How To Write A Killer College Essay

Esther Wachs is a partner at College Knowledge 4U, a resource for families preparing for college based in Villanova, PA.  Esther earned a BA from Brown University as well as Master's degrees in both journalism and international affairs from Columbia University. A former Forbes reporter with over 20 articles in the magazine to her credit, she has also published a variety of pieces in Fortune, Inc. and Working Woman. Esther has been an alumna interviewer for Brown University for over 10 years, and she enjoys helping high school students navigate the college process.

I have been in the business of helping students write killer college essays for the past ten years, and only two of my kids have walked in my door with a great topic. One was a beekeeper and the other was a firefighter. Well, ok then, but for the rest, we had to brainstorm to come up with a topic they could write about with passion and purpose.

These essays are important -- for one thing, this piece of writing is a leading admission criterion at most schools. In addition, the essay is an opportunity --it is your chance to show admission officers that you can write well. Your English grade and standardized testing are factors, but colleges want to see how you actually put a sentence together and present an argument. And finally, it is worth something, literally. Many colleges offer scholarships and overall tuition reduction for those who write powerful essays. Now that news generates a good feeling that lasts!

One of the primary objectives of the college essay is for you to feature one of your strengths in an interesting way. No one owes you the time to read your essay -- rather, it is your job to grab your reader’s attention and keep it. You must entertain. Assume you are writing a magazine article about your favorite topic -- you. Consider some of the books or magazines you enjoy. What makes them compelling to read is that the writer tells a good story and uses details and description to captivate the reader’s imagination. That is your mission and by all means, you should choose to accept it.

Now there are some topics that should always be avoided. These include the death of a grandparent, the big game or your worthwhile service trip to Costa Rica. These topics are overused, and pretty boring at this point.  I would also suggest you avoid religion or politics. You never know if your admissions officer shares your views, and this is not the space to explore.

Don’t forget the fact that admission officers are inundated. When colleges quote selectivity figures of 6-10%, what they mean is that they read thousands of essays and reject the vast majority of applicants. Making the cut is difficult so the onus is on you to produce something special on the page. You must assume that your reader is very different than an English teacher you have had in school. He or she is young, usually 22-24 years of age in the first round, and is very enthusiastic about the college where he or she works. These admissions officers are so loyal that they want to help select the incoming class, and are looking for applicants who excite them and win their support.

When admissions officers read your essay, it goes through a process. At top schools, like the University of Pennsylvania, the first readers condense the essay into a third of a page. They note the topic and quality of the piece, when they discuss whether or not to accept the applicant in admissions meetings. That is why the entertainment factor is so important. Try to write something distinct that will help you stand out from the crowd. At Duke, for instance, an admissions officer said her favorite essay a student wrote was about a pair of bunny slippers she always wore.

So start with a great story that illustrates something interesting about you. Make sure it is a topic you are excited to write about because if you aren’t into it then the admissions officer definitely won’t be either. Include vivid details--paint a picture for the reader. Let him or her see the action you are describing. Sell yourself and show them why you will be a great asset to your top choice university.