Tips: Writing the Admissions Essay

essay writing tips

Content provided by EssayEdge's Harvard Editors

It may be only 500 words, but the admissions essay portion of a college application can mean the difference between acceptance and rejection. How you write your personal essay shows the admissions committee why you are different from everybody else.

It provides information about you that test scores, grades, and extracurricular pursuits just cannot. You can use the essay to describe a favorite activity, to tell a story about yourself, or even a story about your dog, but make sure to really use it -- in a way that captures the readers attention and shows that you are exceptional.

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Step1: Brainstorming

essay writing tips

You should expect to devote about one to two weeks simply thinking up possible essay subjects. From this process of brainstorming, you may find a topic you had not thought of at first. Here are some questions to consider:

What Are You Like?

  • What is your strongest personality trait? Does any attribute, quality, or skill distinguish you from everyone else? How did you develop this attribute?
  • How would your friends characterize you? What would they write about if they were writing your admissions essay for you?
  • Consider your favorite books, movies, works of art, etc. Have these influenced your life in a meaningful way? Why are they your favorites?
  • Have you experienced a moment of epiphany, as if your eyes were opened to something to which you were previously blind?

What Have You Done?

  • What are your major accomplishments, and why do you consider them accomplishments?
  • What have you done outside of the classroom that demonstrates qualities sought after by universities? Of these, which means the most to you?
  • Have you ever struggled mightily for something and succeeded? What made you successful? Have you ever struggled mightily for something and failed? How did you respond?
  • What was the most difficult time in your life, and why? How did your perspective on life change as a result of the difficulty?

Where Do You Want to Go?

  • Of everything in the world, what would you most like to be doing right now? Where would you most like to be? Who, of everyone living and dead, would you most like to be with?
  • What are your dreams of the future? When you look back on your life in thirty years, what would it take for you to consider your life successful?
  • How does this particular university fit into your plans for the future? Why do you want to spend two to six years of your life at a particular school?

Selecting an Essay Topic

essay writing tips

As these thoughts start to solidify into an essay topic, think about execution. What sounded like a good idea might prove impossible in the writing. Most importantly, think of how you can make the subject matter original. Even seemingly boring essay topics can sound interesting if creatively approached.

With an essay question in mind, think over the following questions:

  • Will your topic only repeat information listed elsewhere on your application? If so, pick a new topic. Don't mention GPAs or standardized test scores in your essay.
  • Can you offer vivid supporting paragraphs to your essay topic? If you cannot easily think of supporting paragraphs with concrete examples, you should probably choose a different essay topic.
  • Will an admissions officer remember your topic after a day of reading hundreds of essays? What will the officer remember about your topic? What will the officer remember about you? What will your lasting impression be?

Choose a Story

The best essays tell a story about the applicant. The essay does not have to be the story of your whole life, but rather a small glimpse of it, one that is rich with meaning and alive with imagery.

It often helps to think about the impact that past events have had on you. In one admissions essay written by a student who was accepted to Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, and Stanford, an ordinary story is told in a unique and captivating way.

In this narrative about hiking up a mountain, the student also conveys a deep appreciation for science, as well as a dedication to the hard work required to fully understand the universe:

Although the first few miles of the hike up Mt. Madison did not offer fantastic views, the vistas became spectacular once I climbed above tree line. Immediately, I sensed that understanding the natural world parallels climbing a mountain. Much like every step while hiking leads the hiker nearer the mountain peak, all knowledge leads the scientist nearer total understanding.

Entitled "Hiking to Understanding," this essay tells the story of one hike, but at the same time, gives a complete idea of the authors values, interests, and philosophy. Thus, the essay presents run-of-the-mill subject matter in an out-of-the-ordinary way.

Step3: Writing the Essay

essay writing tips

You must bear in mind your two goals: to persuade the admissions officer that you are extremely worthy of admission and to make the admissions officer aware that you are more than a GPA and a standardized score, that you are a real-life, intriguing personality. But before you can convince an admissions officer of this, you must first grab his or her attention.

The Introduction

Most admissions officers spend at most 2 minutes reading your essay. With this reality in mind, spend the most time on your introduction. One technique is to create mystery or intrigue in this first paragraph. At the very least, you should not give away the whole story right at the beginning. Give the admissions officer a reason to keep reading.

As an example, the first sentence of the "Hiking" essay reads as follows:

Surrounded by thousands of stars, complete silence, and spectacular mountains, I stood atop New Hampshire's Presidential Range awestruck by nature's beauty.

This first sentence sets the mood for the essay, it draws the reader into the scene, but it does not state the authors argument or even the plot of the story to follow. The reader has to continue reading in order to learn what happens next.

The Body

After the first paragraph has been perfected, you must ensure that the body paragraphs relate to the introduction. It helps to have a theme or phrase that runs throughout the entire essay. In "Hiking to Understanding," the author uses the mountain as a unifying image:

Some people during their lives climb many small hills. However, to have the most accurate view of the world, I must be dedicated to climbing the biggest mountains I can find. Too often people simply hike across a flat valley without ascending because they content themselves with the scenery. The mountain showed me that I cannot content myself with the scenery.

Also notice that the author uses simple language. Many students think that big words make good essays, but powerful ideas are often best expressed in simple and elegant prose.

Another way to impress an admissions officer is by using specific examples and evocative touches of imagery that stay clear of cliche. The application essay lends itself to imagery, since the entire essay requires your experiences as supporting details. Successful essays stick to the mantra, "show, don't tell." Heres one example from the "Hiking" essay:

When night fell upon the summit, I stared at the slowly appearing stars until they completely filled the night sky. Despite the windy conditions and below freezing temperatures, I could not tear myself away.

This passage shows how description of the stars and cold can make us both imagine the scenery and understand the authors point of view. It tells us what the author feels and thinks, more so than if the author had spelled it out for us.

Finishing Up

The conclusion is your last chance to persuade the reader or impress upon them your qualifications. Expand upon the broader implications of your discussion. The "Hiking" essay does this successfully, both expanding on the description of the scene as well as on the scenes meaning for the author:

When observing Saturn's rising, the Milky Way Cloud, and the Perseid meteor shower, I simultaneously felt a great sense of insignificance and purpose. Obviously, earthly concerns are insignificant to the rest of the universe. However, I experienced the overriding need to understand the origins and causes of these phenomena.

Don't be surprised if the writing process takes many days. Few writers can dash out a quality essay in just a few sittings. It takes awhile to find the perfect structure, wording, and imagery.

If you have the time, spend a week away from your draft; when you return to it, you will read it with fresh eyes. Ask friends and family for help. Other readers will find small mistakes that your brain has ceased to recognize, and they will answer the essential question, "what makes this essay memorable?"

Sample Essays

essay writing tips

This section contains five tabs of content:

Stanford Application Essay

When I look at this picture of myself, I realize how much I ' ve grown and changed, not only physically, but also mentally as a person in the last couple of years. Less than one month after this photograph was taken, I arrived at the [school's name] in [school's location] without any idea of what to expect. I entered my second year of high school as an innocent thirteen year-old who was about a thousand miles from home and was a new member of not the sophomore, but lower-middle class. Around me in this picture are the things which were most important in my life at the time: studying different types of cars and planes, following Michael Jordan's latest move, and seeing the latest blockbuster show like Phantom of the Opera or Jurassic Park. On my t-shirt is the rest of my life in tennis. Midway through my senior year at the special [school's name] school, the focuses in my life have changed dramatically.

If there is one common occurrence which takes place for every single person in the diverse student body at [school's name], it is that we all grow up much faster for having lived there. I do not know whether this speeding up of the maturing process is generally good or bad, but I definitely have benefited.

The classroom has become a whole different realm for me. Before, the teachers and students alike preached the importance of learning, but it was implicitly obvious that the most important concern was grades. At [school's name] teachers genuinely believe that learning is the most importance objective and deeply encourage us to collaborate with each other and make use of all resources that we may find. In fact, in a certain class this year, my teacher assigned us to prepare every day of the week to discuss a certain book; there were only two requirements in this preparation; we had to maximize our sources, gleaning from everything and everyone in the school, but we were not allowed to actually look at the book. As a result, I know more about that book than any other that I have actually read. It is teaching methods such as this which ensure that we will learn more. Indeed, this matter of thinking has been one of the most important aspects of my experience. Whether in Physics or English, I'm required to approach every problem and idea independently and creatively rather than just regurgitate the teacher's words. In discussion with fellow students both inside and outside of class, the complex thoughts flowing through everyone's brain is evident.

However, I believe that the most important concepts that I have espoused in being independent of my parents for half of each year, deal with being a cosmopolitan person. The school's faculty and students are conscious about keeping all of the kids' attention from being based on the school. Every single issue of global concern is brought forth by one group or another whether it be a faculty member, publication, ethnic society, or individual student. Along with being aware of issues of importance, after attending [school' s name] my personality has evolved. First, my mannerisms have grown: the school stresses giving respect to everyone and everything. Our former headmaster often said, "Character can be measured not by one's interaction with people who are better off than him or herself, but by one's interactions with those who are worse off ". The other prime goal of the school's community is to convert every single timid lower-classman into a loud, rambunctious senior. Basically, if you have an opinion about something, it is wrong not to voice that opinion. Of course, being obnoxious is not the idea. The key is to become a master of communication with teachers, fellow students, all of who are a part of the community, and most importantly, those who are outside of the community.

I do not want to make [school's name] sound as if it produces the perfect students, because it doesn't. But the school deserves a lot of credit for its efforts. Often, some part of the mold does remain. As the college experience approaches, I am still the same person, only modified to better maximize my talents. Although I still have some time to play tennis and see movies, perhaps one of the few similarities between this photograph and me now is my smile.

** ADMISSIONS COMMITTEE COMMENTS **

This essay is fairly well written. The essayist makes boarding school his focus, using it to explain and describe how and why he has changed over the years. A lot of students write about what wonderful people they have become, but they fail to do a good job of understanding and explaining the forces that prevailed to make them change. This writer focuses on the strengths of the school itself. He demonstrates the sort of values it tries to instill in its students such as, - Encouraging us to collaborate with each other and make use of all resources that we may find, and - Giving respect to everyone and everything. Because the writer does so, the reader never doubts that the applicant possesses all the qualities that he credits to the school. Using this method has two advantages. First, the positive, upbeat attitude he has toward his institution is rare. Second, Stanford, for one, recognized that this would reflect well on his ability to adapt to and be a positive force at their school.

Wellesley Application Essay

It took me eighteen years to realize what an extraordinary influence my mother has been on my life. She's the kind of person who has thoughtful discussions about which artist she would most want to have her portrait painted by (Sargent), the kind of mother who always has time for her four children, and the kind of community leader who has a seat on the board of every major project to assist Washington 's impoverished citizens. Growing up with such a strong role model, I developed many of her enthusiasms. I not only came to love the excitement of learning simply for the sake of knowing something new, but I also came to understand the idea of giving back to the community in exchange for a new sense of life, love, and spirit.

My mother's enthusiasm for learning is most apparent in travel. I was nine years old when my family visited Greece. Every night for three weeks before the trip, my older brother Peter and I sat with my mother on her bed reading Greek myths and taking notes on the Greek Gods. Despite the fact that we were traveling with fourteen-month-old twins, we managed to be at each ruin when the site opened at sunrise. I vividly remember standing in an empty amphitheater pretending to be an ancient tragedian, picking out my favorite sculpture in the Acropolis museum, and inserting our family into modified tales of the battle at Troy. Eight years and half a dozen passport stamps later I have come to value what I have learned on these journeys about global history, politics and culture, as well as my family and myself.

While I treasure the various worlds my mother has opened to me abroad, my life has been equally transformed by what she has shown me just two miles from my house. As a ten year old, I often accompanied my mother to (name deleted), a local soup kitchen and children's center. While she attended meetings, I helped with the Summer Program by chasing children around the building and performing magic tricks. Having finally perfected the "floating paintbrush" trick, I began work as a full time volunteer with the five and six year old children last June. It is here that I met Jane Doe, an exceptionally strong girl with a vigor that is contagious. At the end of the summer, I decided to continue my work at (name deleted) as Jane's tutor. Although the position is often difficult, the personal rewards are beyond articulation. In the seven years since I first walked through the doors of (name deleted), I have learned not only the idea of giving to others, but also of deriving from them a sense of spirit.

Everything that my mother has ever done has been overshadowed by the thought behind it. While the raw experiences I have had at home and abroad have been spectacular, I have learned to truly value them by watching my mother. She has enriched my life with her passion for learning, and changed it with her devotion to humanity. In her endless love of everything and everyone she is touched by, I have seen a hope and life that is truly exceptional. Next year, I will find a new home miles away. However, my mother will always be by my side.

** ADMISSIONS COMMITTEE COMMENTS **

The topic of this essay is the writer's mother. However, the writer definitely focuses on herself, which makes this essay so strong. She manages to impress the reader with her travel experience, volunteer and community experience, and commitment to learning without ever sounding boastful or full of herself. The essay is also very well organized.

Harvard Application Essay

Of all the characters that I've met through books and movies, two stand out as people that I most want to emulate. They are Attacus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird and Dr. Archibald  Moonlight  Graham from Field of Dreams. They appeal to me because they embody what I strive to be. They are influential people in small towns who have a direct positive effect on those around them. I, too, plan to live in a small town after graduating from college, and that positive effect is something I must give in order to be satisfied with my life.

Both Mr. Finch and Dr. Graham are strong supporting characters in wonderful stories. They symbolize good, honesty, and wisdom. When the story of my town is written I want to symbolize those things. The base has been formed for me to live a productive, helpful life. As an Eagle Scout I represent those things that Mr. Finch and Dr. Graham represent. In the child/adolescent world I am Mr. Finch and Dr. Graham, but soon I'll be entering the adult world, a world in which I'm not yet prepared to lead.

I'm quite sure that as teenagers Attacus Finch and Moonlight Graham often wondered what they could do to help others. They probably emulated someone who they had seen live a successful life. They saw someone like my grandfather, 40-year president of our hometown bank, enjoy a lifetime of leading, sharing, and giving. I have seen him spend his Christmas Eves taking gifts of food and joy to indigent families. Often when his bank could not justify a loan to someone in need, my grandfather made the loan from his own pocket. He is a real-life Moonlight Graham, a man who has shown me that characters like Dr. Graham and Mr. Finch do much much more than elicit tears and smiles from readers and movie watchers. Through him and others in my family I feel I have acquired the values and the burning desire to benefit others that will form the foundation for a great life. I also feel that that foundation is not enough. I do not yet have the sophistication, knowledge, and wisdom necessary to succeed as I want to in the adult world. I feel that Harvard, above all others, can guide me toward the life of greatness that will make me the Attacus Finch of my town.

** ADMISSIONS COMMITTEE COMMENTS **

This essay is a great example of how to answer this question well. This applicant chose characters who demonstrated specific traits that reflect on his own personality. We believe that he is sincere about his choices because his reasons are personal (being from a small town, and so forth). He managed to tell us a good deal about himself, his values, and his goals while maintaining a strong focus throughout.

Georgetown Application Essay

For many years, I have been interested in studying international relations. My interest in pursuing this field stems from several factors which have affected me. First, I have been exposed to international affairs throughout my life. With my father and two of my brothers in the Saudi Foreign Service, I have grown up under the shadow of inter-national affairs. Second, I am fascinated by history, economics, and diplomacy. I believe, through the study of international relations, I can effectively satisfy my curiosity in these fields. A third factor which has affected my interest in international relations is patriotism.

Through the Foreign Service, I would not only have the opportunity to serve my country, but also have the chance to help bridge gaps between my country and others. Finally, as a Saudi living abroad, I have been bridging cultures throughout my life. This experience has taught me to look for differences to compromise and similarities to synthesize in order to balance different cultures. In short, I believe that my experiences in life, combined with a rigorous academic education, will enable me to pursue a successful career in the Saudi Foreign Service.

Georgetown, Favorite Class

At St. Albans, especially in our later years, we are given the freedom to choose from a vast array of classes. Using this freedom, I have selected classes which have personal significance to me, regardless of difficulty or appearance on my transcript. However, from these classes, one holds an extraordinary amount of value to me. This course is A.P. Omnibus History, a combination of American and European history. There are several reasons for my great interest in this class. First, I am fascinated by the cyclical nature of the past. I see these recurring political, economic, and social trends as a means of looking forward into the future, while allowing us to avoid the mistakes of the past. Second, history teaches many lessons about the nature of human behavior, both past and present, providing insight into the actions, desires, and aspirations of those around me. Finally, it lays a solid foundation for several disciplines, including political science, economics, and international relations, three fields of great interest to me.

Georgetown, Visual Arts

Another major interest of mine, which I have not had the opportunity to express elsewhere on my application, is the visual arts. Throughout high school, I have used a variety of media to express myself. I began with black and white photography, focusing on the presence of lines and balance in nature. For my work in this medium, I received an award at the St. Albans School Art Show. From photography, I moved on to glass etching. Using a sandblaster to etch the glass, I again concentrated on lines and balance in my works. Moreover, by arranging several glass panes into a sculpture, I moved my study into three dimensions, winning another Art Show award. Currently, I am working on canvas, using oil and acrylic in a Mondrian style, which is based on lines and balance. Eventually, I hope to explore the effects of combining these and other media, creating my own style of artistic expression.

Georgetown, Wrestling

In the past four years of my life, no activity has affected me more than wrestling. Four years of varsity wrestling and the honor of being a team captain has instilled many qualities in me. First, through years of hard work and continuous dieting, wrestling has given me discipline. This discipline has spread to other parts of my personality, including my moral character, work ethic, and perseverance. Another quality wrestling has given me is leadership. As a team captain, I have learned to lead by example, both on and off the mat. Above all, though, wrestling has given me a love of life. Through this sport, I have experienced pain, sacrifice, adversity, and success. Exposure to these feelings - which are, in my opinion, the essence of being - has allowed me to truly appreciate life. I hope to continue wrestling at Georgetown.

** ADMISSIONS COMMITTEE COMMENTS **

What immediately strikes the reader about this set - before even reading it - is the balance between the essays. Each answer contains only one paragraph, each of approximately equal length. The solid structure of each essay and the focus of each reflects this outward balance. Each one focuses on a completely different area of its writer's life, another striking detail. The first focuses on his career goals, the second on his interest in history, the third on his interest in the visual arts, and the fourth on wrestling. This is a perfect example of the jigsaw puzzle approach. When put together, you have a well-rounded individual with passion, depth, and involvement in many different areas.

Princeton Application Essay

A creek is no place for shoes. I think it's unreasonable to ask children to keep their shoes on in such a place. My bare feet were always covered with calluses from walking down the rough pavement of Peardale Street and around the corner, past the weeping willows, but not as far as the Lindsay's squeaky old swing-set. It was hard to see from the road, and as far as I could tell, nobody ever went there - except for me. Large pines nearby stood tall and erect, looking down at the ripples and currents that nudged each other about playfully, like children in the back seat of a car on a long drive. Stones and pebbles lined the shallow bottom and allowed the water to glide in creative patterns over their smooth surfaces. Larger, moss covered rocks dotted the bank and provided ideal spots for a child to sit and watch and wonder.

The creek often taught me things; it was my mentor. Once I discovered tadpoles in several of the many eddies and stagnant pools that lined the small rivulet. A cupped hand and a cleaned-out mayonnaise jar aided me in clumsily scooping up some of the more slothful individuals. With muddy hands and knees, I set them on the kitchen counter, and watched them daily as they developed into tiny frogs. I was fascinated by what was taking place before my eyes, but new questions constantly puzzled me. Dad was usually responsible for assuaging these curiosities. He told me about different kinds of metamorphosis and how other little tiny creatures lived in the water that I couldn' t see without a fancy magnifying glass.

By the creek, my mind was free to wander. I remember sitting silently on a mossy rock and watching the birds; I used to pretend I was one. As my body lay still, my imagination would take flight. High above, looking down on this stream from the pale blue heavens, the wind whistled over my face and the sun warmed my body. When my eyes flickered open, it was usually time to go home. Sometimes I even did.

I was always up for a challenge. My sister and I used to jump from rock to rock, in a kind of improvised hop-scotch obstacle course that tested our balance and agility against one another. She was four years older and I had to practice every morning when she was at school in order to keep up. On the rare occasions that I outdid her, I wore a goofy smirk for the rest of the day.

The creek was a frontier. The stream extended far into the depths of the woods. I thought that if I wandered too far into its darkness, I might be consumed by it and never heard from again. Gradually overcoming my fear, I embarked on expeditions and drafted extensive maps using my father's old compass, a sheet of paper, and a few colored pencils. As my body grew in height and weight, my boundaries grew in extent and breadth.

Years later, I happened to be walking to a friend's house by way of the creek. It occurred to me that what was once an expedition was now merely a shortcut. Although I had left this stream behind, I found others: new questions and freedoms, new challenges and places to explore. But this creek would remain foremost in my memory, whatever stream, river, or ocean I might wade.

Princeton, Athlete (football)

I have learned a great many things from participating in varsity football. It has changed my entire outlook on and attitude toward life. Before my freshman year at [high-school], I was shy, had low self-esteem and turned away from seemingly impossible challenges. Football has altered all of these qualities. On the first day of freshman practice, the team warmed up with a game of touch football. The players were split up and the game began. However, during the game, I noticed that I didn't run as hard as I could, nor did I try to evade my defender and get open. The fact of the matter is that I really did not want to be thrown the ball. I didn' t want to be the one at fault if I dropped the ball and the play didn't succeed. I did not want the responsibility of helping the team because I was too afraid of making a mistake. That aspect of my character led the first years of my high school life. I refrained from asking questions in class, afraid they might be considered too stupid or dumb by my classmates. All the while, I went to practice and everyday, I went home physically and mentally exhausted.

Yet my apprehension prevailed as I continued to fear getting put in the game in case another player was injured. I was still afraid of making mistakes and getting blamed by screaming coaches and angry teammates. Sometimes these fears came true. During my sophomore season, my position at backup guard led me to play in the varsity games on many occasions. On such occasions, I often made mistakes. Most of the time the mistakes were not significant; they rarely changed the outcome of a play. Yet I received a thorough verbal lashing at practice for the mistakes I had made. These occurrences only compounded my fears of playing. However, I did not always make mistakes. Sometimes I made great plays, for which I was congratulated. Now, as I dawn on my senior year of football and am faced with two starting positions, I feel like a changed person.

Over the years, playing football has taught me what it takes to succeed. From months of tough practices, I have gained a hard work ethic. From my coaches and fellow teammates, I have learned to work well with others in a group, as it is necessary to cooperate with teammates on the playing field. But most important, I have also gained self-confidence. If I fail, it doesn't matter if they mock or ridicule me; I'll just try again and do it better. I realize that it is necessary to risk failure in order to gain success. The coaches have always said before games that nothing is impossible; I know that now. Now, I welcome the challenge. Whether I succeed or fail is irrelevant; it is only important that I have tried and tested myself.

** ADMISSIONS COMMITTEE COMMENTS **

The topic of this essay is how the applicant has matured and changed since his freshman year. He focuses on football. One of the strengths of this essay is that it is well organized. The applicant clearly put time into the structure and planning of this essay. He uses the platform of football to discuss and demonstrate his personal growth and development through the high school years. What he could have done better was spend more time describing himself after he made improvements. As it is, he only tells us about his newfound confidence and drive. This essay would have been stronger had he actually shown us, perhaps by including a story or describing an event where his confidence made a difference.

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