What do colleges look for in an essay?

Colleges ask prospective students for a personal essay in order to learn more about them. They want to see context on each student’s background, positive traits that the student could bring to campus, and examples of the student demonstrating those qualities.

That means that you, as an applicant, have a great opportunity to make a positive impression on the admissions officers with your essay. You should aim to write an essay that

  • Humanizes you
  • Makes your application memorable and sets you apart from the crowd
  • Demonstrates your unique positive traits

A well-chosen topic will allow you to accomplish all of those goals, and using the advice below to brainstorm will give you on a great start.

Context: What sets you apart

Your application will probably be similar to many other students’ applications. There will likely be many students from the same geographical area as you with comparable grades and test scores who have similar interests. Admissions officers will use your essay to get more information about how you are different from everyone else.

The context that admissions officers are looking for could be anything about you that differentiates you from other students. It could include your ethnic or socioeconomic background, your values, your passions, or anything else that sets you apart from your peers.

Positive character qualities

Of course, it’s important to show your best qualities in the essay. Admissions officers want students who can demonstrate specific positive character traits.

Self-reflection and vulnerability

Self-reflection is a sign of maturity, and it can elevate an application from good to excellent. Colleges already have a list of each applicant’s accomplishments, so a student who can admit their mistakes—and prove that they’ve learned from them—will seem more human and likable.

Some students are hesitant to show their flaws, but keep in mind that colleges know you aren’t perfect. If your essay is just about how fabulous you are, you might come across as inauthentic or, worse, arrogant.

Initiative

Initiative is one of the top qualities that colleges look for. Students who show initiative will likely bring that take-charge attitude with them to college, where it will help them contribute to the campus.

The essay should always involve you taking some kind of action—it shouldn’t just be about things that happened to you. For example, rather than writing about how it was emotionally difficult for you when several family members caught COVID, write about specific coping strategies you developed during that time or ways that you contributed to the family while they needed you.

Proof: Show, don’t tell

“Show, don’t tell” means that you should always aim to prove something rather than just state it. For example, don’t just tell admissions officers that you’re hardworking; show them by detailing how you accomplished a goal through hard work.

Bad example: Claim without proof
I had a teacher once tell me I’m the most determined student she’s ever taught, and I don’t doubt it. When I set a goal, there’s no stopping me. I’ll work at it until it’s achieved—even if it’s to my own detriment.
Good example: Showing instead of telling
I decided that I wanted to raise more money for my school’s Relay for Life than any other student. I hounded my neighbors, family, teachers, and even the principal, who dutifully sat through my 40-slide PowerPoint presentation on why I was the student to donate to. I spoke to church groups. I tried my hand at door-to-door fundraising. And in the end, my efforts paid off—I ended up raising about $400 more than any other student (and procrastinating on quite a bit of homework in the process).

Two strategies for finding your essay’s topic

So how do you actually write all that? The first step is choosing a good topic. Here are two effective ways to choose a topic that meets expectations and impresses admissions officers.

Option 1: Start with your qualities

One approach is to start by thinking of positive character traits you possess and then finding examples of times you demonstrated those traits.

Starting with your qualities
A student wants to show that she is hardworking. She considers times when she went above and beyond what was necessary to succeed. She comes up with the story of how she became the only athlete at her school to maintain a 4.0 GPA while playing three varsity sports for her first three years of high school. She also thinks of her work at a summer camp, where she earned a raise, and her experience building a website for a computer class.

Option 2: Start with a story

You could also approach your topic selection in the opposite way: start with a story, then work backwards to show how it demonstrates your positive qualities.

Starting with a story
A student’s mother has been fighting cancer on and off for most of his life, and he feels that that is an important background that has shaped who he is today. He considers how that experience has changed him and made him different from his peers:

  • He is independent, as his parents were often preoccupied and couldn’t help him in the same ways that his peers’ parents could.
  • He is unflappable, as dealing with emergencies has always been a regular part of his life.
  • He is empathetic, as he realizes that some people are going through difficult times that aren’t necessarily obvious to outsiders.

Whatever you choose to write about, your essay should give admissions officers plenty of proof that you’re a desirable candidate.

Frequently asked questions about college application essays

Why do colleges ask for an essay?

Colleges want to be able to differentiate students who seem similar on paper. The college application essay is a great way for them to understand each applicant’s unique personality and experiences.

What are colleges looking for in the essay?

In your application essay, admissions officers want to see context on your background, positive traits that you could bring to campus, and examples of you demonstrating those qualities.

What style and tone should I use for a college application essay?

College application essays are less formal than other kinds of academic writing. Use a conversational yet respectful tone, as if speaking with a teacher or mentor. Be vulnerable about your feelings, thoughts, and experiences to connect with the reader.

Aim to write in your authentic voice, with a style that sounds natural and genuine. You can be creative with your word choice, but don’t use elaborate vocabulary to impress admissions officers.

Is this article helpful?
Meredith Testa

Meredith has helped high school students gain admission to their dream schools for the past 7 years. She is based in New York and enjoys teaching dance in her spare time.

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1 comment

Meredith Testa
Meredith Testa (Scribbr Team)
September 27, 2021 at 12:45 PM

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