• Caitlin Ouano

The Real Key to College Essay Writing

Ready for it? Be yourself. Make mistakes. Experiment.


I read college admissions essays all the time, and it’s safe to say that a formula has been created. One Google search will yield millions of sample essays in neat little margins with neat little endings. The student looked at some samples, decided to write an experience from their life that matched that, typed in some buzzwords like "proactive" and "diligent," and hit submit.


I understand that struggle. I remember being seventeen and wanting so badly to go to my dream school that I would say anything to get in. I wanted to mold myself into the image they wanted me to be. But now, working in education consulting and college admissions, I’ve learned that that is the one thing they do not want you to do.


Here are some tips for writing a great college essay! You WILL do it. I believe in you.


Freewrite. A lot.


You think differently than you write. Your thoughts take a different shape depending on the medium. That’s what’s so beautiful about being human! Language is this thing that exists separately from ourselves. You have to use it well and make your own style.


Do an experiment:

  1. Pick a topic

  2. Type about it for one minute

  3. Write about it in pencil for one minute

  4. Record yourself talking about it for one minute

  5. Draft a few tweets about it for one minute


Did you say the same thing three times? Doubt it.


The medium you use to convey your thoughts affects the content. Write out your thoughts to get used to how they are read aloud, how you use language to convey meaning. Do it in your spare time, even if it’s just random words or images. Understand how your brain waves differ from others. It’s very important to get used to writing outside the lines and experimenting a bit with your thoughts when writing. This goes for all writing, whether it’s journalism, fiction, or academic!


Know the Basics and That’s It


There are a lot of different variations of essay prompts depending on the school you apply to. They range from “describe an extracurricular activity” to “what are your thoughts on diversity and discrimination?” I find it so difficult for kids to consider some of these prompts, having only lived seventeen years on this earth! Don’t sweat. Keep it simple. Use what you have. Colleges know you only have so many activities and sports and life moments to work with. Figure out what's personal to you and draw meaning from it. No experience is too small.


Every essay prompt wants to know two things: who were you before you found or discovered XYZ and who were you after? Don’t read a million samples and copy and paste your experience into that format. College admissions officers are bored reading the same kind of essay. Don’t feel the need to spice up your life or get fancy. Stick to the basics! You and how you changed.


When looking at a prompt, first figure out what you’re going to write; freewrite some experiences that the prompt brings up. Maybe it’s images or stray thoughts or a specific place. But take some time to figure out what exactly you’re going to write, and then understand that the essay should explore how you have uniquely evolved or changed because of your unique experience. Not everyone responds the same way to the same thing! Embrace the smallness and specificity of your experience.


Trim the Fat


Ah yes. The 100 or 250 or 350 word count. What do I do?! My life story can’t fit into 250 words! Yes it can. People do it every day. They Tweet and Instagram their way through life.


That being said, it’s not an easy task. The first thing to do is realize that word count is a revision task. Meaning, you should write the essay as long as possible, then take some space from it. Give it a few hours, even a few days if you can spare it. Then when you return, reread the essay and distill it into a logline. Yes. The ones that go in movie trailers!

A single sentence that tells you the meaning of the piece. Now go back through the essay and delete every adjective and noun that does not have to do with the logline meaning of the piece.


Don’t sweat about word counts. Colleges understand that you’re working within constraints. All that matters is how you respond to the constraint.


Don’t try to be interesting.


Boring is better. Hard to believe right? College admissions officers are trying to get a sense of who you are, and they can tell if you’re trying to be something different. Dare to bore me with your essay.


Make sure the essay puts you forward. Be vulnerable, and tell the truth. The boring truth, as mundane as we think, is always better and more fascinating than the exterior you’re trying to present to the world. Talk about that time you made a mistake. Self awareness is the key trait you want to convey. A study showed that self deprecating humor was the #1 coveted trait of an effective leader. It manifests in many different ways. Prioritize that above all.



This is exciting!


Don’t forget that this is an exciting time in your life! It’s packed with stress and deadlines and anxiety, sure. But don’t forget to reward yourself with some television or a relaxing meal. You’ve worked so hard throughout high school, you’ve overcome a thousand challenges, and now you get to show off.


Have fun. It'll come through on the application.


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