Greg Schneider, English Department Chair

The Best Advice for Writing the Perfect College Admissions Essay

Greg-Schneider with two students at Graduation

The best advice for writing the perfect college admissions essay is, to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway: Write hard. Write clear. Write about what’s important to you.

What Are Colleges Looking for in the Perfect College Admissions Essay?

  • Evidence of your writing abilities–they want to see that you can write in a clear and organized way. The essay showcases your writing skills and your ability to organize your thoughts into a coherent, structured narrative. You will be doing a lot of this kind of writing in college, and admissions committees want to see that you’ve got what it takes.
  • Evidence of reasonable goals and expectations–they want to see that you can clearly convey what you want to study and why.
  • What you can bring to a college campus–the college essay will reveal your unique personality and character. The portrait you paint of yourself says a great deal about both your qualifications and your individuality and uniqueness.
  • Your essay is meant to reveal what you think and feel is important about your world. Colleges want to know about your preferences, your values, and your thought process.
  • Colleges want to gain insight regarding who you are in ways that aren’t revealed in your test scores, transcripts, or letters of recommendation. They want to know what makes you unique. Your GPA and test scores may paint you as a stellar student, but the essay will tell the admissions committee something special and interesting about you they don’t already know from reviewing the rest of your application packet.

What Should the College Essay Do?

  • Persuade the admissions committee that you are worthy of admission.
  • Show the admissions committee that you are more than a GPA and a standardized test score–you are a real-life, unique, and interesting person. The essay should be the face of the application. Write about something which is not covered in your application. Think about what is your “thing?” What is a talent or interest of yours?

And this is where brainstorming and pre-writing come in. Through brainstorming exercises, you’ll begin to see connections that define the person you are, and from there, narrow down your topic choice to something you can write about persuasively and effectively that reveals the real, and unique, you.

The Writing Process

At McLean, students begin writing their college admissions essays during English 11. Writing one’s essay is a collaborative process among the student, the College Counselors, and the English teacher, with input from family, friends, and other teachers. By the time students are ready to submit their college admissions essays, many drafts have been written, many pairs of eyes have looked at their essays, much advice has been given, and essays have been polished to showcase the best the students have to offer.

Writing is a process. It takes time. Write something and then put it away. Have others read it, including those who know you well and those who may not–their insights might surprise you. Write, revise, write, revise, write, revise. Now stop. Close your laptop. Binge on Grey’s Anatomy, Schitt’s Creek, Kingdom. All are stirring, inspirational, motivating, multitudinous, humorous, and intelligent–just like your soon to be perfect college admissions essay. But without all those adjectives I just listed.

Write like you talk. Write imperative, commanding sentences. Write in present tense. Write a narrative, not a description. And remember, your narrative doesn’t have to have an ending. You don’t have to tell the whole story, focus on one or two details. Details that bring out the unique you.

Ready to Start Writing? OK, First Things First.

Capture your reader from the first sentence. The first sentence has to be the most interesting one.

Here is one of my favorite first sentences from one student’s essay:

“I raise ducks.”

It caught my attention, and it caught the attention of the college admissions committee who accepted the student into the college’s prestigious business program. The student goes on to write:

“Who keeps ducks as pets? It’s not like we live on a farm. We live just outside of DC in a suburban area. It’s safe to say that my mother, not informed in advance of the purchase of five ducklings, was not too happy about the new additions to the family. I get where my mother was coming from, though. But there we were with five ducks, and I loved it. Their names are Quacky Chan, Count Quackula, Quacklyn Kennedy, Muffin, and Phyllis. I even started a small business selling duck eggs.”

In this one short opening paragraph, the admissions committee knows it is reading about a student who is unique, shows empathy, has a sense of humor, demonstrates a wide range of cultural references, and is a budding entrepreneur.

Grammar, Spelling, and Punctuation

Your essay can’t hold any mistakes. None. Grammar, spelling, punctuation, all have to be perfect. How? This is also where others come in. They can’t write for you. But they can edit for you. At McLean, our students are taught the paramount value of self-advocacy. And a big part of self-advocacy is knowing when to ask for help. Trust your teachers and, especially, your college counselors. They will give you good advice. College counselors have read hundreds, even thousands, of essays, and they know what works and what is going to fall short. Take their suggestions and work with them. And then read your writing out loud. Listen to your tone. Are you someone you want to work with for four years? If so, then good, you are now well on your way to writing the perfect college admissions essay.

A Few Words on Adjectives

Adjectives are embellishment. From “A” is for adaptable, adept, articulate, assertive; to “P” is for passionate, patient, persistent, principled; to “S” is for scholarly, sensible, sensitive, and sincere.

Rather than writing adjectives, write anecdotes. The people who are reading your college admissions essay are smart. They have read thousands of essays. Some bad, most mediocre, and a few, including yours, great. They know how to read between the lines, make inferences. Instead of writing that you possess determination, grit, and perseverance, which, by the way, are all synonyms for the same quality, tell a story about the time you rescued a flock of baby ducks or were attacked by a giant swan and lived to talk about it.

Now that you are writing and are deep into your essay, remember: Every. Word. Counts. Vary the lengths of your sentences. Vary your vocabulary; the simplest words are often the best. However, the occasional loquacious frippery is nice. See what I did there? Use dashes and exclamation points sparingly. And, as always, show, don’t tell. There is only one you, and your perfect college admissions essay is a reflection of that best you.

Greg Schneider, English Department Chair