Tips for a Good College Essay

by Rebekah Richards, Demand Media

The essay section of a college application tells admissions committees more about your personality, beliefs and experiences. It also provides an opportunity to demonstrate your communication skills. Ultimately, your essay should help convince the admissions committee that you would be a good fit for the school you're applying to. However, writing an effective essay can be difficult.

Choosing a Topic

Some applications provide specific questions, but many allow students to choose their topic or provide open-ended prompts. Although there's no right or wrong topics, some topics are more difficult to write successfully. For example, Smith College recommends avoiding topics involving religious epiphanies, simple solutions to world problems or insults to your parents. If you're not sure what to write about, make a list of subjects you love to talk about. Don't feel pressured to write what you think admissions committees want to read; your essay will be more interesting if you write about something you genuinely care about.

Starting Strong

Writing a compelling opening sentence helps create a strong first impression. After you write a first draft, try deleting the first few sentences from your essay and focus on showing rather than telling. Your opening sentence should hook the reader and draw her in to your essay. For example, "I had never wanted to learn how to swim until one hot summer day when I was 12 years old" is more detailed and engaging than "I learned the value of persistence by taking swim lessons."

Polishing Your Essay

Leave plenty of time to edit and polish your essay. Although some applications don't have a maximum essay length, essays usually shouldn't be longer than 700 words, according to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. Delete unnecessary words, such as "very" or "many," and remove any information that's not related to your topic. Read your essay aloud to ensure it flows and doesn't contain typos or grammatical mistakes. Finally, have a friend, teacher or parent proofread your essay, too.

Common Mistakes

Admissions committees don't expect your essay to be flawless, but certain mistakes can leave a bad impression. If you send similar essays to several schools, ensure you change the name of the school throughout the essay. Don't try to fit too much in your essay, and don't repeat information or accomplishments included in the rest of your application. Finally, don't plagiarize or write an essay that follows examples found online or in books. Admissions committees read thousands of essays and can tell when essays aren't original or aren't in a student's voice.

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About the Author

Rebekah Richards is a professional writer with work published in the "Atlanta Journal-Constitution," "Brandeis University Law Journal" and online at She graduated magna cum laude from Brandeis University with bachelor's degrees in creative writing, English/American literature and international studies. Richards earned a master's degree at Carnegie Mellon University.

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