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Local experts’ tips for a polished college admissions essay


College admissions can be a daunting process for high schoolers and their parents. It’s often complicated, competitive, and time-consuming. Sometimes even above-average test scores and a stellar GPA aren’t enough to gain admission to a student’s top choice; in addition to other requirements, students must write a noteworthy admissions essay.

The challenge: There isn’t a single winning approach to writing a good essay. Each student is unique, notes Kelsea Conlin, director of writing support at College Transitions, a college admissions consulting team. Students should brainstorm a topic—usually about an experience or event that was significant to them—and then write an exploratory outline or draft before choosing a single direction for the essay to take. Students can then structure the essay in two sections, as shown on the next page. 

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The first section is a retelling of the selected experience. “To write the first section, it can be helpful to ask students to map out the chosen experience in as much detail as possible,” Conlin says. “Create a timeline of events: What led to the experience? How did the experience unfold? What happened after the experience? Students might choose to write the essay chronologically or to start with a particular moment within the experience that resonates the most. Depending on the student’s story, the essay might open with a personal anecdote, several lines of dialogue, a scene that places the reader in the middle of the action, or vivid imagery that describes an object or place. There are a lot of great options.”

The essay’s second section is a reflection that helps the reader understand how the experience affected the author. Students should use this section to reflect on the events. “Discussing the experience with a trusted friend or mentor can be helpful, but the deepest and best insights usually occur while writing. Students do not need to know how an essay will conclude when they sit down to write,” Conlin says. “Writing is a discovery process, and we encourage students to keep an open mind, deviate when they’d like, and allow themselves to come to new conclusions. Students should consistently ask themselves: Why does this matter? How does it connect to other experiences I may have had? What do I want the reader to know about me?

Comparing Notes

Conlin and John Burroughs School grad Eleanor Hohenberg, who was recently accepted to Georgetown University, share other pointers.

Brainstorming is key. 

You might try freewriting on various topics, creating a timeline to trace connections, recording a spoken version of several experiences, painting, sketching—whatever gets your wheels turning. “Pick something that you feel connected to and that you’re passionate about,” says Hohenberg. 

Let the reader hear your voice. 

Write in a conversational style that feels natural. Don’t try to insert words you wouldn’t normally use or attempt humor if that isn’t your typical writing style. As you write your essay’s reflection portion, aim to give the reader a peek into how you think.

Take a fresh look at the essay. 

After you’ve written an initial draft, think again about the story that you are trying to tell: What parts are strongest? Does the essay lose energy anywhere? What sections are you struggling to convey? Your own insights are powerful and can help you decide how to proceed.

Revision is recursive. 

Be patient, and allow time to draft and redraft. “Anytime you read the same writing over and over, you either start to see every single flaw and want to scrap it all,” says Hohenberg, “or you don’t see anything wrong with it.”

When revising, try different methods. 

Read your essay aloud, print it out, or enlist help from a trusted adult.

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