How to Write an Effective College Essay

How to Write an Effective College Essay

The college essay is perhaps one of the most daunting aspects of the college application process for high school students, but conversely, it is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects for admissions officers.

When we begin evaluating your application, everything can seem pretty standard - grades, test scores, activities, lists of AP classes. Yes, your letters of recommendation tell us about you, but they’re written from someone else’s perspective. The essay is the first time we hear your voice. Thus, the college essay is an invaluable component of your application because you're able to speak to us directly. You have the space tell us what you’re thinking about and how you’re thinking about it.

Below is a list of tips and advice to consider as you start brainstorming and drafting your college essay: 

Utilize scratch paper. Read and consider all of the Common App prompts and then free-write on each topic. Jot down a minimum of one idea for each prompt and see where these ideas take you. Write without judgement of your own ideas. Maybe even try the "Kitchen Timer Method," a la Barnard alumna Lauren Graham '88. The idea that you're excited to keep exploring might just be your essay.

Ask yourself "What’s missing?" The most memorable essays are oftentimes the ones that take the reader by surprise in some way. These essays aren’t necessarily about a wild or extreme experience, they just present new information about the applicant. What do you want the admissions committee to know about you that they don’t know already? Is there an experience or an event that hasn’t been presented in your application yet?

We want to hear what you have to say. Not what your college consultant has to say, not what your mom wants you to write, and not what you think we want to hear. Be genuine to your own voice and to your own experiences. There’s only one you out there and that’s who we want to learn more about. 

It’s okay if you haven’t won the Nobel Peace Prize. Or founded Facebook. Or built a school brick by brick, with your bare hands. We read essays about the most mundane things - solving a crossword puzzle, taking a walk with a sibling, collecting zany socks - but the way the applicant writes the piece makes it effective.

Get out of your head. Sometimes writing and re-writing in a vacuum can be counterproductive; it's easy to get lost in your own thoughts and ideas. Once you have a draft ready, share your essay with someone who knows you well - a parent, a sibling, or a close friend. Do they understand the point of your piece? Do they think it sounds like you?


Proofread. Again. 

Proofread. Just one more time.


Best of luck, 

Anna Dowling

Senior Admissions Officer


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