How to write the best college essay

by Jennifer Johnson,

  • Student writes on a piece of paper with an open laptop in the foreground

Writing the college essay is the most stressful — and arguably, the most important — part of the application process. 

The essay is the only place on The Common App to tell admissions officers how you stand out beyond your GPA, activities and classes. But that shouldn’t be taken as a cue to try and write about an impossibly unique topic, said Sue Corner, senior associate director of admission

“It’s not what you write about, it’s how you write about it,” said Corner, who also teaches workshops on essay writing. “It’s the way you tell the story that will help us remember you.” 


Start by posting any ideas, themes or reflections on sticky notes on your wall — don’t be afraid to be far-fetched. Aim for quantity, not quality. Examine each one individually then discard or amplify as you go. Revisit the wall a few times before you begin writing your essay. 

Be authentic

Choose a topic that reflects you in a unique way and couldn’t be written by the majority of your peers. If you read back over your essay and find it doesn’t reflect your own story, reconsider the topic, Corner said. 

Captivate them

College admissions officers comb through hundreds of essays a year, so you have just a few minutes to catch their attention. Open with an anecdote (If it’s funny, even better.) that will hook them in the beginning and keep them reading until the end. Or go for their heart — trying to move an admission officer with emotion isn’t a bad idea, either. 

Start early 

If you underestimate how long it will take to write the essay properly, or don’t think it’s that important, it will show. Pay close attention to the essay prompts, try to achieve word economy and eliminate throwaway words like “that” to maximize the word count. 

Phone a friend

Don’t turn in your essay (or any other professional writing, for that matter) without someone else reading through it, Corner advises. Grammar or punctuation errors are the most unnecessary — and unfortunately common — mistakes that appear on The Common App. Every year, a student will address the essay to a specific school and not realize the application is sent to every school the student applied to, she said. 

Remember: Essays matter

They’re an important representation of a student’s academic preparation, and in some cases, a pivotal piece of the admission decision. For students choosing a test optional route to admission, the essay can be the tipping point that determines admissibility. At Willamette and other universities, “essays in many cases have become even more valuable than test scores,” Corner said.

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