How to Write a Winning College Essay That Admissions Will Admire

By Sam Rosensohn

Most seniors will tell you the hardest part of the college application is the essay. And I think they’re right, since most of them start to write the essay weeks before the application is due, and without the benefit of having read 25 winning essays.

Many seniors don’t know where to start, how to present or what to write. Some never liked writing or don’t think they can write well, while others rush to professionals or parents for help.

The college essay will remain a difficult task until students are confident about what to write and their writing style. So what to write about?

Students should write about something that they find particularly meaningful or care deeply about. A good essay telegraphs critical information on just who the student is and how well he can express himself.

Students should write in their own voice. They should resist the temptation to use thoughts, lines or arguments that sound smart, but don’t reflect their thinking. They should write a college essay that only they could write. This will separate their essay from the pack.

“When students lament, ‘I’ve never done anything like this before,’ they’re right,” says Sarah M. McGinty, a university supervisor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and author of The College Application Essay.

“I would add,” McGinty wrote in an essay for the College Board Review, “and you won’t be doing it anytime soon either.” This type of writing that asks students to reflect on something that is meaningful and purposeful is a far cry from “the short analytical papers about historical events, books, documents and lab reports.”

McGinty suggests that students think, talk and plan their essays with the people who will critique them before they start writing. “Intervention is most useful if it’s early in the process. There is no possibility of helping a student in any meaningful way if she comes to you with a finished essay and says, “This is my essay, tell me what you think.” What she wants you to think is, “What’s the phone number of those people at the Pulitzer Prize?”

“Just try and be as honest and open about themselves as they can be,” the admissions office at Yale suggests. “We are trying as hard as we can to get a feeling for who this person is. The pieces of paper really do represent them pretty well.”

A well written essay simply “shows you at your alive and thinking best, a person worth listening to – not just for the ten minutes it takes to read your application, but for the next four years,” notes Harry Bauld, author of On Writing the College Application Essay.

Bauld, a former admissions officer at Brown University and assistant director of admissions at Columbia University, encourages a student to say “what he knows in a fresh way that allows us to see for ourselves who he is.” He discourages them from attempting to say something “startling and new, or strain to be different.” He too asks students to write something only they could write.

Admissions officers who read college essays have a difficult job. Imagine having to go through hundreds of essays written by your peers. So keep the following in mind when you start to write your essay:

The reader is looking for a reason to reject your essay. One sure thing that will move an application closer to the denied pile is a poorly written or insincere essay. Students should also avoid using big SAT vocabulary words in their essays. They should not let an adult take charge of the essay; readers can detect when a professional writer or parent wrote the essay.

Many writing coaches say there are no bad topics only bad essays. Well, that sounds pretty good, but there are a list of topics that do not play well: sex, drugs, and violent events in which students participated. Steer clear of writing about overcoming sport’s injuries, travelogues, a list of academic accomplishments already noted in the application, or editorializing about a news event.

All the more reason for students to talk their essays through with their English teachers, guidance counselors, peers and parents before they begin to write. Now this is not going to go over big, but the essay will most likely need to be rewritten several times. Another reason to start early is that it gives students and teachers a chance to pick up the more subtle grammatical mistakes.

College admissions officers are ready to speak with guidance counselors and visit high schools to discuss the essay. Mount Holyoke, Sarah Lawrence, Yale, Amherst, Reed and Grinnell are well know for helping high school guidance departments out, said McGinty, who added that some schools, such as the University of California at Berkeley, have single-page handouts on how to write a winning college essay. The College Board offers guidelines in its publication, College Times.

Jim Miller, dean of admissions at Bowdoin College, put it aptly when asked how much does the college essay count. “A great essay could heal the sick but couldn’t raise the dead.” So I encourage you to tell your story as only you can, and while it won’t raise a dead-low GPA, it will help your chances of getting into school.

Sam Rosensohn is the founder of College Planning Partnerships, which offers prep classes for the SAT and helps students to prepare for college and write college essays. He can be reached in Clinton at 860-664-9857 or at