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GUEST POST – Apps 101: Ten Tips for an Epic College Essay

Comments Off on GUEST POST – Apps 101: Ten Tips for an Epic College Essay 04 November 2019

College Greenlight is excited to share this guest post from Jeff Schiffman, Director of Admissions at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. Tulane University is a Greenlight Partner and offers programs like Preview TU and Bienvenue TU that support diverse, multicultural, and underrepresented students and their families at each step of the college process. Jeff shares some of his top tips from his side of the table about how to write an awesome college essay!

For even more insights and tips, check out Jeff’s blog.


I’ll start this blog by mentioning a quote that my colleague Lindsey likes to use about the college essay: “it can heal the sick but it can’t raise the dead.” By this, we mean that while your essay is an important part of your application, it’s very rarely going to be the make-or-break factor in your admission decision. As a school that practices holistic review, the essay is just one factor among many as we review your application. In my 15 years here, I can count on two hands the amount of times the essay was the sole reason an applicant was admitted (or was not admitted) to Tulane. So… take some time to hammer out a solid essay, but don’t let this thing become a massive time-suck that increases your anxiety every time you sit down to write it.

Now, on to some tips for crafting a killer college essay:

Pick a topic that you enjoy writing about. Seems like a very obvious tip, right? Here is the easiest way I can frame this one for you: If you are writing your essay and it’s coming together pretty naturally, you’re kinda vibing with it as you write it and it makes you happy as you’re wrapping it up… that is probably how we are going to feel as we are reading it. If writing this feels off, if expanding on your selected topic feels forced or it leaves you not-so-happy with the outcome…. well, that is how we are going to feel when we read it.

Sometimes, the simplest topics are the best ones. You don’t have to dig for tragedy. You don’t have to have some life-changing experience or express your impassioned world views. Some of the best essays I’ve read have been on the most simple of topics. What is it like to eat dinner with your family on Sunday night? What was your first concert like? Most memorable road trip? We love these simple yet personal topics.

Tell a good story. Most people prefer reading a good story over anything else. So… tell a great story in your essay. Worry less about providing as many details about yourself as possible and more about captivating the reader’s attention inside of a great narrative. I read a great essay this year where an applicant walked me thorough the steps of meditation and how your body responds to it. Loved it. (yes I’ll admit I’m a predisposed meditation fan)

Be aware of the light-switch essay. They usually read something like this: “I went to do this service project in my community thinking I was going to change the kids lives … and they ended up changing mine!!” Nothing is particularity wrong, per se, but the light switch essay (where things start one way and then totally change in a different way) can sometimes trap you and come across as inauthentic.

It doesn’t have to all work out at 17. We want your essay to come full circle, but we don’t expect you to have life figured out by the time senior year kicks off. Life will always have its ups and downs and that is totally okay. We don’t want you necessarily ending your essay leaving us with concerns for your well-being, but ending with an optimistic tone while still knowing the best is yet to come is great too.

Don’t brag… too much. We’ve got a great list of your extracurricular activities and some glowing letters of recommendation on your behalf. So, no need to self-promote too much in the essay. Some of my favorite essays have been humble, authentic, and honest.  We don’t need a list of your accomplishments here; we’d rather read a story behind a time when maybe getting to one of those accomplishments wasn’t as easy for you.

Avoid application redundancy. If you’ve chose to use the “expand on one extracurricular activity” section to talk about tennis, and your tennis coach has written us a great letter of recommendation, and your counselor mentions how much of a star you are on the tennis team… what do you think your essay should be about? Anything but tennis! We want to see consistency and fluidity in your application, but your essay should introduce us to a new side of you and a different dimension not seen in another part of the application.

Use your authentic voice. We know what the voice of a 17 year old sounds like. It sounds a lot different from the voice of a 45 year old. Write in your own voice and avoid using grandiloquent words like adumbrate or laconic (see what I did there?) If you’re ever wondering what your authentic voice sounds like, take a few days to free-form write in a journal about your day and what’s on your mind. That is your voice. Bring it into your essay.

Have a theme, somewhere in there. A great format of your essay: Part one; hint at whatever theme or message your essay will conclude. Part two: tell a great story that illustrates that theme. Part three: circle back to the theme in a clear and powerful way that ties the story into it. Done. See? Simple as that.

Don’t write about camp. That’s all. Just don’t.

Go forth and prosper, essay writers!

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