How to write a standout college essay

writing your college essayIf you’re like most students, you probably have some anxiety about writing your college essays. How do you write an essay that’s memorable and stands out from the crowd? Today we’re pleased to be joined by Carol Barash, PhD, founder and CEO of Story to College to share tips on writing an impressive college essay.

CWL: Students often seem to feel like they don’t have any interesting story to tell. Do you have any tips for helping them overcome this challenge?

CB: Most people tend to take for granted the things that are most interesting about them. The person for whom it’s second nature to lean over and tutor other students during lunch may not realize how much others learn from her. Or the person who holds the group together and helps people to really listen to one another may not realize that because that’s what he always sees. In a great college essay, you’re not looking for some big Superman moment, but small everyday moments that reveal who you are and what difference you make in your community.

CWL: What are the biggest mistakes you see students make when writing essays?

CB: The biggest mistake is to have someone else write or heavily edit your essay! The most well meaning parents can turn a great essay from the curious and idiosyncratic voice of a teenager to something that sounds like a generic 40-year-old. Those essays are tedious to read and are not taken seriously.

CWL: What’s the best college essay you’ve ever read and why did I stand out in your mind?

CB: When I was one of the faculty advisors to the Admissions Committee at Douglass College, Rutgers, there was an essay that began, “I walked into the cafeteria on the first day of 9th grade. All of the black students were sitting to my left talking to one another. All of the white students were sitting to my right talking to one another. Where was I with my cappuccino-colored skin, where was I to sit for lunch on the first day of 9th grade?” That essay draws you into a very human moment we can all identify with: a moment when what you know is tested and you have to learn and do something new.

CWL: How long should students prepare for writing their essay?

CB: It’s not about the amount of time, but how students approach the process. Most students don’t have a lot of practice writing first-person narratives, so at first they need to unlearn the five-paragraph essay structure and go back to oral storytelling. That process will open up new memories and stories for them, and then they’ll have lots of ideas to write about in their Common Application and supplement essays.

Many students edit and edit their essays, responding to everyone’s different ideas, until a great idea becomes bland and generic, something that lots of people could have written. Other students keep revising in a way that keeps discovering new details and developing their own voice, making the story stronger and more authentic.

CWL: What can you do if you’re having a hard time writing about the topic that the school is asking for?

CB: Each essay is an opportunity to reveal a unique aspect of your character. Instead of “topic” think “connection.” What have I done that reveals who I will be in this community? Which stories from my past create reasons to believe in who I will be in the future?

CWL: What three tips would you share with students about improving their essay writing skills?


1. To get started, tell your story out loud and record it.
2. When you are editing, write long first (800 or 1,000 words) and then prune to heighten the strongest details and story.
3. Tell the story only you can tell, and tell it as only you can tell it.

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