College Application Essays

Hot Writing Tips from The Other Side!


If you haven’t noticed, I have a lot of opinions about what makes a great college application essay.

But who am I?

I’ve never been an admissions officer, so how do I know what they like and want?

I thought it was time to ask a real live, breathing admissions officer who reads thousands of these essays–and uses them to decide who’s in or who’s out.

To find a great source, I went back to when I started tutoring students on these essays, and my very first client–my daughter.

When Cassidy was an incoming high school senior during the summer of 2008, I helped with her essays.

We had read the guide on finding terrific small liberal arts schools that are off the radar, called 40 Colleges That Change Lives, and she ended up going to one from that book, called Hendrix College in Arkansas.

Cassidy just graduated this spring, and her small college was every bit as wonderful both academically and socially as the book described (Five years in a row Hendrix has been on the “Most Up and Coming Schools” list for U.S. News & World Report).

I decided to ask their admissions officers how they select students using these essays.

Insider Tips From the Director of Admissions at Hendrix College


Their gracious Director of Admissions, Fred Baker, who reads every Hendrix essay–about 2000 a year–told me some things I knew, some things I was happy to hear, and a few things I wish I had known earlier. (Hendrix uses The Common Application) Fred said:

1. One of the best ways to write an interesting essay is to tell a story. One of Fred’s most memorable involved a student who wrote about a service trip to Houston. But the student didn’t just describe the entire trip. Instead, he focused on one moment while making brown bag lunches for a group of underprivileged residents.

He described glancing over at another volunteer, and then watching him reach down, take off his own shoes and hand them to one of the patrons. Then the student went onto explain the impact that humble, generous moment had on him. This example supports the idea of using narrative-style essays. There’s a reason Fred never forgot that essay.

2. These essays matter more than you might think. “The essay that seems small potatoes in August can potentially have big bearing later,” Fred said. Not only do the admissions officers use them to decide who gets in or not to Hendrix, but the English professors read them to help determine placement in various writing courses.

They also are read by the scholarship committee to determine who gets merit scholarship money. That can be thousands of dollars!

3. He remembers kids from their essays, and often tells them this when they finally meet in person. This is huge! It’s crucial that these essays put a face on a student’s application. Fred said it was impressive how the student often matched the spirit of their essay.

“The ones that are my favorites are the ones that you can really get a sense of who the writer is. The essay can be a way for that application to come to life…You get a little taste of the students’ personality, maybe they are spunky or passionate or idealisitic; it’s any number of things, where a little bit of their essence comes through. Those are the most memorable.”

4.  It’s important to catch his attention right away in the essay. “Like anything, a newspaper article, novel, whatever, if they don’t grab you pretty early on, you sort of lost that opening round. Good writing pops, you think, ‘Wow this kid’s a gifted writer,’ with a great sense of humor, or wonderfully serious, and not hammed up.”

5. Unique topics are greatly appreciated.We get a kabillion ‘I tore my ACL (knee muscle)”, but to that student it was significant, the hurt, sitting out while watching teammates, the grueling rehab. But many essays just aren’t poignant.” Other over-used topics were mission trips and Harry Potter. 

Final tip from Fred: “Be you. You don’t have to focus on some massive global issue or why college ‘blank’ and I are a good fit. Tell a detailed story that is you in a nutshell or an example of what you are passionate about.”

A big thanks to Fred, and Hendrix College, for being so generous with his time and earnest advice
to help students have their best chance at writing great college application essays!

Now we know what admissions officers like and want, how do you actually write one of these memorable essays? If you want a step-by-step guide on how to find unique topics and craft essays using a narrative writing style, check out my new ebook, Escape Essay Hell!.