How to Write a Successful College Essay

3 minute read

Answer by Anna Redmond, former Harvard admissions interviewer, on Quora.

The best advice I could give you is not to write an essay.

Write ten. Preferably all about different topics. About your pet that died because your parents couldn’t afford a vet, your grandmother’s pile of World War II letters in the attic, how you felt the time your algebra teacher sent you to the principal’s office for wearing the same shirt your friend was wearing but only you got in trouble because you had bigger breasts.

When you’re done, put them in a folder and ignore them for a week. Then sit down and reread them in one sitting.

What you will see when you do this is themes. They will start to poke their noses out of the woodwork. If you’ve done this honestly, these are gold you have been mining for. They should talk about who you think you are. Who you are trying to be. Hold on to the themes, particularly the ones that are the most honest and the most identifying. Remember, as you write, the essay is not about what you have done. The essay is about who you are. If you get to this point, you will know what essay you want to write without having to ask for prompts.

For further inspiration, don’t read other college essays. Pull out the Atlantic, Vanity Fair, or Rolling Stone. Read their profile pieces. You will start to notice that even though these pieces are all about things and events — political campaigns, selling designer jewelry, escaping from rebels — they leave you with a specific opinion about the person. A certain actress may be successful in spite of her demons. A politician calculating but capable of acting with passion and spontaneity. Pay attention to the way these things come out in the types of stories. This is the hallmark of good, impactful writing. Some of the best examples of “show not tell” are to be found here.

Above all, be honest. Believe in yourself — believe that you have something special to bring to the table, and you are telling a story that deserves to be heard.

Good luck!

Oh, and P.S. Since you asked for prompts, here are a few to start you off. These are my own, not pulled from a book. I don’t recommend using them for your entire essay. But if you take my advice and truly begin to explore yourself, these should be a good place to jump in.

  • Write about something unfair that happened to you and how you dealt with it.
  • Write about the first time you saw your parents fail at something and how that made you feel.
  • What is one thing that means a lot to you but other people don’t care about?
  • Do your teachers express their political opinions when teaching class? How does that make you feel?
  • What relationship is the most meaningful in your life?
  • Write about something you’ve done that has made an impact in someone else’s life.
  • What are some things your school does well? What could they do better?
  • Who is your favorite author and why?
  • What accomplishment are you most proud of?
  • If you could not go to college, what would you do instead?
  • This question originally appeared on Quora: What should I write my college essay about?

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