What Makes the Best College Essays Amazing?

This year was a year of outstanding essays from our students. We’re a little biased, but we truly were deeply impressed. While the college application process can be far less than inspiring, our kids were willing to push themselves, dedicate the time needed to develop not just this one piece, but as writers overall, and produce essays that showed their hard work.

To be honest, this isn’t surprising. We knew the essays would be good because a good essay is a bit of a formula. Yes, you have to be willing to put the time in—but we don’t work with kids who aren’t. Yes, you have to have something to say—but we don’t work with kids who don’t. If you are willing to do the work, and you have something to say, you can write a killer essay.

Here are our five things that make a top college essay:

A great essay is a long-term project

Writing an essay isn’t a project for an afternoon. No matter what you wish was possible and no matter what any college counselor has tried to sell you, you can’t sit down for 2 hours and come out with an amazing essay. That applies to everyone regardless of how many A’s your English teacher gave you last year. A great essay takes time, and it takes commitment, so you have to start early and work on it gradually.

A great essay is an inch wide

Often a student’s impulse is to try to cram a half a dozen different things into the 650 words. That doesn’t work. A great essay is focused on a moment or two. It is precise, it is scene-based, and it is certainly not sprawling. 

A great essay is a mile deep

Keeping your essay focused opens up space for digging in. While a great college essay is only an inch wide, it should also be a mile deep. By this, we mean exploring what you are focused on in a way that goes far beyond the superficial. Your essay should show something about you that admissions officers won’t see anywhere else in your application. It should also reveal something unexpected, even if what is unexpected is simple. A flash-bang-boom-style essay is far less powerful than one in which you are the driving force. Going deep keeps you in the driver’s seat—which is where you belong.

A great essay has a voice

If you want to write a great essay, you need to have a voice. In top college essays, the reader can hear the writer in the piece. That voice will stick with them as they read the rest of the application, and act as a guide when it comes to them vouching for your application. Worried you don’t know your voice? Try freewriting. First, though, throw out the thesaurus.

A great essay isn’t your friend’s essay

We have example essays on our website, there are thousands on Google, and you’ll probably see a few of your friends. While it’s normal to take inspiration from the work of others, remember to stop at inspiration. Plagiarism aside, something working for someone else doesn’t make it the right style/voice/form/topic for you. The reason we spend so much time with each student is so that their work is distinctly theirs, not a copy of some essay that went viral two years earlier. Your essay needs a voice, a point of view, and a story that is all you.

Need help finding your voice? We can help you out.