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How to Write a Killer College Application Essay

Posted August 03, 2016

You’ve heard it all before. “Get good grades; be in extracurricular activities; get good references and you can get into the school you want.” So say you’ve done all that. You got the grades. Did all the extracurricular activities. Your teachers loved you and have written you great references.

But after all that, how do you stand out from the students who are competing with you for a spot? There’s not much personality between a 3.2 GPA and a 3.9 GPA. Just a higher number. And whether you’re the one with the top of the line grade, or the one with the decent grade, there will always be someone with a better grade, better references, more activities- something that in hard data looks “better” than you.

So how do you stand out above the crowd? How do you make yourself memorable among the thousands of college applications that college admissions will be reading?

Write a killer college essay.

Of course, it sounds easy when you put it like that. But writing a college essay is no joke. Any essay is a challenge- a personal one perhaps more than most. But when a single essay has this much riding on it? It can be overwhelming to tackle.

So how do you write something so awesome it’ll sear your name on the college's brain?

We went to the experts to find out. Stephanie P. Kennedy, former admissions counselor and current president of My College Planning Team, shared this story about the most standout college admissions essay she ever saw:

The best college application example I've ever seen came from a very "average" student--decent grades and ACT for sure, and defensive end for his high school football team--but not an "outstanding student" by any means.

He came to me, his college admission coach, for help on his essay. He didn't want to write an essay because he hated writing, and he felt he had nothing to say. We talked, and I uncovered his "story". He, unlike most of his peers, had volunteered a number of hours at the local homeless shelter. His job was nothing more than serving dinner, but as we talked about his experience and how it had impacted him, he described his "aha" moment. He was pouring milk into styrofoam cups for the homeless dinner guests, and as he placed the cup of milk on the counter, a hand of a boy just about his age came forth to take the cup from him. Suddenly, he realized the distance between him (the volunteer) and the guest (the homeless teenager) was imperceptible. He realized their roles could so easily be reversed: he the homeless, the other boy the one who went home to a comfortable bed. This experience gave him the substance of a truly authentic and meaningful essay because it was not "designed"--this young man's volunteer experience truly changed his view of the world. He continued to serve in volunteer roles, and since then, approached his life differently. And, he was able to write about it in a personal, gritty manner. He was accepted into all the colleges of his choice, and he was offered excellent scholarships. Best of all, his authenticity and sincerity continue to be apparent. He's truly a great kid!

Of course, you almost certainly won’t have that exact same story (and if you do, you’re probably that dude she was talking about). But there is a way to recreate that success. Here’s how:


You can do this alone, with a consultant like the student above, with a counselor, with a parent, or just with good friends. Think about what you do, but most importantly, think about why you do it. Consider your strengths and personality traits. If you need a little help kickstarting that, take our personality quiz to get you going.


Pick an angle to write your essay from. Yes, you can try to cover all your achievements. However, this personal essay is only meant to be a glimpse into who you are. Not a complete story.

Be Creative

It doesn’t have to be about the obviously awesome things that you’ve done. Like the leadership roles you’ve held, how you managed to keep a 3.8 GPA while juggling extracurricular activities, or stuff like that. It can be just about a small moment that changed your life. Or something else focused and not achievement-based.

Be You

Whatever you write about, make sure you sound like you. Don’t try to sound “smart”. Don’t adopt someone else’s tone. Don’t use words you wouldn’t normally use. A quick tip for this is to try reading it aloud and see if it flows out of your mouth. This is a personal college application essay. It needs to be you!

You are capable of writing an incredible college essay.

These tips will help you get there. So good luck! Work hard! And enjoy the process!



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