Writing College Application Essays

Reddit AMA Recap

Adapted from two AMAs I did on Reddit in May 2019 and August 2022


Q: What personal qualities or values are most impressive in an applicant, that one should try to exhibit in their college application essays?

A: Off the top of my head, I’d say it’s less about demonstrating specific qualities than it is about being able to articulate your experiences and discuss how they affected you in a way that transcends platitudes like “and that’s when I realized I was stronger than I thought.” Resilience is good, yes, but it’s less about that quality than about how you got there… and as far as those narratives go, it’s less about the external circumstances than the internal processes. Being able to express that internality will go a long way.

Q: How do you show growth instead of just saying the equivalent of “I grew from the experience” in a college application essay?

A: Articulate the way you thought about things before and after. Consider it this way: in film, a major character is introduced. Then there’s a triggering event – a moment when they realize nothing will be the same again – and they’re forced to grapple with that event. Perhaps they realize they’re not who they thought they were. They find out that they’re capable of more. They’re forced to confront some ideal they no longer have. Whatever the case, they grow. You want to be able to describe that internal process. Part of this process is trying to figure out how well you know yourself and how well you can articulate it. These essays are about demonstrating the psychological maturity that comes with being able to objectively identify the points in your life that have spurred intellectual and personal development. Hope that makes sense.

Q: We all know that essays about sports injuries, debate tournaments, divorces, and mission trips are overly used, but what are some other cliched essay topics?

BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front, aka: TL;DR): It’s less about the topics – I actually don’t see very many sports injuries (I can’t recall the last one I’ve seen in an essay) or divorces, which I’m grateful for – and more about the ways in which they’re written.

The tendency is to try to bring the reader “into the action” by writing in the first person, present tense: the “I’m standing on stage and I can hear the murmurs outside the curtains’ heavy veil. My hands tremble around my bow and violin…” voice. That’s fine, but here’s the thing: the adcoms – and essay editors – see hundreds, even thousands of these. If I never see an essay that starts with one of these scenes again, it will be too soon:

• Standing on stage, describing a performance, debate, speech, presentation or other event that required that you face a fear or anxiety

• Any description of a sound, whether it be an explosion, the sound of your feet (or other appendage) doing something, music of any kind (I can tell within seconds if I’m about to read a dancer’s essay) etc

• Cooking in the kitchen with your parents, grandparents, etc

• Winning an award (it’s already in your application: the play-by-play isn’t interesting)

• Traveling to a developing country and realizing how horrible their healthcare/housing/infrastructure is

• Anything about your parents’ struggle: they’re likely very resilient, but this is essay is about YOU: it’s likely the last time you’re going to be asked to directly write about yourself, so make the most of it. It’s not going to happen much in college

• Essays that begin with you going for a morning run

You get the picture. Find a way into the story that isn’t obvious.

Other tips:

Don’t quote people, unless you’re POSITIVE it’s going to add to your essay… and believe me, it likely will not help your cause

Don’t include the class codes when you discuss classes you want to take: just use the names of the classes

Mind your tenses and moods

The thesaurus and synonym finder on MS Word are NOT your friends when it comes to these essays

-Neither are adverbs: when I receive essays that exceed the word limit, the first thing I do is search for all words that end in -ly and remove them.

-Sentimentality is also not your friend

If one of the prompts (I think Stanford asks for this, IIRC) is a “Dear Roommate” letter, try not to sound insane in an effort to sound social: I’ve seen some truly bizarre approaches to this

Science people: please, please, please do not discuss how used to perform “experiments” on animals – even insects – when you were a child: it’s not a good look and no one wants a potential serial killer on campus (I’ve seen this once and I still remember it)

Stay away from too much “dream school” stuff: we get it… we also know that you copied and pasted all of it, changing the buildings and landmarks for every school you applied to

If you describe how you envision an average day at a college, leave out details about the food (Penn applicants seem to always feel the need to mention getting a “Philly Cheesesteak” while NYU applicants can’t seem to not mention yogurt or pizza and walking through Washington Square Park…)

The brief article I wrote for Blue Prynt has more tips. Every season seems to have a different essay trend… I’m looking forward – with some editorial trepidation – to seeing what this year will look like.

Q: Dumb question, but I hate writing because I’ve read a lot before so I know what good writing looks like, but at the same time when I’m trying to write I know I can never achieve that standard, which drives me crazy. Any tips how to fix myself?

A: That’s not a dumb question at all. Let’s break this down, though: it’s always good to unpack things that frustrate us, especially when we start using the word “never.”

• You’ve gotta remember when you’re reading that you’re looking at a text that has been revised, edited, rewritten, rewritten again, rearranged, reassembled, and lamented. All writing is rewriting. Don’t compare your work to any of that: if you do, you’ll never want to write anything. Sometimes I’ll read a sentence by Andre Aciman or Flaubert and I’ll absolutely despair because it’s so good; because I’m not “there” yet. Ignore those moments. There’s no “there.” You are where you are and you’ll continue to get better as a writer if you just keep writing. It’s like going to the gym: if you see people who are incredibly fit and you’re just starting out, it can be incredibly discouraging… but you’re just seeing one slice of their lives. You’re not seeing them on day one. You’re not seeing the “before” pic.

• As for “never:” that’s simply not true. The more you keep at it, whether it’s just replying to questions on Reddit, keeping a blog, writing in a journal, or scrawling in the margins of your favorite book, you will get better. Keep reading. Keep writing. Stay after it.

Q: What, for you at least, can (help you) quickly discern whether an essay is good or bad quality? Also, when reading through “what makes you unique/able to add to our school’s diversity” essays, what are cliches to avoid and some examples of “unique personal traits” that everyone uses? I have a hard time distinguishing if the unique traits I have are actually unique (travel and culture exposure, military parents, school changes, sports, etc) or uncommon enough to be considered diversifying qualities.

A: Ethnic diversity doesn’t really do much for an essay. There are tons of kids from different ethnic backgrounds and chances are that unless you grew up on a Martian colony, that’s not really checking a box. I’m amazed at the number of students from Asian countries (often one generation out, at that) that really seem to think that the top-tier schools don’t recruit or get applicants from around the world. In any case, a love of Bhangra or growing up in Shanghai isn’t a “unique” quality. I see TONS of students, for example, who think that their years of traditional dance is something the adcoms have never seen. Hate to break it to everyone… it’s not.

Military parents might be. It’s often less about the experiences than your ability to unpack those experiences into a conclusion like, “and that’s why I want to impact the world, because we are all one global community…” It’s a tough question — those are always the worst prompts — but you really have to find some angle to differentiate yourself.

As for what makes a bad essay: I can tell by the second sentence if I’m in for a nightmare or not, but I can also just tell by looking at the format. If someone has sent me a single-spaced three page document for the Common App Personal Statement, I know I’m going to hacking away for hours. Please: 12 point font, Times New Roman, standard margins 1.5 – 2 spaces between lines. Content-wise, it’s about voice. If I see any of the stuff I mentioned in another reply here, I’m reaching for the whiskey before I even finish reading the first paragraph.

Q: Would writing about intellectual interests be more appealing to colleges?

A: It depends on if you’re really interested them or if you come across as trying to please the reader. If they’re novel – like if you have an abiding interest in geology, but you’re intending to study economics – then they could make your essay really interesting.

What these essays – at least for the Common App – are trying to do is get a better overall sense of who you are, what you’ll bring to a college community, and how ready you are for the next level of academic work.

I find the most compelling essays are ones where I learn about an applicant’s life and personality outside of academics. Sometimes, however, an applicant’s love of an academic subject is so compelling that I’ll look into it myself, just because they’ve shown aspects of it that I didn’t know about.

Your best essay is going to be the one that YOU find easy to write: the one that comes naturally to you. What you don’t want, if you’re writing about an academic or intellectual interest, is to talk about the subject: these essays are ultimately meant to be about you.

Q: I’m struggling to find something to write. I’ve got a decent essay about collecting rocks but I feel like I don’t talk enough about myself. I’m rubbish at talking about myself. my main hope is to talk about something in a way that shows my personality without having to show it. Could that strategy work?

Odd, you’re talking about yourself now and you seem to be doing quite well.

Let’s unpack the collecting rocks thing for a bit (this is interesting because I was going to mention collecting rocks as an example in one my answers here, but I opted to just say “geology”).

If I were writing it (and choosing the “topic so engaging you lose track of all time” or “write an essay of your choosing” prompt), I might start with something like… (and please forgive any technical errors: I’m no geologist)

“As I run my fingers over the stone’s rough black surface, I notice the tint of dark green crystals peering out in small clusters. I know from experience and guides that these little minerals are a magnesium iron silicate – olivine, also known as peridot – and I easily pick them from the igneous rock housing them, itself a remnant of the long-dormant volcano on which I’m standing. Where some people see dirt and rocks, I see the stuff of which the entire universe is composed and, within it, beauty wrought from pressure, heat, and time.”

See what’s going on here?

  1. I’m dragging the reader into a scene: I’m giving them something to dig into (pun intended).
  2. I’m giving them a glimpse of what collecting rocks means to me: in this case, it represents something bigger than “just a rock.”

Now, maybe you’re not out with a rock hammer. Maybe you’re buying rocks. Doesn’t matter: talk about them, talk about why you find the milky-white adularescence of moonstone so magical, why you love the native myths surrounding agate and onyx, how you get lost in staring into pieces of rutilated quartz… whatever. Speaking to what you love about whatever it is you love – whether it’s rocks, pizza, or anything else – and finding a way to connect it to YOU, your values, your sense of aesthetics, your personality is going to make your essay much easier to write and a much better read than trying to cram yourself into the essay in an edit. Your interest in rocks can absolutely reflect you: find a way into it.

Q: Where did you go for college? What major? How did you get into this career?

I have an exceptionally unconventional background: I didn’t go to college right away. I eventually finished my undergraduate degree in English (mostly 19th century literature) at Columbia’s School of General Studies. After graduation, I was hired as a writer in Hollywood, then moved back to the east coast, eventually becoming an executive/strategist at a small media company. I picked this up as a side job: I do it more or less as a second full-time job during the admissions season.

“How” relates to my general talent – worked at, toiled over, blah blah blah – for writing. I’ve written just about anything you can think of. I have a knack for academic writing and close reading and I’ve leveraged that to both my and my clients’ advantages. I work for private clients as well as a very well-known admissions consulting firm. The latter provides some distance between my (or rather, the firm’s) clients, while the former allows me to be more direct in my assistance.

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