect essays to be intriguing, entertaining, and persuasive rather than erudite. In an essay, applicants are subtly selling themselves through the power of their message. If the message forms a gut-level connection with the reader, the applicant may have an advantage over the competition.

Essay Readers Seek Authenticity  

Applicants should understand that the majority of AO’s are recent graduates only a few years older than they are. They have a similar frame of reference and the same cultural touchstones as applicants, so informality is appropriate.

Essays are not necessarily grammatically correct. Leeway is granted in the use of creative sentence structure and euphemisms. AO’s want to see that the applicant is genuine and is speaking in their authentic voice. The essayist should write as she speaks.

Sometimes, the applicant needs to disregard the conventions of proper English to ensure that their true self is communicated. Remember “Nobody Doesn’t Like Sara Lee”?  OMG! A double negative! But it might be the most successful tag line ever written.

An AO for Tufts who contributes to the university’s blog has this to say about authenticity.

“As the admissions officer reading your application, I need proof – in the form of a written tone that matches your spoken one. As I read through your essay, I am crafting an image in my head of the person who will arrive on our campus in the fall if admitted. Your job is to arm me with examples of who this person is. Do this not just in what you say but how you say it.”

The best essays are often based on the student’s ordinary life experiences and point of view. Just as Seinfeld was famous for being “A show about nothing”, a student essay about nothing is more apt than an attempt at something profound.

Will Geiger, a former AO, has this to say.

Essays don’t have to be about fancy, expensive programs. Often, students write great essays about unimportant everyday things. A strong essay reveals the student’s authentic voice and unique perspective through storytelling.”


There is no magic answer when it comes to topic of the main college essay.  The same topic can produce both a great essay and a lackluster one depending on who is writing it.  The key to success in choosing a topic is finding one that is meaningful to the writer and allows the writer to showcase his/her personal style and what’s important to him/her.

In the case of college specific supplemental essays, it is important to spend the time understanding what a prompt is asking.  It is critical to formulate a response that answers the question in a way that is clear and also reflects the personal style and voice of the student writing it.

Is Humor Appropriate?

Essays are serious business. Even so, an applicant can include a humorous bit; a sentence or two that gets a smile. The AO may remember the line and it will help set a genial tone. Self-deprecating humor is safest. It’s the least likely to be considered offensive to someone, somewhere.

Though it can be beneficial to include humor, it’s not for every student or every essay.  If a student is naturally witty than humor will likely work in getting a point across in an essay.  If not, the humor may seem forced or at times inappropriate. It must also fit well within the essay. If the essay is about a grave topic, it’s best to skip the humor. The applicant must be confident that the bit will help their case and not harm it. If there’s any doubt, it should be omitted.

Who Should Edit?

An applicant can use a copy editor without concern about a breach of ethics. A copy editor proofreads for errors in spelling, punctuation, and word usage. Even the best journalists and authors use a copy editor.

But who should an applicant rely on to critique their essay’s theme, message, and execution. The advice of the Tufts AO is as follows.

Show your essay to two people, and no more: Often the worst thing that can happen to an essay is editing. When you have many different people giving you feedback, you often lose your own voice. You’re hidden behind perfect grammar, sterile language, and phrases thrown in because ‘It’s what admissions officers want to hear.’ Let me demystify something for you: I hate the things you write because it’s what admissions officers want to hear. They’re boring. And forced. And misguided. Show your essays to only two people — one who is a strong writer, and one who knows you very well.”

Start Early

Starting early is a good idea for essays and, for that matter, all tasks related to admissions. The end of junior year is about right for essays. This gives ample time to brainstorm ideas over the summer and to make sure that the chosen theme is consistent with the core message of the entire application.

Most of the colleges’ supplemental essay prompts are not available until August so it is great to have the main essay done by then so students can use the month of August to begin work on college supplements.

Procrastination is especially disastrous in essay writing. No semi-decent essay was ever written during an all-nighter before a deadline. The writer needs sufficient time to be able to walk away from a draft and return to it later, maybe even much later, with fresh eyes. Another great way to see if the essay is ready is to read it out loud – it’s amazing how different something can sound when listened to rather than read.


As part of our comprehensive consulting services at The College Planner, LLC we coach applicants through their essays from brainstorming, theme development, drafts, and editing to final versions. Laura Cubanski is our Essay Specialist who helps students with their main college essay. Laura is highly qualified and truly enjoys assisting seniors in all stages of the essay writing process.

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