college application essay

I’ve been meaning to write about the hubbub around the high school student who got accepted into all eight Ivy League schools last April. It was an amazing and well-deserved accomplishment for Kwasi Enin, a 17-year-old from Long Island, New York.

Because of his feat, many college experts have held up his college application essay as one of the main reasons he was accepted. And it has been publicized now as an example of a great essay.

I do not agree with this at all. I thought his essay was mediocre at best. (Read Kwasi’s essay and see for yourself.)

I believe Kwasi’s acceptances had more to do with his perfect GPA, 2,250 SAT scores, the 11 AP classes he took, his impressive musical and other talents. And it’s also true that his essay certainly did not keep him out of any of these schools (since he got in!), and might have helped him get in.

But I think it’s wrong to assume that this essay had a big part in his acceptance. It’s just not that good. At least in my opinion. It reminded me of the type of writing many adults and English teachers believe would make a good essay.

My main concern is that students will look to this essay as an example of a great essay, and try to emulate it.

Again, I’m not out to dis Kwasi or in any way imply that he is undeserving of his acceptances into these stellar schools. Who wouldn’t want this amazing guy?

But I’m all about writing standout college application essays, and trying to make sure that they help students get into their choice schools. I believe students should try to write essays that are engaging to read—especially from the start—and that carry their unique voice and reveal something that sets them apart from their peers. (This is especially true for students trying for their “reach” schools.)

I will spare you a blow-by-blow analysis of Kwasi’s essay. It certainly wasn’t terrible, and overall was earnest and heartfelt, and had some nice lines.


However, I think his topic was way too broad—”love of music”—and Kwasi tried to cover too much ground about himself, everything from his love of music in all things, how it linked to his leadership skills and even his career goal in medicine. I believe it could have had more impact and been more engaging to read if he had focused his topic. Instead of writing about all things music, he could have picked one specific part of his love of music and expanded upon that.

The worst thing about this essay, to me, was that it was on the dull side. It made all sort of general points that I didn’t find that interesting. He did bolster some of his points with specific examples, and that helped. But overall, it was written with a lot of passive voice and broad, flowery statements.

While I think it’s important to express what you think, feel and believe in these essays, I also think they need a sharp focus and lots of examples to back up general points. Otherwise, they end up on the bland side.

With Kwasi, I would have wanted to get a sense of his personality through the essay, and to hear his authentic voice. There was nothing in this essay that made him stand out from other zillion students who love music, at least in my mind.

Enough picking on Kwasi. Again, a huge congratulations to him and his future at Yale this fall! But if you are working on your essay, I wouldn’t use this one for inspiration or as a guide on writing your own. Be bold. Pick topics that haven’t been written about a lot. Focus them to make a specific point about yourself.

You may not be as brilliant as Kwasi, but I think you have a good chance of writing a better college application essay!

Read some Sample Essays I believe are better.










Kwasi Enin, a 17-year-old Long Island high schooler, wowed admissions officers as he wrote how his love of music sparked his “intellectual curiosity,” according to a copy of the paper viewed by The Post.

“I directly developed my capacity to think creatively around problems due to the infinite possibilities in music,” wrote Enin, who has played viola for nine years.

Enin also explained how his music has helped him play a role in his community and learn leadership values.

He made sure to note that his  education has just begun.

“Although I hope that my future career is in medicine, I love that I still have much to learn about and from the world of music.”











Looking for your World to answer the University of California Prompt 1?


A high school English teacher contacted me this week asking if I had any sample essays for the University of California college application Prompt 1.

She was using my guides and Essay Hell blog posts to help teach her students how to write their college application essays. (Those are some lucky students!)

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If you are struggling with your college application essay right about now, you might be cursing the entire process. And I don’t blame you. You are supposed to think up some fascinating topic that will grab the attention of those bored-to-tears admissions officers and help your application stand out among the thousands of other students vying for the same spot at your dream college.

All the experts tell you “Just be yourself!” or “Tell a story.” While they are right, it’s totally normal that you don’t have much confidence in how to do that in 650 words or less. Most high school students have not been taught how to write a narrative (story-telling style) personal essay. And to write good ones takes a lot of practice. 

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If you’ve been looking for help with your college application essay, I assume you have discovered the mountains of information (some helpful; a lot no so much) out there on the Web. One of my favorite resources for students is The Prospect, which is an organization centered on college admissions and high school/college life.

The main reason I love The Prospect so much is that it is all about helping students survive high school and get into the college of their dreams–but it’s also run by students like you! Their talented staff offered to share some of their best essay-writing tips here on Essay Hell. I think you will find their foodie-approach fun, inspiring and useful!

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Why You Chose Your Major: A Love Story

If you want to transfer into any of the University of California schools (UCLA, Berkeley, UCI, UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, etc.), you need to write two college application essays. One is the same prompt that all students are required to write—which basically asks for a personal statement style essay. It’s known as Prompt 2, and I wrote “Personal Quality, Talent, Achievement…”  as a guide on how to write this essay in a narrative style.

Now I want to offer some ideas on how to answer the second prompt required for transfer students:

Transfer Student Prompt 1: What is your intended major? Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had in the field — such as volunteer work, internships and employment, participation in student organizations and activities — and what you have gained from your involvement. 

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I confess: I love anecdotes. These are basically when a writer shares a mini-story about a real-life moment or experience. Usually, they are plucked out of the past, and presented without much introduction. Their power is that they draw you into a story, or college application essay, by starting with a punch of drama. Anecdotes make awesome introductions.

The key is to get as close to the action as possible. I’ve written tips and advice on how to write anecdotes, but thought I would try to model an example. They seem so simple when you read them, but they are harder than you might think to craft. The trick is to practice, and study how other anecdotes are put together. The most common place to find them is at the start of longer newspaper pieces or magazine stories, or of course, personal (narrative) essays.

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Oops. Not again! We are talking about supplements for college application essays. Not vitamin supplements. Geez!

Even though supplemental essays usually are short—usually a paragraph or two—many students are stumped on how to structure them. Or on just how to start or end them.

In general, since they are so short, you don’t have to get fancy. Jump right into your points or answers. Be direct, but include details and specific examples.

Here are a couple ideas to help you get going. These are for the most common supp: “Why you at our college?” or “What will you contribute to our college?” or “Why do you want to go to our college?” My last post, 10 Tips to Power Your Supplemental Essays, can help you find great information to include in these short essays.

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Oops. Wrong SUP. We are talking college application essay supplements here. Haha.

I just gave a workshop on how to write college supplement essays to a group of college-bound students yesterday, and wanted to share some of the advice and tips on how to make them stand out. We talked mainly about the most common supplement prompt you will find this year: Why you at our college?

On applications, this prompt is stated in a variety of ways, from asking you to tell them why you are a fit, or what you will bring or contribute to their school, or just why you want to go there.

This prompt, though tiresome, is worth spending time on, especially for your top pick schools.

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The middle of August is when I first notice a dramatic spike in visitors to Essay Hell. A few students get that early start on their college application essays at the beginning of summer, but the majority seem to wait until now through fall.

I thought I would try to offer some encouragement to any student just diving into the process by extending a hot deal on my guide books. I’m offering all three of my ebook guides for $9.99. Usually they would cost more than double that. (Sorry, this deal doesn’t apply to paperback copies, which only are available on Amazon.)

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Parke Muth, a veteran college admissions counselor and writer from Virginia, interviewed me recently about my opinions and advice regarding college application essays. I thought I would share the interview, which he featured on his own highly informative blog

It’s long, but I think it’s packed with a lot of great advice–if I don’t say so myself. Muth, who is a former Associate Dean of Admissions for the University of Virginia, knows the in and outs of the admissions game, and as a creative writing expert also understands more about college app essays than almost anyone else in the industry. In other words, he tossed me great questions, and even lobbed a few provocative ones!

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