Your College Application Essay : Tips for a Winning Essay!

Your college application essays are an essential and important part of the application process … you need to ensure a good winning essay to attract the attention of the Admissions team and tell them your story.  An otherwise fantastic application with a poor essay might not make it through while a strong essay might well prove to be a differentiator even if the application is average on achievements.

Let us visit some tips to make your essay strong, attractive, and a key differentiator in the application process.

Selecting a topic

Don’t worry about what the Admissions office would like to read … rather choose something that you believe in or feel strongly about.  Choosing a topic to write about (when given the option) is very difficult task but also gives you the flexibility to choose something that showcases you and your accomplishments in the best light.  Brainstorm about things you like to do, what is important to you, what activities or events you have learnt from, people who you look up to (family, friends, historical, community, etc), your achievements, and anything that comes to mind that you might wish to write about.  Start writing down points about these and use free association to keep listing things down.  Don’t worry about whether the points are relevant or good – just write them down at this stage.  After that, go over your lists and try to narrow down your search to a couple of topics that you believe would be better.

Write your story! In your words!

It does not matter what you have picked as a topic; its more important how you deal with it.  Remember that you have to write your story in your own words.  It would be disastrous if you try to sit with a dictionary and every second word is one that you have looked up to add substance to your essay.  You will lose your flow and the reader would be able to see through your stilted attempt anyways.  The essay should be straight from your heart and tell your own story.  Let the story flow and use your own simple language when you write the first draft.  You can always try to change some words and sentences later to make the essay more powerful.  Never copy things off the internet – admissions officers will know its not you.  Also avoid essays written by professionals as even the best written essay by someone else can never be a substitute for your own voice.

Outlining your essay

It is also a good idea to spend some time to outline your essay.  Use the points you have written down from the brainstorming and bring about a structure to them in terms of what goes where so that your essay can flow smoothly.  You would be moving from the general to the specific and then tying it all in.  A good outline will enable you to write a quicker and more structured essay.

Ensure a Good Flow and Structure

A good essay would capture the readers’ attention in the first few lines and draw them into wanting to read further.  Make sure you have an impactful opening that lays a ground for what you wish to talk about.  Similarly, you would need a good and powerful conclusion that ties in with the introduction and leaves the readers with a good after-taste (so to speak).  The essay should flow seamlessly from an attention-grabbing introduction, into the middle portions wherein you ‘flesh-out’ your story, transitioning well from paragraph to paragraph, and finally ending with a strong conclusion that ties everything together.  Keep asking yourself questions while reading your drafts – do the sentences tie in and flow well, has a point been explained and developed properly, does one paragraph lead into the next one, have any sentences been left hanging without any need to be there, is it relevant to the story, can it be removed without impacting the essay, etc.

Pick a few things that you would like to highlight

Remember that the essay is about enabling them to get to know YOU better!  There are portions of the application wherein you would have enumerated various activities and accomplishments.  The essay should not be used to rehash all those; on the contrary, it gives an opportunity for you to select things that matter to you or have mattered to you, things that you have learnt from and that define the person you are.  Writing about too many things will cause you to lose focus and make your essay appear disjointed.

Be Reflective, rather than Informative

The essay is also not about giving out information, rather it should be more a reflection on what you have learnt or imbibed through the events in your life.  Use these 750 odd words to show your maturity and reflective nature.

The tone and voice

Imaging reading something that just drones on and on like a soporific news reader on Doordarshan (sorry, couldn’t resist that).  Believe me, I have read essays that are no better and would rather be used as sleeping pills.  Ensure an active voice and tone, provide good pace in developing your story, use active sentences rather than passive ones, and avoid clichés & verbose sentences.  A good idea would be to read the essay out loud to yourself or to a close friend at the end – does it reflect the person you are, does it keep your interest alive and excite you about reading further!

God is in the detail

Ensure a good amount of detailing to flesh out our essay well.  Don’t leave a skeleton that is starving to add body and beauty.  If you write about an event, do provide details about it.  If you write about a quality you have, show how you have demonstrated that quality instead of leaving it as a stated fact.  If you mention a person in your story, add some relevant points about the person so that the essay comes alive.  Given the constraints of words, this might be difficult but try to strike a fine balance between detailing and saying everything that needs to be said.  Use detail where it adds value to your story and makes the essay interesting and vivid.

Humour is always welcome (but be careful)

Admissions Officers go through hundreds of essays (a job I would probably hate) so do them a favour by infusing some humour in your essay if possible.  However, this should not be forced and its better to avoid stilted attempts at humour if you can’t think of anything funny.  Also, don’t overdo it.  Any touch of humour should flow and integrate with your essay topic and reflect your personality.  The substance of your essay is more important than forced attempts at humour.  I remember my college application wherein I had drawn a whole cartoon in response to a question. I don’t know how much it was appreciated … I did get into that particular college though!!


For god’s sake, do not commit hari-kari by turning in essays with blatant grammatical, punctuation, or spelling errors.  Proof-read your essay multiple times and do not hesitate to ask someone else to do so as well.  Please use the grammar and spell-check options on your word processor.  And yes, btw, don’t use acronyms like ‘btw’! SMS lingo is fine when you whatsapp a friend, but a strict no on your essays!

Appearance and Presentation

You have no excuse for going wrong on this one.  Word processors have revolutionised our ability to present our work in an appealing and professional manner.  Although formatting cannot make the content of your essay better, an attractive visual appeal will add value to a good essay.  You can choose either single or double spacing unless the college in question specifically asks for a particular formatting. My recommendation would be to go for at least a 1.5 spacing so that the essay is easy on the eyes and leaves enough white space should the admissions officer wish to jot down points for later use. The font should be a plain, standard and easily readable 12 point … don’t use a script or decorative font!

Show them the PERSON YOU ARE

This is the most important point you need to remember.  The essay is a chance for you to show to the college the person you are, and how you would make a valuable addition to the campus and community.  Reflect on your experiences and bring out your character, beliefs, traits, values, abilities, aspirations, personality, et al, so that the college is excited about having you there.  While they look at the complete application to get a sense of who you are, the essay is the most flexible area where you can actually write a bit in your own style and of your own choice.  Enable the college to look inside the person you are and how you would be able to make a difference to their college community.

Not even the best writers can accomplish all this at one go or with their first attempt.  Do realise that you will have to go through many drafts of your essay before you finalise it.  It is also a good idea to provide some gap between these drafts – at least a day or more – so that you can revisit them with fresh thoughts and ideas, and without the tunnel vision syndrome that might occur if you spend too much time at one go on it.  A final product might require 5 – 6 drafts spread over a few weeks – ensure you give yourself enough time.  A rushed job will reflect on the quality of your essays and show you in poor light.  So give yourself time and use all the resources at your disposal to write a powerful essay that will reflect the kind of person a good college would love to have on their campus.

Do write in with your comments.  We are also going to start a series soon featuring some good essays written by your peers … if you have a good essay you would like to share or know anyone who does, write in!

Nirmal Agarwal

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