How to Write a Compelling College Admissions Essay

May 24, 2013 

David W. Clark M.Ed. David W. Clark M.Ed.

The college admissions essay was first added to the college application requirements of many colleges after World War II. After standardized tests, it is the element of the college application students worry about most.

If you procrastinate and leave this task to the last minute, your discomfort will be well earned. But a simple step-by-step game plan can make it simpler and improve the essay.




Before we start, remember this:

  • Your college admissions essay will be read and in most cases it will be read and evaluated by two members of the admissions committee.
  • Your college admissions essay is unlikely to get you accepted but it may get you rejected. Put another way, the single most important factor in an admission committee’s decision is the quality of the academic program you are taking, followed closely by your GPA, and then your test scores. A strong essay will not overcome weaknesses in those areas, but it could make the difference when two candidates are closely matched and space is limited in the incoming freshman class.
  • Don’t over do it. Admissions committees are looking for insight into you. They are not expecting you to be the next David Foster-Wallace.

Step one: Spring of junior year and summer before senior year.

Start early. Spend several months looking for “snapshots” of your day-to-day life that reveal something about you. If you imagine your daily life over the course of several months as a movie, pick a snapshot of that “movie” (your life) that says something about you to someone who does not know you.

This snapshot should show, not tell. You should be proud of what it describes about you. When those who know you “see” this snapshot, they should immediately think, “Oh that is so…. (your name).” Have a notebook or a few 3×5 cards handy and keep a record of these snapshots as they occur to you over time.

Step two: September of senior year.

Identify the college admissions essay topics you’ll need to complete for all the colleges to which you’ll be applying. Note essay length requirements and any other specifications.

Step three: September & October of senior year.

Write, write and write some more. Try to spend no more than 30 minutes at a time writing, but do write at least 2-3 times a week. Just write. Don’t worry yet about serious proofreading but do give attention to content (readers want to learn about you) and structure (be sure to have a beginning, a middle, and an end).Keep it simple, respond to the prompt, and use your snapshots.

Step four: Let someone else read your essays.

Now comes the hard part; let your essay be exposed to the scrutiny of another reader. Your teacher? An older sibling? Youth group leader at church? A parent?

Use the feedback you receive from other readers to revise and improve your college admissions essays. But always remember to be yourself. If you feel good about what you’ve written, readers on the admissions committee will enjoy reading your essay. If you’re trying to be someone you’re not, it will become obvious quickly.


David W. Clark, Ed.M., is an independent college admissions consultant with offices in Ardmore and Paoli who has been working with high school students for more than thirty-five years. His website is worth visiting. Archived monthly e-newsletter articles can be read at



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