How to Write a Stand-Out College Essay

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

Cornell’s Shawn Felton and Wow Featured on

A good personal statement, or college application essay, can help you get accepted to the school of your dreams, but a bad one can sometimes prevent it. That’s why it’s more important than ever to take the college essay seriously, and learn how to do it well.

We can help you do that! To clarify what colleges want in an application essay, and help you deliver it, we compiled some of our best advice for you and your parents. We’re also attaching a recent video clip featuring’s interview with me following the National Association of College Admission Counseling’s annual meeting in San Diego last fall, where I moderated a panel discussion on the college essay.

Check out the video, How to Write a Better College Essay; you’ll get additional information from Cornell University’s Director of Undergraduate Admissions Shawn Felton and Bucknell University’s Dean of Admissions Robert Springwell.

Six Tips for a Better College Essay

1. Understand how the essay is used in the admissions process. The college essay, or personal statement, is a tool that helps admissions teams round out the application and put a face on a packet of paper. Most colleges do not do face-to-face interviews, so this is your interview.
2. Be clear about what colleges want to know. The essay is your opportunity to decide what colleges need to know about you. Tell them using a story about you that is focused, reflective and answers the prompt.
3. How should you start? Ask yourself, what do they know about me from the rest of my application? Then add, what else do I want them to know? Why is it important? Think traits and characteristics, not accomplishments.
4. Keep it simple. A message that is delivered clearly in straightforward, everyday language will do. Big words do not impress admissions officers.
5. Keep it personal, authentic. This is your story. Write it yourself in your words. Use your voice. Write about you, a smart 17-year-old high school student who is ready for college. Colleges aren’t thinking about admitting your mom, dad, or your great Aunt Rose who saved a bunch of orphans from a house fire. They’re considering you, so you are the person they want to learn about.
6. Don’t bore the admissions office! During a recent panel discussion for high school counselors, admissions officers confessed that between 50 and 75 percent of essays submitted to their universities failed to show any reflection. The essays were boring. You can distinguish yourself from the piles of applications at the school of your dreams by writing about what you learned, and not what you did. This is an opportunity. Take it. A little bit of insight will go a long way.

FREE ebook: Write Your Way Into College. Sign up for Wow free, and stay in the loop! You’ll get our popular ebook, Write Your Way into College, plus video tips from top admissions experts, and other great resources. We’ll help you stand out where it matters most – inside the admissions office. Sign up here.