‘Tis the season for applications: 10 Essay Tips for Students Applying to College

Although I’m mostly known for my writing, I also do a bit of proofreading and editing. And the most common thing for me to proofread at this time of year is a college application essay.

Now, I’ve been looking at those essays for over twenty years – basically, since I was a high school senior myself. Back in the day, we had to type their final drafts onto our applications, of course.  typewriter

I’ve seen some wonderful college essays, and some terrible ones, in my time. I’m going to offer a few tips based on my experience. These tips apply to college application essays, but also to applications for scholarships, internships, and even many assignments.

I will not cover proofreading – which you can often get assistance with from a teacher, parent, or guidance counselor. If you proofread your own essays – and you should do so first, even if you are going to get help later – just make sure you wait at least a day or two after writing the essay to do the proofreading. Otherwise, you will likely not notice your errors.


  1. Read the prompt carefully before you begin and make sure your essay responds specifically to it. If an essay says, “Write a letter to yourself in the future,” make sure you write the essay in the form of a letter, not in the form of a 5-paragraph essay. If you are supposed to describe a challenge you’ve experienced and how you overcame it, make sure you both: a) describe the challenge, and b) tell the reader how you overcame it.
  2. Before you begin to write, prewrite. A lot of people I know seem to think that drawing clusters and diagrams, writing lists, and brainstorming are things that they teach little kids and that they have no application past elementary school. Nothing could be further from the case. As a professional writer, I use prewriting strategies all the time. Here’s a good idea of how to implement one prewriting strategy while working on your college application essays: First, write the prompt in the center of a blank piece of paper and draw a circle around it. (If they want to know “what,” “how,” AND “why,” draw them as separate balloons on your cluster diagram, attached to the circle in the center.) Next, draw lines out from the circle, each with a different way to answer the question. Do not reject any ideas while you are brainstorming – wait until you’ve finished writing the ideas. And make sure your prewriting covers all facets of the question.
  3. Re-read the prompt again after you finish each draft. Double-check that you left no questions unanswered or forgot to include details the applications asked you to include. Even an essay that started on-topic will sometimes lose its attachment to the prompt as you revise.
  4. Don’t add unnecessary, tangential details to your essay. Veering off-topic makes you sound like a fuzzy thinker. It also wastes space when you are working within a word count.
  5. Don’t be afraid to try a non-conventional approach. When I wrote the first draft of one of my college essays 24 years ago — well, I wrote an essay. (The topic: “What do you think the world will be like in the year 2020.”) My youth group advisor volunteered to look at the first draft to give me some advice. This is what she told me: “Don’t answer this question as an essay. Use all the points you made and turn it into a short story.” So, that’s what I did – I wrote my first sci-fi short. This approach works particularly well for a student applying to a liberal arts college, or a school where out-of-the-box thinking is considered a plus.
  6. Don’t try to be impressive. I consistently see students using big words incorrectly, in ways that bear no relation to their actual definitions. Other times, I see students referring to big ideas they learned while reading or in classroom discussions without showing how they connect to the topic of the essay. Being accurate is more important than being fancy.
  7. Be yourself. Writing in your personal voice is better than trying to sound like your favorite writer, your teacher, your tutor, or your parent. Your tutor isn’t going to be the one sitting in ECON 101 in September.
  8. But don’t be too casual. Never, ever use abbreviations such as those used in texts or on Twitter 2 B cute. It doesn’t look like you are taking the application seriously, nor does it make the reader believe you can communicate at a high academic standard. Additionally, never type your essays on your phone. I don’t care how smart your phone is — the essays I’ve seen from kids who do this nearly always have errors of two kinds: 1) spacing that reflects the smaller screen of your smartphone relative to a laptop or desktop computer, 2) a lack of coherence. (You can’t see as much text on the screen at once, so you can’t see what you just wrote 10 lines up while you are writing and then subsequent sentences appear disjointed to the reader.)
  9. Favor specific details over general statements. Sometimes, this is a matter of “Show, do not tell.” Don’t say, “I want to help people.” Say, “In high school, I tutored younger students through Key Club. I would like to continue similar activities while in college, perhaps through [name a club that is on campus at that university], and dream of teaching upon graduation.” In addition, even if you don’t take a creative approach and write fiction or poetry in lieu of a standard essay, you can still use sensory details and describe events in fine detail.
  10. If you do make a sweeping statement, always prove it with either logic or evidence. One of the most important skills you should have learned in high school, one that will serve you well throughout college and beyond, is the ability to not only form an opinion, but to back it up with evidence. A college admission officer does not want pundits; they want thinkers and analyzers, people who can study a subject and then consider the information carefully before formulating an opinion. Prove your ability to do this in your essay.

I want to see your comments: If you have already attended college, what advice would you give to applicants about their essays? If you are a high school student, do you have a question about how to write your essay? 

photo credit: Tom Thumb. via photopin (license)

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