How to Write Your College Application Essay: Ten Ways to Success

Given the unprecedented competition for college admission today, you need to write an application essay that shows how you stand out from your competitors.

Last year, colleges across the country received record numbers of applications from excellently qualified applicants. And this year, colleges will receive thousands more applications from excellently qualified applicants than they did last year.

But given limited space in first-year classes, excellently qualified applicants are not always those admitted. In fact, at universities such as Stanford, applicants who are excellently qualified but who do not show anything outstanding in their application essays are set aside in a pile marked “SP” for standard positive. At Harvard, excellently qualified but not outstanding applicants are tagged as “SS” for standard solid.

So how do you show college admissions officers that you are not just well-qualified but outstanding?

There is only one opportunity to show college admissions officers that you are more than excellently qualified: the common application essay or coalition application essay.

If you want to write a college application essay that shows you to be not just excellently qualified but outstanding, follow these guidelines:

1.  When writing the college application essay, do not look at the prompts. When you look at the prompts, you begin to imagine that there is a right and a wrong answer. But there is no right or wrong answer. There is only your story. My advice: Figure out how you can use the essay to add value to your application and then write that story. Whatever story you write will always satisfy the first and last common application prompts and the first and last coalition application prompts.


2.  Although the college application essay is referred to as a personal narrative, I encourage you to think about it more as a strategic marketing document masquerading as a personal narrative. In other words, define your brand and then figure out how you can market yourself as better than all the others.


 3.  When writing your essay, do not repeat what’s on your transcript. In other words, do not list of your accomplishments in sentence form. By the time college admissions officers read your essay, they are already familiar with your academic accomplishments. Instead of repeating what they already know, use the college application essay to add value to what the admissions officers already know about you. If you list accomplishments in sentence form, you are wasting an opportunity to stand out and potentially boring your reader.

 4.  Do not write about

  • Athletics or sports injuries
  • Traumatic personal injuries unless you can tie your experience to something larger than the narcissistic injury experienced
  • Tread very carefully if you want to write about domestic violence or sexual abuse. As a society, it is essential for us to discuss sexual violence as we continue to work toward securing legal, social, and educational equality for all people. However, at the moment, too often, both subjects arouse too much fear and anxiety to be considered safe topics for the college application essay.
  • Do not write about personal or family experiences with mental illness. Because people who experience mental illness, directly or peripherally, are still often stigmatized, you risk encountering discrimination by college admissions officers.

 5.  Start your essay with an anecdote, a story set in a specific moment of time that will serve as an example of something larger than the particulars represented in the story.

 6.  Remember that you are not writing documentary reality in your application essay; you are writing a story and as such, you are allowed to collapse time, space, and experiences in order to create a story that sells you.

 7.  Do not write anything that looks like a five-paragraph essay. Instead, employ a variety of rhetorical devices including imagery, analogies, dialogue, specific detail, and active verbs. Keep in mind that many college admissions officers are tasked with reading up to 50 application essays a day. The use of these devices animates your writing and helps keep college admissions officers interested in your story.

8.  Remember that first sentences matter, probably more than you think. When writing, keep in mind that college admissions officers are under no obligation to read your essay through to the end. In other words, you must not just capture the admissions officers’ attention but you must arrest the admissions officers’ attention right from the start, and you must maintain the officers’ attention through to the end of your essay.

9.  Throughout your essay, you must project humility and confidence.

 10.  If you need help writing your college application essay or your supplemental essays, reach out for help. In this era of unprecedented competition for college admission, the stakes are too high not take this part of your college application seriously and you are too valuable to waste.

Want help with your college application essay or supplemental essays? Call me. I’m always eager to help you!

Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized plan for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and career aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and secure admission to top colleges.  

About The Author

Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.