To understand how to write a good and impressive college essay, you first need to understand what a college essay is. A college essay is a 650-word (or less) long essay that Admissions Officers need to evaluate if you are a good fit for their college. It is not an essay on a social problem or your opinion about the current crisis plaguing the world. It is an essay about yourself. But mind you that you don’t merely have to list down your achievements and your interests; you have to put your personality on the page.
Dr. Aimee Weinstein’s Writing Impressive College Essays: Includes Strategies and Essays That Really Work is an extremely useful and convenient guide to learning how to write good main essays and supplemental essays. The book’s conversational tone and step-by-step teaching process make it stand out from the plethora of guidebooks already available in the market. The tips included in this blog are part of this book.
In this blog, we will only be discussing the main essay and the prompts that are provided on the Common App. Below is a list of prompts provided on the Common App for 2022-23.
Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
Notice that all these essays ask you to either share an interesting story, a topic that captivates you, an accomplishment or failure, or a realization that dawned upon you. They are always about you and your learnings and passions in life.
Expert tips to craft an impressive college essay
Dig deeper to find your story
Your college essay should provide a glimpse into your life for the Admissions officers. You can choose any prompt from the ones listed above but you first need to understand what the prompt is actually asking you to write. If you are choosing the second prompt, you need to ask yourself — “What is a major challenge that I faced and overcame?” “How did I overcome it?” “What did I learn from it?”
Remember, it does not suffice to just write down the challenge because that is not what the Admissions officers want to read. They want to know how you overcame the obstacle and moved ahead.
You can find many such brainstorming questions in Writing Impressive College Essays which has a separate chapter entirely dedicated to it.
Always show, don’t tell :
Example #1 :
The tires of our bus blew winds of dry mud in the air. I distinctly remember two women walking barefoot in the scorching heat when we couldn’t even step down from our air-conditioned bus.
Example #2 :
Our bus entered the rural village where we saw women and children roaming in the heat.
Which example is more effective? Which one paints a distinct picture of the scenario?
The first example is an ideal ‘show, don’t tell’ piece of writing where dry winds and walking barefoot in the scorching heat pop out and create a vivid picture.
Use adjectives and illustrate your story instead of stating things as a matter of fact like in Example #2.
Fill your page, then edit
The 650-words limit is a cramped space to put forth your thoughts and story. Instead of writing the essay in the word limit, you can keep writing it until you’re done. Then, you can edit it and remove the unnecessary details and keep only the important ones.
Write your rough draft in a Word or Google doc and make the necessary edits there. After you have trimmed it to the specified word limit, copy and paste it into the box given on the website. You can also use tools like Grammarly to check and correct grammatical errors.
Sample essays are a great learning resource to compare your own essay with and learn the show-don’t-tell skill. Comparing your essay does not mean that someone else’s essay may be better than yours; everyone’s story is unique and therefore, cannot be compared. But sample essays will help you in comparing whether your essay is attention-grabbing and whether it conveys your true intentions. You can find eleven complete and original essays in Writing Impressive College Essays. These essays are written by Dr. Weinstein’s students who have got admission into prestigious colleges.
Read a sample essay from the Writing Impressive College Essays book here.
A Story About a Religious “Home”
Effort, Gratification, Compassion
As dawn breaks, I pull open a heavy, wooden door and walk down the stone floor of a dim hallway. The sound of steel and glass clinking together on a wobbling cart rolling through each hallway is one of the only sounds in a calm, quiet church. Another thick door swings open, and a bright light instantly illuminates a small kitchen. An assortment of bread is sorted onto a beautiful, shining silver dish and grape juice is squeezed into tiny clear glasses the size of one’s palm. I fill the stone goblets with more grape juice and I place a giant bread loaf onto another illustrious plate. These items crowd the cart as it wobbles into a massive, bright sanctuary filled with the angelic voices of the choir. I carefully assort this army of dishes and plates onto a table. I step back down the stoned floor and look up at the stained glass with Jesus looking down onto the table, feeling like I have accomplished something. Communion is ready for serving. Since first grade, I have done this bimonthly.
Preparing communion is not the only activity I have participated in at church. The congregation took notice of my effort, work and involvement. Two years ago they appointed me to be the youth elder on the Session, the church’s governing board. Serving as youth elder is an honor for me because I am serving the congregation. Adrenaline rushes into me every time I walk into the monthly meetings because I feel obligated to speak up for those in the congregation who are unable to be heard and strive to make the church a better place. For example, improving church safety and making plans to prevent mass shootings are things I consistently advocate for even when unease fills the room at the mention of the topics. As the only student present on Session, being around adults is something I learn from and enjoy. Persevering, working hard and being compassionate to others are things they taught me. Persistently advocating for issues during Session meetings, working hard to fix them and being positive have contributed to my maturity due to those interactions.
These experiences at church have prepared me for life outside of it as well. I am known for having a calm, kind and empathetic personality. Many people have come to me for help or advice, something that is a privilege because not everyone gains that level of trust. I remember sitting in a small group with a school counselor in a cozy, small room when someone shared a rough experience at home. I calmly spoke to her about it and tried to give her advice about what to do. For a while I remember the student consistently thanking me, because the advice I gave eased her situation. I am glad I impacted someone’s life in that way.
Church is where I feel at home. Few things are more relaxing than preparing communion, which taught me how to pay attention to detail and to be thorough. Being on the Session made me a self starter with a great work ethic. I plan to continue to employ this work ethic and I intend to bring the same positive attitude, sincerity and effort in the future and in whatever capacity I serve my community, so that I make a good impact.