Decoding the College Essay: Four Tips from an Admissions Expert

By One2One College Consulting

Colleges and universities are quickly becoming more competitive than ever. Every year, the number of qualified students applying to top schools increases, resulting in drops in acceptance rates. Harvard College accepted 1,962 out of 42,749 applicants in 2018, a mere 4.59 percent—the lowest acceptance rate in Harvard’s history.

As the increased number of applicants has made college admissions more selective, applicants have become even more competitive in order to present themselves as worthy candidates. How can you stand out?

Community involvement is key to being a well-rounded individual and college candidate—it shows the admissions office that you will be involved with student life on campus. It’s never too late to get involved in community service at your place of worship, youth group, local soup kitchen, or nearby homeless shelter. Demonstrate that you are a leader and a thoughtful citizen, and you will not only improve your extracurricular portfolio, but also demonstrate your commitment to making a difference in college and beyond.

Beyond that, the essay is your opportunity to stand out; take advantage of it. With top schools, almost every other applicant will have a high GPA and good test scores. The essay is a chance to become three-dimensional and distinguish yourself as more than just a number on a page. It shows admissions officers who you are as a person and differentiates you from the others. It is crucial to present your true personality through your essay.

Your essay should be a window into your personality that adds vitality and depth to the facts and statistics listed in your application. When well-written, the essay allows admissions officers to see not only how you write, but also gives them a glimpse into the kind of person you are in a way your transcript cannot. A few tips on writing your essay:

Show your thinking. Many of the prompts on the Common Application are left open-ended for a reason. They serve as starting points while giving you freedom to show colleges who you are. It doesn’t matter which prompt you use. What matters is how you use it. A common mistake that students make while writing their essays is focusing completely on an event that took place. While what occurred is important, you need to demonstrate how it affected you and how you felt. Admissions officers want to see how you think and how you’ve grown. The essay is the only place on your application to truly take them into your mind.

Admissions officers want to see how you think and how you've grown. The essay is the only place on your application to truly take them into your mind.

Fill in your gaps. Your transcript, awards, and extracurriculars tell one story. Don’t list them in your essay. Rather, focus on aspects of you that haven’t been covered yet. As for what story to fill that gap, many students haven’t experienced extremely novel circumstances yet, and that’s okay! It is more important in how you use your event to showcase your personality. No event is too mundane if you can make it show how it was pivotal to your development.

Show your passion. This advice may have been repeated over and over, but that is because it’s true. Don’t write about something because you think it will look more impressive to admissions officers. They can see past that. If you choose something you are passionate about, the enthusiasm behind it will show, and that is more valuable than anything you could do solely for college admissions.

Use clear language. The language in your essay should be a more refined version of how you normally speak, but don’t try to be overly flowery in your writing in an attempt to woo the admissions officers. You don’t want to confuse the reader or come off as pretentious.

Remember that there are over 4,000 colleges to choose from, and you should look for the school that will help you reach your greatest potential. In other words, you should find a school that offers interesting academic programs, helpful and accomplished faculty, and a vibrant community in which you are excited to get involved. A true “fit” is a place where you feel welcome and at home.

One2One college counseling will help you approach the college process strategically, strengthening your application and showcasing your passions.

One2One will help you gain a competitive edge in the admissions process that will help you get into your dream school. For more information, visit

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