How to Make Your College Essay Stand Out

Here’s what college admission officers are really looking for.



Illustration by Jon Krause.

Tens of thousands of essays. Millions of words. Try to imagine that torrent flowing across your brain—or remembering just one of those personal theses.

John Mahoney does. During 33 years as a college admissions official—and for several more before that as an English teacher—the Boston College director of undergraduate admissions has read more than his share of essays. He’s glided over outstanding work, slogged through some uninspired pieces, and even recognized 47-year-old voices disguised as high school students. He searches for clues to help him define each person’s essence, hoping the writer is presenting their true self, not some stylized estimate of what they believe he and his cohorts want.

Mahoney has always been on a quest for something that stays with him. Sometimes, it remains for a few minutes. On other occasions, it’s been a few days. But one essay in particular has lodged itself into Mahoney’s mind, serving as an example of what he wants to see from applicants. It begins simply: “Everybody saw it and laughed.”

Saw what? Why did they laugh? Mahoney was intrigued. And since he can still conjure the opening sentence, the writer obviously made an impact. “Think about what that type of sentence does to an admissions person who has to read 35-40 files a day,” says Mahoney.

It makes an impression—that’s what it does. Like many admissions directors, Mahoney is looking for that one line, image or revelation that allows him to complete an applicant’s profile. The college essay can close a deal—or it can end the discussion.

In a hypercompetitive college admissions climate filled with 4.0-plus GPAs and enough service work to qualify some for beatification, the essay may be the only place for an expression of individualism. “The opportunity is that this essay, which is going to multiple schools, is going to show who I am as a person,” says Eric J. Furda, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania. “It provides the universal essence of who I am and how I am going to describe myself.”

The college admissions process is still somewhat mystical. Schools hardly define their criteria, offering vague explanations about “mission” and “fit.” Test scores still matter—unless they don’t. Rigorous academic profiles remain a priority, as do activities— although every student’s résumé is filled with so many extracurriculars that it seems impossible they’re all significant. Recommendations also matter, but interviews are rarely mandatory.

Then there are the essays. Due to more schools joining the Common Application and the newer Coalition version, students face the challenge of crafting a general “personal statement.” Beyond that, each institution has its own requirements, designed to see how a student’s personality matches with a particular school’s qualities. That helps differentiate one student from another. “We used to get résumés on Excel spreadsheets with all the applicants’ qualifications and activities,” says Kellie Kane, executive director of admissions at the University of Pittsburgh. “That didn’t tell us anything.”

Pitt has three short essays that are optional, but Kane says most students complete all three. She is looking for “leadership and passion” to see how the student will fit in on campus beyond the classroom.

Temple University gives applicants a choice between two questions—about five paragraphs for either. This year, one possibility is rather general: Provide insight into one area of personal development. But the other is creative. “We asked students to picture themselves as Temple alumni 10 years later and to reflect on an experience during their time at the school,” says Karin Mormando, Temple’s director of admissions for the past decade. “We want to get an idea of what they might expect while they are here.”

Michael Gaynor, Villanova’s director of university admission, has a simple explanation of what he considers a successful essay: “It’s one that makes you want to read the second paragraph.”

Good writing matters; revelatory prose matters more. Some students get extremely personal, while others may not bare their deepest emotions but still make an impact. “An application is a one-dimensional document that becomes three-dimensional through the essay,” Gaynor says. “We learn about the DNA that makes the person.”

There’s no set formula for writing successful essays, but it’s vital that the voice is the student’s. “Don’t try to contort yourself to what you think the admissions board is looking for,” Furda says. “Don’t try to ... be a top academic mind if you aren’t. If you aren’t yourself, it’s not going to come across as authentic.”

Students should pick topics that reveal who they are. If someone ran all the intramural sports programs at their school, they should describe the passion behind that. Write what you know. That will lead to a better and more genuine essay.

The writing process should include an outline, a first draft, subsequent revisions and a final polish. It’s never easy to get a high schooler to devote that kind of time to doing anything, but an early start is imperative. “There’s a lot on the line,” says Furda. “There has to be some regimentation and discipline to meet the deadlines.”

Applicants must understand that their grammar has to be close to pristine, their syntax crisp—and they can’t have spelling errors. Ditch the casual style. Use vivid language and memorable imagery.

And getting help is a good idea, so long as that assistance doesn’t become an adult’s essay. “This should be one of the best things they’ve written,” says Shannon Zottola, assistant vice president for enrollment management and director of undergraduate admissions at Cabrini University.

In the end, the success comes down to how well students convey their personality. “It’s a tremendous opportunity for students to set themselves apart—in most cases, it’s a missed opportunity,” says Mahoney. “The application gives us good information to make our decision. What we don’t hear with grades and test scores is a heart beating. This is the chance for us to hear it.”

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