11 Secrets to Good College Essays

Your hands tremble as you nervously open the letter that just arrived from your dream school. And then…

rubber stamped image of the word rejected

“Noooooo!” you scream in anguish as your dreams (and your soul) are crushed by those big red letters staring back at you. Okay, an actual rejection letter would probably let you down way more gently than that. The soul-crushing disappointment, though? That’s super real and, well, crushing.

But your dreams don’t have to end that way. Use these 11 secrets to good college essays to help you nail all your college application essays and keep your dreams on track.

11 Secrets to Good College Essays

Whether you’re writing a general personal statement or one of what feels like a million supplemental admission essays, the nuts and bolts of what creates good college essays don’t really change that much. That means the secrets below apply in most cases.

Secret #1: Decode the prompt

man wearing goofy contraption on head next to the words crack the code

The goal of essentially every prompt (as well as the general personal statement) is to give the admissions committee insight into who you are—as a person, as a student, and most importantly, as a potential student and community member at that specific school.

In other words, decoding the prompt is essential to your admission prospects. Once you decode the prompt, you can focus on showing the committee who you are and why you’re the best candidate within the scope of the prompt itself.

But you also need to understand what’s being asked specifically in a prompt and recognize the hints about the scope and structure of your response. Not sure how to do that? That’s okay. I’m here to help.

How to decode a college essay prompt

Let’s look at an example.

Prompt: “Tell us about personal, social or family challenges you have faced. How have you dealt with them, and how have they shaped your thinking? (500 words or less)”

The first hint is the word length.

While pretty standard, 500 words doesn’t give you a ton of space to work with. Thus, being clear and concise is key.

Second, the prompt is asking you to address three different things:

  • Share personal, social, or family challenges
  • Show how you dealt with them
  • Show how you changed because of those challenges

This tells you that what you write about has to be directly related to you or impact you personally. You can’t tell a story about something that happened before you were born or about something that happened to your best friend and didn’t involve you.

The question is also asking for information that highlights important aspects of your character, background, or skills. While you might feel like the death of your grandparent is the most compelling story to tell, sharing the story of leading a group in class to victory on a project might be more enlightening for the committee.

Finally, the phrasing in the question suggests that you really need to bring home the lessons you’ve learned and how you’re going to apply those lessons in college and beyond.

Read this response to see how well one student decoded (or didn’t decode) the prompt above.

The main takeaway is, regardless of the prompt, understanding what a prompt is really asking is central to writing good college essays. Want more help on how to tackle a specific prompt? Check out these resources:

Secret #2: Think like the admissions committee

woman wearing thinking cap surrounded by speech balloons
“Thinking cap” by Clare Black, Flickr.com (CC BY 2.0)/text changed

The admissions officers decide whether you’re admitted to your dream school. That means, to write a killer essay, you need to think like them and figure out what they care about.

Ultimately, they want insight into your perspective, your thinking, and your self-awareness. But they’re also considering the following:

What impact you’ll have

  • What do you value about this school?
  • What experiences have shaped your perspective and are unique to you (and are obvs worth sharing with your peers)?
  • What do you want to get out of the college experience, specifically at this school?
  • What strengths will serve you well in this program and the community? (Many prompts will directly ask this, but even if they don’t, trust me—the admissions committee wants to know.)
  • How will you aid your peers?

The admissions committee often also wants to get an idea of what impact you’ll have on the reputation of the college—both during your college years and beyond. This isn’t universally true (obviously a community college doesn’t care if you want to cure cancer). But most admissions committees are considering your potential ROI (return on investment).

In other words, make it clear to them what you want to ultimately achieve in your career. Whatever that is, it will (eventually) reflect back on the school you attended, so it helps them decide if you’re a good fit.

Demonstrated interest and yield

Demonstrated interest is pretty self-explanatory—it’s how well you demonstrate your interest in the specific school. That means showing why, SPECIFICALLY, you want to attend this school. If you could remove the name of the school or program in your essays and drop in any other school/program name, you’re not effectively demonstrating your interest.

Yield is the percentage of accepted students who actually enroll. When you can demonstrate your interest, admissions officers are more likely to assume you’d actually enroll if accepted—and thus increase the yield of their offers (something that’s good for them).

Want more insight on what the admissions committee is thinking? Read Personal Statement Advice: Here’s What the Admissions Experts Have to Say.

Secret #3: Embrace a theme

Good college essays have a narrative or theme that connects all of the ideas. Period. Even if the prompt itself is pretty open-ended, your response should have a purpose and be centered around a theme.

That means making clear connections that bring the theme into focus throughout your essay.

hand holding camera lens focused on a gravel road

For example, maybe you want to prevent needless suffering due to lack of access to preventative healthcare. Or maybe you have a lifelong passion for artistic expression or a desire to connect with others from different cultures.

Whatever *it* is, you want a theme that tells an engaging and compelling story. Then make sure that narrative is cohesive throughout your application essay. What you don’t want is a list of key ideas that feel disconnected.

If you need help identifying a theme, here are a few posts that can help you brainstorm ideas:

Finally, many of the same elements of writing a personal narrative essay apply to college application essays. That means you can gain insight in how to approach your application essays by understanding what makes a personal narrative powerful.  

Secret #4: Outline before you write

Once you know what you’re going to write about (see Secret #1 if you need help decoding the prompt), an outline is your bestiest of besties. Mapping out your essay in an outline or using a graphic organizer will help keep your essay focused.

More than that, it’ll help you organize your ideas logically.

And most importantly, outlining makes it easier for you to see how to connect different sections to a central idea or theme (see Secret #3).

Secret #5: Be authentic and unique

person with the word unique tattooed on upper back
“Unique” by Ashley Webb, Flickr.com (CC BY 2.0)

Everyone has a unique story to tell. Embrace yours, and be authentic in telling it.

What do I mean by that?

First, write in your own voice and at your own writing ability. Being fake will be obvious, yo. Don’t make stuff up, don’t try to pretend to be someone you’re not, and don’t use so-called “big words” just because you think they make you sound smart. They don’t.

Second, write authentically about your experiences, your thoughts, your goals, and so on. If you were telling a friend about something, how would you talk about it? You’d be real and share your true thoughts, feelings, and aspirations, right? That’s the voice you want to capture.

Third, show why you’re unique and what makes you stand out from other applicants. How? Focus on key experiences that have shaped who you are. How you’ve responded to, learned from, and grown as a result of those experiences are the details that make you unique. Make a strong statement that tells YOUR unique story.

One caveat here is that you also want to keep Secrets #6, #7, and #8 in mind when crafting unique and authentic narratives.

Secret #6: Perfect the art of the humblebrag

You’re a badass, so own it—humbly, of course. This delicate balance lies in showing the admissions committee why you’re a badass without explicitly saying, “I’m a badass, yo!”

Enter the humblebrag.

Writing about yourself can be tough. I get it. But your application essays are one of the few places you’re expected to toot your own horn. It’s your job to show the admissions committee how awesome you are so that giving you an offer is a no-brainer.

Think of humblebragging as sort of like passive-aggressive bragging. You want to project confidence about who you are, why you’re unique, what attribute you’re zeroing in on, what you achieved, etc., but do so in a subtle rather than cocky way.

Let’s look at a few examples:

Example #1 (strong English skills): “Learning English was a challenge, but I worked hard and placed at the top of my English Language Learning class and received top marks on the TESOL exam.”

Example #2 (leadership experience): “My peers frequently looked to me for leadership and guidance, electing me to serve as group leader to ensure our best results.”

Example #3 (returning to school after a long absence): “Because I have had time to develop myself personally and professionally, I bring a strong sense of maturity and responsibility to my work.”

Trust me, I know how uncomfortable it can be to sell yourself, but that’s the whole point of college application essays, so don’t sell yourself short. And definitely don’t write about how you’re not very good at something. Embrace your awesomeness, whatever it is, in ways that show your strengths, character, ambitions, and drive.

Still feeling a little uncomfortable braggin’ about your badassery? Read How to Write an Essay About Yourself With Confidence.

Secret #7: Put on your persuasive pants

person wearing patchwork pants that make them feel good
“My new pants” by Robin Taylor, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)/speech bubble added

Regardless of what you’re writing about in your application essays, you want to be persuasive in your tone, in your word choices, and in the way you project confidence. How?

Don’t be wishy-washy

Promise, right now, to ban the phrases “I believe,” “I think,” and “I hope” (and any other phrases that lack an authoritative voice) from your application essays. Those phrases actually undermine your projected confidence, undermine your conviction in whatever follows the phrases, and ultimately, undermine the admissions committee’s confidence in you.

Use persuasive writing techniques

Your words and your approach matter a lot when you’re trying to be persuasive. At the core of persuasion are ethos, pathos, and logos (you can read about how to use them in your writing here), but there are many persuasive techniques you can use to convince the admissions committee that you’re perfect for the school.

Don’t use underwhelming aspirations

While you want to be authentic (see Secret #5), you don’t want to be underwhelming by saying something like, “I want to work at a mid-tier company in the plastics industry.” Not very compelling, right?

Instead, think big. Be bold. You should shoot for the stars in terms of your goals and aspirations. NO ONE WILL FOLLOW UP ON THIS. That said, you don’t have free license to lie or BS your way through your college application essays. Just be fearless and confident.

Describe the absolute dream. Then convince the admissions committee not only that you’re equipped to achieve it, but also that this school is central to making that dream a reality.

And hey, if you need to literally put on a snazzy pair of pants to feel more persuasive, no judgment here. I may or may not have worn silver leopard-print pants covered in glitter when writing persuasive essays in college.

Secret #8: Avoid a snoozefest

tired dog wearing glasses thinking about biscuits

Your goal is to be accepted, which means not putting the admissions committee to sleep, obviously. The admissions committee literally has to read THOUSANDS of essays from applicants just like you who are just as eager to be accepted.

The good news is that there are some techniques you can use to get—and keep—their attention by being engaging and telling a compelling narrative. How? I’m glad you asked. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Use a good hook

Starting with a good hook is essential to writing good application essays. Why? You want to get the admissions committee engaged with your essay from the very first sentence. Need help developing a compelling opening? Read How to Start a Personal Statement the Right Way and How to Write Attention Grabbers That Work.

SHOW, don’t tell, the committee why you’re awesome and a good fit for the school

In other words, share a story. Don’t simply tell the admissions officers something. SHOW them through the actions you took, how your thinking shifted, how you were impacted by something, what you felt…yada, yada, yada. Tap into details that evoke emotions using descriptive, emotive words. Paint a picture that’s compelling.

Focus on what you’re passionate about

Don’t write about something just because you think it will be impressive. Admissions officers will see right through that. If you choose something that you’re passionate about, the enthusiasm behind it will show. And that’s super important for writing good college essays.

Secret #9: Keep the focus on YOU

This seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how many students use too much valuable essay space to talk about something or someone else that’s more tangential to their own story.  

For instance, a common mistake is focusing completely on an event that took place, such as an event you volunteered at, something monumental that happened to you, or something that happened to everyone (like 9/11).

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.

The same goes for if you’re writing about someone who inspired YOU or shaped who YOU are in some critical way.

In other words, YOU are the star (in case me screaming it at you in all caps 100 times didn’t emphasize that enough, heh). Bask in the spotlight!

Secret #10: End with pizzazz

mic drop with speech bubble that says reject that, yo

The end of your application essay, whatever the prompt, is your mic-drop moment. It’s your last chance (in that essay, anyway) to make a lasting impression, so make it count!

Dial into the core takeaway you want the reader to remember and end with something that brings your theme (see Secret #3) together cohesively while making a strong statement.

Here are a few examples of powerful closings:

Theme #1: Developing resilience through adversity

Closing: I am not here before you today in spite of my setbacks, but rather because of how they challenged me and inspired me to change and adapt. The barriers helped me build resiliency and led me to pursue my dreams, knowing that I have the strength and determination it takes to succeed and make a difference in the lives of others.

Theme #2: My father, my role model

Closing: To me, my father epitomized success. I idolized him as only a son can, and even when he faced incredible setbacks and had to regroup, I saw his strength and determination as a source of inspiration. I aspire to someday have the same impact on those around me, share the same love with my family, and see the same intense respect and admiration in my own son’s eyes. Only then will I truly know success.

Secret #11: Get a second pair of eyes

black and white closeup of eyeball

Like anything of monumental importance, getting a second (or third or fourth) pair of eyes on your college application essays can provide crucial feedback. And the first 10 secrets here convey just how much thought needs to go into your essays—and the aspects that are essential to getting them right.

Friends, family members, teachers, guidance counselors, and others in your life can probably give you some broad-level feedback on whether your essays are compelling. But sometimes the surest way to tell your BEST story is with the help of an impartial observer.

Enter Kibin editors—who know all the secrets to good college essays.

Our editors will help you polish your essays to make sure you’re on the right track—to avoid that soul-crushing defeat of a rejection from your dream school.

Psst... 98% of Kibin users report better grades! Get inspiration from over 500,000 example essays.