What Do Colleges Look for in an Essay? Strategies & Tips to Impress Admissions Officers!

The college essay holds significant importance within the college admission process as it allows students to showcase their individuality beyond scores and grades. However, it can also induce anxiety among applicants. In this article, we'll answer a common question among students: "What are colleges looking for in an essay?"

Below are tips and examples to make an outstanding essay showing your communication skills, intelligence, creativity, ambition, thirst for learning, and other things admissions officers evaluate.

Context: how to stand out from the crowd?

Given the likelihood of similarities among applications (comparable test scores, grades, and interests), creating a remarkable essay is crucial. What do colleges look for in an application essay, and what do admissions officers pay attention to understand you stay apart from others? This context can include your values, passions, interests, ethnic background, or anything that differentiates you from other applicants. For example, international students can focus on explaining their desire to study in the US.

What positive qualities should be reflected in your essay?

The essential recommendation for applicants interested in how to write a college application essay is to show their motivation, passion, and the following things in their essays:

  • Notable extracurricular activities: Showcase activities that demonstrate a commitment and long-term dedication.
  • Work and volunteer experience: Highlight experiences that exhibit leadership qualities, commitment, and community engagement.
  • Talents and skills: Focus on specific areas of passion and dedication rather than a long list of accomplishments.
  • Overcoming challenges and obstacles: Tell how you overcame difficulties to show your resilience and growth.

Why must this college essay contain proof, not statements?

When writing an essay, remember the “show-don’t-tell” rule. Avoid making general claims about yourself and provide specific examples to support your thoughts. This will prevent you from sounding arrogant and make your essay more memorable. Use real-life experiences and details to illustrate your qualities and achievements. 

Bad example:

“In my life, I have encountered various challenges and opportunities that have shaped me into the person I am today. I have learned many valuable lessons and have grown as an individual. Attending this college will help me further develop my skills and achieve my goals. I am excited about the opportunities that await me and the chance to make a difference in the world.”

This example lacks specific details and unique insights. It fails to provide concrete examples or experiences that make the essay stand out. The language is vague and doesn’t provide compelling reasons or insights into the applicant’s character, interests, or potential contributions to the college community.

Good example:

“From a young age, I found solace in storytelling, with “To Kill a Mockingbird” sparking my passion for social justice. Joining the debate team, I sharpened my persuasive skills and tackled issues like inequality. Volunteering with underprivileged students showed me the transformative power of education. I eagerly seek to continue my journey at this institution, where I can delve into social sciences, collaborate on initiatives, and drive positive change. I am ready to make an impact through storytelling, advocacy, and education.”

What tone and style should be used when writing a college application essay?

These essays are more informal compared to other academic writing pieces. It's important to strike a conversational tone that shows respect, as if discussing with a tutor or teacher. Sharing your thoughts, emotions, and personal experiences can help establish a connection with the audience. Your goal should be to write in a way that reflects your true voice, using a natural and sincere style. 

Finding your essay topic: 2 effective strategies 

Finding the right topic can be daunting when considering the question, “What do colleges look for in an essay?”. Here are two strategies to help you impress admissions officers and meet their expectations.

Strategy 1: Reflect on your qualities.

Begin by identifying your positive character traits and give examples where you have demonstrated them. For instance, applicants want to showcase their hardworking nature and strong work ethic. They reflect on situations when they exceeded expectations. 

One example that comes to mind is when a student maintained a perfect GPA while playing four varsity sports throughout their initial two years of high school. They may also recall their accomplishments at a summer camp where they were promoted. Furthermore, a student can tell about achievements in creating a web page for a school, showcasing their dedication and skills beyond the academic realm.

Strategy 2: Use a compelling story.

You can also begin by selecting a captivating story and highlighting how it illustrates your positive qualities.

For instance, imagine a girl who volunteered at a nursing home and formed a deep connection with one of its elderly residents who struggled with illiteracy. She dedicated her summer to teaching this old lady to read and write, despite her disabilities. Her progress taught the author the value of empathy, perseverance, and education, inspiring her to pursue a career in education.

Examples of essay topics to write about

You can find numerous interesting topics to cover in a college essay. Here are a few ideas that can be tailored to showcase your unique profile and personal experience:

  • Unveiling a distinctive passion or extracurricular activity that has shaped your character.
  • Exploring an activity or interest that starkly contrasts with your overall profile, highlighting the diversity of your experiences and perspectives.
  • Describing a seemingly insignificant situation that holds deeper meaning and reflects important themes within your life.
  • Delving into an everyday experience and revealing essential aspects of your personality.
  • Presenting a story that vividly captures and recounts a crucial period in your life, evoking its importance and impact.

Remember, the key to success is choosing a topic that resonates with your experiences, highlights your unique qualities, and allows you to express yourself compellingly.

Additional tips for writing a perfect essay for colleges 

  • Select an impressive essay topic. Ask yourself about your life aspirations, particularly your career. They’ll provide the foundation for your goals. Looking for a program that aligns with these goals is essential.
  • Create an engaging story. Craft an engaging narrative, and remember that the purpose is not to prove your literary prowess. Within a story-based structure, there are two effective approaches:

1. Reflective story: Share a personal story or description that has shaped your identity and effectively portrays who you are.

2. Inspirational story: Provide an anecdote or description unrelated to yourself but which serves as a source of your inspiration.

  • Demonstrate your enthusiasm. When your essay is based on disclosing your passion, focus on what the subject means to you rather than describing it. Demonstrate your enthusiasm for the subject by providing concrete details and compelling examples.
  • Engage the admissions officers. The readers will only be impressed by a list of your achievements if they're indicated in your application. Instead, aim to convey your personality through a narrative with specific details. Start by writing down significant experiences showing how you handled and ultimately overcame the challenges. This allows the readers to experience your transformation.
  • Focus on the most important things. Visualize things that motivate and inspire you and write a few sentences about why each item is important. Once you have your list, narrowing your topic to one or two things will be easier.

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