Oct 4, 2022

What Do Colleges Look for in an Essay? Examples & Tips

someone holding a pencil and writing on sheets of paper

What is a College Essay?

The college essay is an essential element of the college application process. It presents an opportunity for students to personalize their college application, beyond grades and scores. It can also be one of the more nerve-wracking parts of the application process. 

If you are reading this article, you are like applying to college and taking the process seriously. The quality of the college you attend will have a big effect on your entire life, and taking a few hours to make your application the best it can possibly be may be the most lucrative time investment you will ever make.

What do colleges look for in an essay from applicants?

So, what do colleges look for in an essay? The answer is similar to what colleges look for in an applicant. To hit the right notes, you need to consider the perspective and even the mission statement of the college, which of course values intelligence, a good work ethic, and the type of personality that will represent the school. 

Therefore, the core aspects that admissions officials at any institution look for in an essay are:

·         Intelligence

·         Strong communication skills

·         Ambition and goals

·         Creativity

·         Proactivity and self-direction

·         Interest in education and self-betterment

These elements are not based on any abstract moral consideration–colleges want students who will make their institution stronger. They will look for evidence of these traits in your personal essay, as grades only reflect a few of these core aspects and abilities. 

Beyond these considerations, remember that an admissions officer (an actual human being) will read your essay and respond to it both rationally and emotionally. In many cases, that emotion is boredom. Keep in mind that these officials read hundreds of application essays each admissions season. But if your essay can successfully win them over, then you’ll be getting a letter that begins with a “We are delighted to announce…”

Qualities Colleges Look for to Include in Your Essay

Most achievements that colleges are looking for will be reflected in your college application, and therefore, these have been left off of the list below. The achievements showing your passion and drive, as well as your internal and external motivations, will be the ones to include in your application essay. 

Challenging extracurricular activities

Colleges want to see students who stretch themselves beyond the limits of the classroom. The kinds of activities you choose say a lot about your personality and even your morals. Whether or not you stick with your chosen undertakings exhibits your ability to commit to important projects in the long term.

Volunteer and work experience

Any experience you have that shows true commitment, leadership qualities and an interest in community is beneficial to your application. Include the organizations or companies you worked for and what your responsibilities were at each one. If you received any promotions or special recognitions, be sure to mention those as well.

Talents and passions

More colleges are moving away from accepting students who did the most “stuff” to looking for those who focus their energy in specific areas that they’re passionate about. Schools want to see what makes you special and how hard you’re willing to work at the things you care about.

Obstacles or challenges you have overcome

One of the most important aspects of a good college student is their ability to learn from mistakes and overcome challenges in order to achieve success. This is especially true for Common App Essay prompts. In your essay, focus on what exact difficulties or challenges you faced, how you overcame them, and what you learned from this experience. After all, admissions officials are more impressed by a student who came from an adverse situation and still achieved success than they are with a student who had every advantage handed to them and skated by on position and intelligence.

What is a well-written essay?

Admissions officers read a lot of essays, and a well-written one can make a refreshing change. Students should check their essays to make sure they clearly meet these criteria:

  • Does the essay provide a direct answer to the essay question?
  • Does it have a strong opening paragraph that captures the reader’s interest?
  • Does it put forth a comprehensive argument or narrative? Does the student make a point and stick to it?
  • Does it have a natural style that’s comfortable for the student and appropriate for the subject matter?
  • Did the student use effective word choice, syntax, and structure?
  • Does it contain correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling?
  • Is it succinct? Did the student pay attention to the recommended length?

How to Write About Positive Qualities in an Application Essay

The rule of thumb here is always “Show–don’t tell.” When writing a college essay, skip generalized information. Instead, provide real, specific examples to support your statements. Your attention to detail will help make you more memorable to an admissions officer who has to read hundreds, if not thousands, of essays. 

For example, instead of “I love hiking,” you could say, “After reaching the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, I decided my next adventure would be climbing Mt. Everest.” What’s the difference between these two sentences? The first says you like something, while the second one illustrates that you do—but not only that, it also shows your level of commitment and your desire for challenge. Of the two example sentences, which do you think maximizes your use of words and would be more interesting to admissions officers?

Bad example: Claim without proof

My teacher once told me that I was the most skilled and intelligent student she’s ever taught, and I believed her. When I set a goal, there’s no stopping me. I’ll work at it until it’s achieved—even if it’s to my own detriment.

Good example: Showing with concrete evidence

In sophomore year, I decided to set a goal to raise more money for Relay for Life than any other student involved. I asked my neighbors, family, teachers, and even my paster, who sat through my 20-minute prepared speech about why donating to this campaign would be the best use of his money. I spoke to community groups. I did three straight weekends of door-to-door fundraising. And in the end, my efforts paid off—I succeeded in raising over $500 more than any other student.

Showing initiative and ambition

Initiative and ambition are top qualities that colleges look for in an applicant. Students who exhibit these traits will bring a positive and driven attitude with them to college, where it will help them contribute to the campus and succeed in their academic endeavors.

The college essay should always show how you took some kind of action—it shouldn’t just include things that happened to you as a passive individual. For example, rather than simply writing about how it was emotionally difficult when your older sibling got sick, discuss specific coping strategies you developed during that time or ways that you contributed to helping your sibling and family.

Showing self-reflection and growth

Personal growth is one of the most popular topics to write about since it represents what the admissions essay is all about: helping the college gain better insight into your personality and character. Some schools ask targeted questions — “What was the most challenging event you have ever faced, and how have you grown from it?” — while others leave the topic open: “Describe an event that has had great meaning for you. Explain why and how it has affected you.”

One of the most successful strategies is to use a past event as a lens through which you can assess who you were and the person you became, how you have grown and changed, and your transformation. Most children are curious, but were you the one who asked your teacher what caused the change of seasons of the year and then created a solar system model and explained the concept to your classmates? Though you may think that your topic needs to be bold and unique, this is not necessary to craft an effective essay. Instead, success lies in painting an accurate and vivid picture of yourself — one that will show admissions officers that you have much to offer their school.

Structure your essay with a clear beginning, middle, and end

When you include the basic plot elements of setting, introduction, conflict, and resolution, not only will your essay be more fun to read, it will be easier to write. And when writing is easier, you are usually having more fun and pouring more of yourself into your writing. You will find that this often translates into a more compelling story as well since passion and interest are hallmarks of any good story told to a friend or included on the page of an adventure or romance novel.

When structuring your narrative arc, include the lessons you have learned from these experiences: How did you change? What did you learn? What did/do you plan to do differently because of these experiences? Anyone can write about how they won first place in a competition or spent a fantastic vacation in Europe. The important stuff is not in the itinerary, but rather in the diary–what you learned from the experience and how it impacted you.

Essay Introduction #1: Focus on Your Personal Qualities

One approach when beginning your application essay is to start by describing positive character traits you possess and then showing examples of times you demonstrated those traits.

Starting with your qualities

A student wants to show that he is determined and tenacious. He thinks about times when he went above and beyond what was necessary to succeed in high school. He thinks of how he became the only student at his school to participate in three or more AP classes while also being involved in multiple sports and extracurricular activities. He also thinks of his volunteer work with his church at a local homeless shelter, where he made friends and connections with shelter guests and high-profile members of the community. These are the qualities around which his essay is focused.

Essay Introduction #2: Focus on a Personal Story

Another way to approach your essay topic is to start with a story and then work show examples that demonstrative your positive qualities.

Starting with a story

A student’s sibling has been fighting cancer for the past three years, and he feels that this is an important experience that has shaped who he is today. He considers how the difficulties of this experience have changed him and help distinguish him from other applicants. 

From introducing his story at the beginning of his essay, this applicant can tie in the positive qualities he exhibits with the finer details of his personal story: 

  • He is independent, as he needed to deal with taking care of a loved one in a serious and sustained way that his peers did not need to deal with.
  • He is focused, as dealing with regular medical emergencies has not deterred him from achieving good grades and being part of his community.
  • He is empathetic, as he understands personally how hard times can impact people.

Whatever essay topic you choose, your essay should provide admissions officers concrete evidence that you are an ideal candidate for their school. Your essay should have a memorable introduction that grabs the reader’s attention and guides the rest of your essay.

Repeat Your Qualities in the Essay Conclusion

Although your essay introduction is crucial in starting your essay off in a clear and impactful direction, how you end your essay is also important as it is the last thing that will remain in the reader’s mind. One surefire way to write a strong essay conclusion is to repeat the important qualities you discussed earlier. Recall details about your personal story or repeat the qualities you introduced at the beginning of the essay. Here is an example of what a good conclusion can capture what colleges are looking for in an essay: 

Concluding your essay by repeating your qualities

During my high school years, my qualities of leadership, initiative, and hard work have help shape me to become the strong student I am today. As the head of our school’s volunteer group, I showed that even a teenager can make a big impact. As a student achieving high grades in all three of my AP courses, I demonstrated my dedication to education about all. Finally, as a daughter of working-class immigrant parents, I have used my value of hard work to achieve things my parents never thought possible. These values have contributed to making me the conscientious and successful student and person I am now, and they will surely continue to assist and guide me in my academic and professional career.

Interesting Essay Topics to Write About

There are hundreds of resources available online about writing college essays (including How to Write the Common App Essay). And while you can find dozens of interesting and fruitful essay topics that have worked, here are just a few more that are not too specific and can be molded to fit your unique profile and personal story. 

1. A unique extracurricular activity or passion 

2. An activity or interest that contrasts heavily with your profile

3. A seemingly insignificant moment that speaks to larger themes within your life 

4. Using an everyday experience or object as a metaphor to explore your life and personality 

5. An in-the-moment narrative that tells the story of an important moment in your life

Additional Tips for Writing an Essay Colleges Will Love

Choose a Strong Essay Topic

First, whichever structure you will use, you need to ask yourself what you actually want to accomplish in life (esp. in terms of career). This gives you your goals. You need to choose a program that helps you reach these goals—otherwise, you should seriously reconsider whether you should even be applying!  

If you are using the “Story” structure…

The story is going to be your topic, so make it an engaging tale… but remember you are not here to show that you are the next Shakespeare. There are three ways to go here: a story/description about yourself that shaped who you are and shows who you are. A story/description of something completely different but that inspires you, or is a metaphor for who you are.

If you are using the “Conveying passion for a subject” structure…

In this case, you have your topic (the subject you are passionate about), but remember the essay should be about what it means to you (don’t get bogged down in describing the subject itself). Use each subsequent paragraph to illustrate how you show passion for the subject or topic you have chosen. Be sure to use concrete details within the paragraph, but begin each paragraph with a “mini-thesis statement” that gives the reader a clear and concise summary of how you demonstrate your passion in a particular way.

Engage the Reader with Your Essay’s Narrative

The admissions officer will not be interested in a mere list of your personal qualities, extracurriculars, or accomplishments. This information is included elsewhere in your application. Instead, focus on showing who you are in your essay through a narrative that includes concrete details. 

But how can you plan the topics included in your narrative essay? First, grab a pen and jot down important experiences that spring to mind. Your experience could be something negative that eventually turns out to be positive or vice-versa. The most intriguing part of a negative experience is how you handled it and, hopefully, came out on top. Give your reader a setting to help them feel like they’re a part of your story and experience this moment of change with you.

Focus on what you care about most

Consider this a kind of brainstorming exercise. Close your eyes and imagine what drives you, motivates you, excites you, and inspires you to pursue great things (or at least fantasize about doing them). This might include a hobby, a genre of music, an important person in your life, a pivotal memory or experience, a book—anything meaningful that you consider part of your identity or that defines you. 

Start by listing these items and creating a word web of other relevant or secondary aspects of this one idea, person, object, or experience. Write some brief sentences about exactly why it is important to you. Once you have your list and a few sentences written, it should be a bit easier to narrow your topic to just one or two things at most.

Essay Editing for College Application Essays

One thing all schools look for in an essay is a document that is free of errors in grammar, punctuation, mechanics, and style. Admissions essay editing services are ideal for international students who struggle with English or simply want to take their essays to the next level. Students should take care to choose a company that’s reputable and employs highly qualified editors.

Check out our essay editing services to learn how our editors can improve your essays and help you get into your dream school.

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