Writing a Winning College Essay

The seniors at my son’s high school are in a panic. They can’t procrastinate any longer. They have to write their dreaded college essay.

A lot of college essays fail because students are so afraid of messing up. It’s hard for teenagers to be genuine when they worry about alienating admission officers.

I  had the opportunity yesterday to shares some tips on how to write a great college essay with kids at Ben’s school. Here are some of the suggestions that I gave them:

Start with a grabber first paragraph. You want your college admission essay to stand out and the best way is to begin strong. I told the kids about an article I once read in Stanford’s alumni magazine that contained first sentences from winning college essays.

Here are some college essay examples of first lines that Stanford liked:

  • When I was in eighth grade I couldn’t read.
  • The spaghetti burbled and slushed around the pan, and as I stirred it, the noises it gave off began to sound increasingly like bodily functions.
  • I change my name each time I place an order at Starbucks.
  • I have old hands.
  • Some fathers might disapprove of their children handling noxious chemicals in the garage.
  • While traveling through the daily path of life, have you ever stumbled upon a hidden pocket of the universe?

Break up the copy. One essay that I saw yesterday only contained two long paragraphs on the first page. Admission officers hate wading through such thick blocks of words. Don’t write paragraphs of more than three sentences if you can help it. And definitely not more than four.

Don’t bury the good stuff. Many teenagers are guilty of this one.  On Thursday I read a college essay, for example, from a girl whose father had been deported from the restaurant where he was a cook. Her father’s recent disappearance and his attempts to return to San Diego have obviously deeply impacted the girl, but she never even mentioned this pivotal moment in her life until the second page. I told her to put it in the first paragraph.

Deliver a take-home message. You can write a serious college essay, a humorous essay or a clever one. There is no one right way, but you have to make sure that the college essay reflects back on you. Whether you are writing about cleaning beaches, babysitting, coping with a family death or any other subject, the essay must provide a strong sense of self. Your personality must emerge and it should reflect what kind of person you are now – not when you were younger.

Watch the length. If you’re not a compelling writer, you can stop at around 500 words.

Further reading:

The College Essay Word Count

Winning One Liners From Stanford

The Dreaded College Essay

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2 Responses to Writing a Winning College Essay

  1. Jason March 19, 2011 at 9:05 am #

    I just want to say what a great site this is! We have a similar site, but this one is quite inspiring. It seems to be jam packed with helpful tips. I know how daunting it can be writing a college essay. I wish a site like yours was around when I was starting college. Your Stanford approved first liners are great! Your site is a real pleasure to read. Keep up the good work!

  2. Josh December 11, 2009 at 12:19 pm #

    I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees, I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row. I woo women with my sensuous and godlike trombone playing, I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines with unflagging speed, and I cook Thirty-Minute Brownies in twenty minutes. I am an expert in stucco, a veteran in love, and an outlaw in Peru. Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single-handedly defended a small village in the Amazon Basin from a horde of ferocious army ants. I play bluegrass cello, I was scouted by the Mets, I am the subject of numerous documentaries. When I’m bored, I build large suspension bridges in my yard. I enjoy urban hang gliding. On Wednesdays, after school, I repair electrical appliances free of charge. I am an abstract artist, a concrete analyst, and a ruthless bookie. Critics worldwide swoon over my original line of corduroy evening wear. I don’t perspire. I am a private citizen, yet I receive fan mail. I have been caller number nine and have won the weekend passes. Last summer I toured New Jersey with a traveling centrifugal-force demonstration. I bat 400. My deft floral arrangements have earned me fame in international botany circles. Children trust me. I can hurl tennis rackets at small moving objects with deadly accuracy. I once read Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, and David Copperfield in one day and still had time to refurbish an entire dining room that evening. I know the exact location of every food item in the supermarket. I have performed several covert operations for the CIA. I sleep once a week; when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair. While on vacation in Canada, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery. The laws of physics do not apply to me. I balance, I weave, I dodge, I frolic, and my bills are all paid. On weekends, to let off steam, I participate in full-contact origami. Years ago I discovered the meaning of life but forgot to write it down. I have made extraordinary four course meals using only a mouli and a toaster oven. I breed prizewinning clams. I have won bullfights in San Juan, cliff-diving competitions in Sri Lanka, and spelling bees at the Kremlin. I have played Hamlet, I have performed open-heart surgery, and I have spoken with Elvis.

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