1. Tips626263
  2. Admissions officer psychology646365
  3. Good college essays666467
  4. How to un-gut an essay686569


  • Do not use titles.
  • “Have something to say instead of having to say something.” Write about something that’s actually interesting to you, that you actually would like to talk about.
    • This is a harder and a more demanding task than actually writing the essay. How many essays have you written? How many essays have you written about yourself?
  • "Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth, without caring two pence how often it has been told before, you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it." - C.S Lewis

Admissions Officer Psychology

Admissions officers are interesting people who are bored and maxed. They want to read interesting essays. They want to find interesting people to populate next year’s freshman class. If you are an interesting person, they want to get to know you. If you’re not an interesting person, start working on it (hint: the 1st step is asserting that you are, in fact, an interesting person. Then start pretending you are one.). The beauty of the fact that they are looking for interesting people is that once you have become an interesting person, you simply have to be yourself in your essays. You don’t have to pretend anything.

Quotes from “An Interview With a College Admissions Officer” (listed in Essays That Worked for College Applicants706671):
  • "Sometimes it seems that there are only 4 types of essays: the 'class president' essay, the 'I lost and learned' sports essay, the 'I went to Europe and learned how complex the world is' essay, and the good old 'being yearbook editor sure is hard work' essay." [Additional comment: for engineering applications, there also is the potentially platitudinous 'I liked building stuff as a kid... I wanna do engineering...' essay.]
  • That said, if you can pull off a clean, fresh, original take on any of these topics, it can work superbly. In general, just avoid clichés. (Avoid them like the plague. They are as old as the hills.)
  • "I wish students would realize that when they write they should have something to say. They should try to present their values and priorities by writing on the subject that really means something to them, because other than the essay, all I have is a bunch of test scores and activities: 10,000 sets of numbers and facts. I'd like to be able to see beyond that. I want to see what makes someone tick."
  • "Being offbeat or daring is usually a plus, as long as the student stays in control of his writing. The essays which are most effective seize a topic with confidence and imagination. Too many applicants treat their essay like a minefield... They walk around on tiptoes, avoiding anything controversial. Of course, the essay comes out two-dimensional, flat, and boring. It seems like many essays have been read, proofread, and re-proofread until all the life has been sucked out [see How to un-gut an essay726773]. I wish kids would just relax and not try to guess what the admissions committee is looking for. As soon as they start playing that game, they're going to lose. The essay won't be from the heart, and it won't work. " [I disagree to some extent; you should try to get into the heads of the admissions committee, but then write what they actually want -- don't do the opposite and let it paralyze your writing]
  • "The great essays -- good writers discussing something of personal importance -- stick out like diamonds in a coal mine. When we're sorting through the last few hundred applications, an essay that sticks out in an admissions officers mind has got to help the applicant who wrote it."
  • "How important is it to be good writer?...Writing style tells you a lot about the way a person thinks. I like when a student brings a sense of style to a piece, as a good essayist or editorial writer would do. I've always advocated reading the essays of E.B. White as a means of preparing for writing the essay. I also suggest that students read the editorial pages of the local newspaper. But we never discount the student who writes a simple, even awkward, essay which is sincere and moving.

That's why I urge students to write as they would in a diary or a letter to a friend. When you write a letter, you may ramble, but when you're finished, your letter sounds like something you would really say." [see How to un-gut an essay746875]

Good college essays

  • Creatively and/or powerfully answer the question, but don't let the fact that you have to do so hinder you in portraying yourself. The prompt is a blank slate for you to write something that you want to write about. Chances are, something that you actually want to write about actually answers the question.
  • Honestly and personally present personal traits, thoughts, values
  • Convey a positive attitude
  • Are compelling and specific, with a powerful introduction into thought-provoking conclusion relevant to the entirety of essay
  • Are focused and concise, but not narrow or robotic. Approximate max length: 2 pages doublespaced
  • Have a unified voice.

A good college application portrays all of your most important positive facets and hints at more.

What is voice and how to get it?

From the day I started writing things longer than a sentence in approximately first-grade, I have found it effortless and natural to engage what I later learned to be called my "writer's voice." That reveals that it's not a trait you need to develop through years of study. instead, I think it's a natural ability that every speaking person has and uses, but that some fail to port into their writing. People try to write for prompts, people try to be objective, people mistakenly resign themselves to the idea that "good writing" can't be spoken from the self, personal. In the midst of talking, they neglect to engage person behind "I." It's really easy to do this, you just have to stop thinking about the prompt and start thinking about writing an interesting essay about a fascinating self observation for fun, like you'd post in your blog, and then begin writing. The result will be something that is the precursor to a fully voiced college essay.

*Note: UC (University of California) essays matter less than statistics, at least for raw admission. The same cannot be said for Regents scholarships, candidates for which are automatically selected from top applications.

Dream: "If I went to MIT (your school here) I would..."Good question for applicants to ponder: if you could go to MIT for a day, what would you do? This is the basis of (It's like if I ran the zoo!)

How to un-gut an essay

Do not write like a dead fish that was robotic to begin with. [Link to interview with admissions officer] Instead of talking about yourself and the things you did (and invariably sounding like an arrogant prig), reveal through vivid and specific examples why the things you like to do are awesome.

Doing it right: “Imagine playing chess while simultaneously running a marathon with a pack of wolves pursuing you. The game is called Squash and it’s a sport for multitaskers.” ~MIT student 2015

The same applies to larger essays; and while no rule is absolute – the only absolute goal in college applications is the intended impression – these are good guidelines for maintaining the vivacity of your essays.

Consider the difference between these 2 variants of the following intro paragraph. The former is specific and immediate, but blatantly self-aggrandizing and purely descriptive of actions that transpired. It doesn’t go beyond the circumstances discussed. The latter, however, without any direct quotes manages to achieve a comparable level of immediacy plus a distinctive personal voice backed with a mildly self-deprecating and philosophical tone:

Doing it wrong (pompous and denotative): "I'm available all summer."
"I'm interested."
"I'm in!"
"I would love to do this, [John]. I'm ready to go!"
With these enthusiastic words, a cadre of brilliant high school computer scientists pledged their support of an "interesting idea" I had proposed: I was going to hire them.
todo: [Link to essay –UC]

Doing it right (subtle, humorous, and humbly philosophical [Note: humility must be employed judiciously; avoid shortchanging yourself]):
“I never intended to hire anybody. In fact, I never sought to obtain employment myself. I was too busy having fun with computers to be bothered with any of that. But as soon as you know how to hit "ctrl-alt-delete," it seems everyone wants tech support, and one thing leads to another.”
Common App Main766977