If you’re a high school junior, you’re already aware of the importance of essays in college admissions. Essays are often the difference between acceptance or rejection. In an article in The New York Times, Janet Morrissey sums it up this way:

“The essay is your megaphone — your view of the world and your ambitions. It’s not just a resume or a regurgitation of everything you’ve done. It needs to tell a story with passion, using personal, entertaining anecdotes that showcase your character, your interests, your values, your life experiences, your views of the world, your ambitions and even your sense of humor.”

What separates one student’s academic record from another if their records are nearly identical? The answer is… nothing! Only differences in such things as experience, talents, and interests can enable an admissions office to choose one student over another. Colleges rely more heavily on essays than any other factor to make the necessary distinctions.

What’s the Basis of a Winning Essay?

A compelling essay is the best way to let a college know that you’re not only academically qualified but a worthy individual who can bring credit to the school. An essay informs them of the uncommon ways in which you can contribute to the institution. It makes clear why you would complement their student body’s diverse mix.

In your essays, you should provide insight into your personality, values, and goals. Essays appeal to Admissions Officers (AO’s) if they’re intriguing, persuasive, and entertaining. If you can make a visceral connection with the live human being on the receiving end of your application, you’ll gain an immediate advantage over your peers.

What Do Colleges Look for In Essays

Before you begin writing, appreciate the function of essays from the perspective of the college. Realize that they’re looking for reasons to admit you, not to reject you. They should be able to learn about you through your personal statement and essays, something they can’t do by viewing the quantifiable data that comprises your academic record. They look for what makes you exceptional.

To use a term that colleges shun, you’ll be marketing yourself through your essays. But your marketing message must be subtle. It can’t be as bold and ingenuous as advertising-speak (e.g., “Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee!”).

There are rules for integrating your marketing message in your essays, they’re just not the same rules that apply to more formal types of writing. It’s okay to sin against orthodoxy to make a point or express an idea. You can write grammatically even if you use the slang and colloquialisms that you feel are necessary to make your point. If your essay accomplishes your objectives, the AO will understand and appreciate your marketing message and be willing to advocate for your acceptance before the school’s admissions committee.

Think Twice Before Asking for Assistance

Should you ask your favorite English teacher to guide you with your essays? If you do and they consent, you can be sure that your essays will be grammatically perfect and your vocabulary excellent. Regardless of the essay prompt, the teacher will most likely encourage you to build a case that argues: “I’m an ideal student for your school.” The downside of this approach, and it’s a big one, is that your essay is not likely to appeal to AO’s because, as noted above, they seek essays that are “intriguing, persuasive, and entertaining” rather than simply correct. Even though written by you, the essay will not present your “voice”.

What Constitutes a Winning Essay

Here’s the best description of a great college essay: It integrates information that relates to your personal experiences and reveals a bit of who you are as part of that story. If the essay ties into your passions, it will come alive for the reader. The essay will be valued for what it reveals about your maturity, character, and ambition.

Don’t write an inauthentic essay because you think it’s what AO’s expect. Often, students envision AO’s as elderly men wearing bow ties and tweed jackets, so they write to that imagined audience. Most admissions staffers are only a few years older than you. They share your frame of reference.

Although AO’s seek evidence of your intellectual ability, you’ll get no points for overt displays of erudition. Essays aren’t term papers. However, evidence of your knowledge of the target college can help your cause. If you can demonstrate how you’ll contribute to the lifeblood of their unique institution, your essay will be looked upon more favorably.


Parents — we request that you trust us on one point. AO’s know if you’ve written an essay for your child. It’s easy for an experienced pro to spot “parental interference” after reading dozens of essays a day through many admissions cycles. If an AO forms that conclusion, it doesn’t bode well for your child’s chances of admission, given the obvious breach of ethics.

Our admissions consultants are experts in guiding students to craft essays that stand out from the pack. We invite you to contact us to learn how we can help you optimize your admissions potential at the colleges that fit you best.