College Corner: Writing great application essays

Published on Monday, 24 March 2014 18:37 - Written by

The best college application essays pack a lot into their limited length — which is just 650 words at most schools, or slightly more than one page.

A good essay must show that a student can organize thoughts and write well, and that the student understands how to support an argument or ideas with facts and logic. It should demonstrate some personality traits or personal strengths that might not be readily discernible from grade-point averages and test scores. And, of course, it needs to answer the question, or prompt, at hand.

In years of working with college applicants, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a student get into their dream school on the basis of the essay alone. But I can tell you that in close cases, a really good essay can definitely tip the scales. It can help well-qualified students stand out in competitive situations. Sometimes, a strong essay can even convince admissions officers that an on-the-bubble applicant has the ability to do well at the school.

For juniors looking to apply to college next fall, it’s already time to be thinking about that essay. The prompts have been released, and it’s time to start turning that blank computer screen into a polished essay.

That, of course, is the hard part. How do you get those brilliant thoughts into focus?

Capstone’s essay consultant, Jordan Roquemore, has helped many students organize and polish winning essays. He says it comes down to a few key ideas:

Be specific: You want details and language to be as specific to you as possible. If you’re writing about a personal experience, for instance, don’t waste precious words on details that could apply to a large number of people. Roquemore uses the analogy of a funnel: Start by thinking broadly at the top and narrow it down as you go.

Organize well: There’s no magic formula, and no ironclad structure that works for every essay. Instead, make sure your essay flows logically, and that you don’t introduce complicated points that you don’t explain until later. With that 650-word limit, every word you use needs to have a purpose in answering the overall question and supporting your key idea.

Be authentic: Many students’ first drafts are full of fancy words and complicated sentence structure. That’s fine, as long as that’s really how you write. If it’s not, most seasoned admissions officers can see right through that tactic. You want to sound smart and informed, but you don’t want to sound fake.

Write, rewrite, polish — and maybe re-write again: A first draft should be just that — your first attempt at getting your thoughts on paper. Most good essays will go through multiple drafts, and the writer will debate each key idea and even every word. Ideally, you should write your essay over a period of at least a few weeks. Even when you think it’s the best you can do, it’s a good idea to step away from it for a few days before submitting it. When you re-read it with fresh eyes, you’ll be better able to identify any last changes you want to make.


Donna Spann is CEO of Capstone College and Career Advising in Tyler. A college adviser for 11 years, Donna leads a team of professionals who take a personal approach to advising that helps students navigate through career and college exploration, admissions, financial aid, and find the college that’s right for them. Have a question for Donna? Send it to You just may see your question answered in a future column.