What do outstanding essays have in common?
Here are our 23 most effective strategies based on lessons from admitted students.
Over the years, we've read and helped students write thousands of essays that worked.
And one thing has become clear: there's no "rules" or magic formulas to writing outstanding essays.
Great college essays come in all sorts of varieties, and that uniqueness is what makes them great.
In this guide, you’ll learn 23 easy-to-implement strategies that actually help your essays stand out, including:
- How to write a powerful hook that captivates the reader
- A simple strategy to come up with tons of essay ideas
- How to showcase your achievements without bragging
- Ways to find your authentic and best writing style
...And much more!
These strategies are based on the advice from admissions officers, expert college counselors, and most importantly: the real essays of admitted students.
Apply these tips to your own college essays and watch they become more engaging and interesting.
Let’s get started!
Don’t try to write like a novel, or other books you may have read in the past.
In describing moments, avoid writing from outside of your own perspective.
I grimaced when I heard the bad news
How could you be seeing yourself react? Who is watching you in that moment?
Your college essays are personal pieces, so only write from your perspective. Don’t write from outside your own perspective, or about things you wouldn’t be able to perceive.
Since your essays are written in the 1st person, you should tell your reader what you feel. Describe what you felt, and let the reader infer the meaning.
I felt a pang in my gut when I heard the bad news
By writing from your perspective only, you will automatically show, not tell.
Your essay will always be stronger if you show the physical actions, details of your characters, and your feelings. Allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing.
Watch out for this subtle difference, which can have a big impact on how your essays read.
You shouldn’t dumb down your knowledge when writing your personal essay.
Instead, showcase your understanding by naming things specifically and using some jargon or technical language. Rather than saying:
My biggest fear is being unengaged.
You could try:
My slimy, monolithic, Lovecraftian fear is unengagement.
As long as it is authentic, you should make specific references to your interests, passions, or knowledge.
It shouldn’t be “over the top” or forced, but doing this sparingly throughout your essay can showcase your character.
Writing specifically (while not being overly detailed) also automatically makes your essay more interesting to read.
Humans are naturally drawn to stories, and great stories stay with us after reading them.
You want the admissions officers to remember and think about your essays after reading them, and stories help you do just that.
Remember these additional tips for writing stories in a personal essay:
- Focus on why those stories matter (your insights)
- Avoid overly descriptive writing, which can be easy to gloss over
- Don’t write only stories, have a balance of reflection and analysis too
Here’s a technique for reflecting on your stories and experiences:
Write a story in the past tense. Then add, “Now I realize...” and continue writing.
This phrase will get you to reflect, and later while revising you can remove it.
Remember that your stories needs conflict, setting, and context. At the end of your story, you need to answer the question “Why does it matter?”
Write stories, lots of stories, and use them as the starting point for your essays. They shouldn’t take up too much of your final essay though.
This gets to my next tip about finding the best essay ideas...
Here’s the truth about getting brilliant essay ideas: you need to write first, and ideas will come later.
Our brains are great at making connections, and by writing you’re putting material in front of your brain, which lets it start coming up with connections (AKA your ideas).
Human brains are not as great at spurring up ideas on the spot. It’s nearly impossible to just sit down and force yourself to think up great, unique ideas.
Your best ideas will likely come about while you’re writing. Often, those interesting ideas are the spontaneous ones.
That’s why most students need 4-10+ drafts to write an outstanding personal statement.
Why write so much? Because your initial drafts are just for thinking out ideas. Expect not to use 90% of what you write at the start.
And writing to get ideas is actually easier than thinking to get ideas, because you’ll end up getting to good ideas faster.
So choose a topic and start writing. It’s the most effective way to start getting ideas.
Paragraph breaks make it easier for the reader to read. Spaces help your eyes from skipping over dense blocks of text.
Use paragraphs to organize your ideas into groups. Then, you can move them around and see what works best. Small changes in placement can have a big impact on how your essay flows.
Avoid “writing like a suburb,” which is writing with lots of evenly sized paragraphs (1). This can make for a boring reading experience.
Instead, use paragraph breaks freely and make your essay be like Paris, with a variety of paragraph lengths.1 Toor, Rachel (2017). Write Your Way In. University of Chicago Press.
If your paragraphs are too dense, they’ll also be easier to skip over. Having longer paragraphs is good, but make sure to have a balance.