Four Experts’ Tips on Writing a Top-Notch College Admissions Essay

As Write the World celebrates the launch of our online, on-demand webinar, Complete Your College Essay, we spoke with four experts in the college admissions space to ask their advice on what sets college essays apart from the admissions pool. Read on for a glimpse at our Q&A conversation, and to level up your own writing as you prepare for the next step in your academic career. 

What are the most important things in an outstanding personal narrative?

“An essay that will show us who you are and not tell us,” answered Karla Arriaga, Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at CalTech, reflecting on her experience reading college admissions essays. “By showing us, we mean that you should describe your personal story instead of listing it in chronological order. You’re not just telling us traits that you embody. By reading your essay you are letting us infer and understand who you are as a person.” 

Arriaga’s emphasis on personalization connects with an answer shared by Colin Kirkland, Nonfiction MFA candidate at Emerson College and Co-Teacher for EmersonWRITES: “[The] first thing I look for [when reading admissions essays] is a strong opening paragraph,” he told Write the World. “While revising your work, there’s no use in saving your juicy stuff for the end, especially in essay writing, where suspense is usually built through revealing instead of withholding information. So open with a bang, and get readers interested right away.”

By showing readers who they are and having a strong opening, college applicants open a window into their lives, revealing to readers who they are, how their experiences have shaped them, and where they aspire to go during—and far beyond—college. The objectives and utility of the college essay genre rings true in the words of Cori Bodley, former Assistant Director for Undergraduate Admissions at Emerson College: “A lot of the times, we find out about the impact of COVID-19 on a student’s life through their college essay—if their parents were laid off, or if they really struggled in virtual school,” she shared. “Those are the kind of things that we will find out in their college essay, and they really do kind of help us understand where the student is, where they’re coming from, to give us a fuller picture of that student.”

What benefits can feedback and revision provide?

“The key to an outstanding college essay is revision,” Arriaga shared. “Your college essay should go through several stages of revision. Have multiple people read your essay and give you feedback.”

Feedback offers a fresh perspective, especially when garnered from multiple trusted readers; however, not every reader knows best, given how personal and subjective narrative writing can be. “You don’t have to take every ounce of feedback,” Kerry Feltner, affiliated faculty member at Emerson College and Co-Teacher for EmersonWRITES shared. “Sometimes it’s good to get the feedback just to say, ‘Oh, even though I got that feedback, it makes me committed to this paragraph even more strongly because I’m going to keep that in even though I got that feedback.’” 

“It’s really a chance for you to see how it’s being received. The best thing you can do with drafting or feedback is remove your ego and realize people are not personally attacking you, it’s just information you can take or leave,” Feltner reiterated. 

“One thing a lot of people don’t know about the college application review process is we’re under a deadline,” Assistant Admissions Director Bodley offered. “We have to read so many essays in a time frame. So a really clear, well-written story really helps me to have more time to look at other things inside of the application. If I have to read the story more than once, which does happen pretty frequently—the story just [isn’t] clear [enough] for me to get a full understanding of what the student is saying. Through revision, through feedback, I find that that is the best way for a student to clearly tell their story in an efficient kind of way.”

What words of encouragement do you have for students starting their essays?

“Writing about yourself will always seem a little intimidating, frustrating, and scary,” said Kirkland, “but it’s also really rewarding, and by working through that kind of fear, it’s incredible how many realizations you can make about your own life.” 

“The fact that you are living means you have a personal narrative to share,” added Feltner. “You’ve had things that have happened to you that are worthy of sharing.”

“I would definitely say do not treat your essays as busy work,” Arriaga urged. “Take your time when writing your essay. So, start early!”

About Write the World Workshop’s College Essay Program

One way to “start early” and jumpstart your path to college admissions success is to take advantage of our interactive, on-demand Complete Your College Essay program, complete with dozens of prompts, videos, and resources to explore and reflect on your story, in your own words. By participating in the program, you’ll walk away with a fully drafted, stand-out Personal Statement in hand, as well as a robust toolkit of writing resources. You also have the opportunity to access comprehensive, individualized feedback from one of our trained Advisors through Write the World’s College Essay Review Service!

Learn more about these opportunities, and listen in on our conversation with college admissions experts on our YouTube channel. We look forward to writing with you.  

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