5 Tips for your College Essay to Stand out among thousands

By now, high school seniors should be starting their college essays. A growing number of colleges use the Common Application, which opened on August 1. The CommonApp offers a choice of prompts for its main essay, which gives students a range of topics to write about. Because the main CommonApp essay is sent to all colleges that the student selects, it is very important that students do not say anything specific to any college in their CommonApp essay. (The supplemental essays, however, should be very specific to the college.)

Admissions officers are reading hundreds (sometimes even 1000+) essays of prospective applicants so students need to write compelling essays. If you want your essay to stand out, it absolutely cannot be a run-of-the-mill, boring essay. I constantly remind my students that the college application essay comes from the heart!

To write an essay that stands out among thousands, here are my top 5 tips:

The Ohio State University Oval
The Ohio State University Oval is the heart of the Columbus campus.

1.Brainstorm before writing – most students will look at the choice of prompts and start responding with a first draft for the prompt that’s “easiest” to write. If you want to think and write at a deeper level, brainstorm ideas for each essay first. This exercise will help with recalling experiences that may go unnoticed but offer a more vivid example of who you are.

2.Take breaks in between drafts – rather than cranking out drafts in one sitting, you can improve your essay by writing a draft, then returning to the essay after several days to continue on the next draft. This, of course, implies working on the essay well in advance of the deadline! When working on the main CommonApp essay, I even suggest drafting 1-2 supplemental essays prior to finalizing the main essay. The time in-between drafts allows your thoughts to refresh and re-read the draft with a new perspective.

3. Read aloud – reading your essay aloud helps you to hear what the essay sounds like to the reader. It may feel awkward or uncomfortable but makes a difference, and it’s not the same as silent reading. Remember, if you don’t want to read your own essay . . . don’t expect the admissions officer to want to read your essay!

4.Revise off-line – the best way to spot errors and make edits to your essay is on a printed version. Yes, it may save paper and time to revise on your computer screen. Seeing the printed essay, however, gives you a different feel for the flow of the essay. Try it and please let me know if it works for you!

5. Avoid too many readers – 1-2 reviewers for your essay is plenty. When you have too many people reviewing your essay, you will more likely get contradictory feedback. Also, incorporating other people’s edits can change your voice. It will be obvious to admissions officers if your essay comes across as over-edited or too polished, which may hurt your admissions chances.

The net benefit of each of these tips is that it leaves the voice and control of the essay in the hands of the student. The most important quality of the college essay that stands out among the thousands of others is authenticity. The essay has to be real and that’s easy to do when it comes from the heart.

What has helped your college essay stand out? 

Why You Want To Avoid This Essay Trap At All Costs

You have good grades. You have good activities, recommendations, and test scores.

You have all the right credentials to get into your dream college.

But guess what?

Thousands of other students have the same GPAs, SAT scores, and teachers fawning over how smart they are.

I’m not telling you this so you don’t feel special.

I’m telling you this to make sure your essays are as special as possible.

With your Common Application essay and your supplements, you have the chance to show admissions officers the value that only you can bring to their school.

Cliché essay topics and phrases must be avoided because you risk sounding like every other student.

Do not write about the time you got cut from soccer tryouts and worked hard to make the team the next year. Thousands of other students have the exact same story.  Do not write that you are a “hard-working person”—that will be clear from your transcript and your recommendations.

Admissions officers want you to show them, in detail, your drive, curiosity, and passion without using any of those words.

They want you to paint a picture of something that is important to you. Tell them something that they could not deduce from anything in your transcript, activities resume, or recommendations. This element of surprise will bring the best writing out of you and will be just as enjoyable to read.

The Best Essay I’ve Read

One of the best college essays I’ve helped edit was about singing in the shower. Why was it so compelling? They were able to describe singing in the shower with the same detail and emotion as someone would describe singing on stage at the Lincoln Center. It showed that they could bring their intellectual vibrancy to even the simplest activity.

Cliché topics are not limited to “hard work pays off” stories. For this year, I can guarantee that thousands of students will write about being isolated during the quarantine. They will talk about the quietness of their life, what it was like to be away from friends, and how they began a new bread-making hobby. Unless you truly have a unique, vulnerable, or creative moment to share about your experience with coronavirus, I suggest avoiding using the words “quarantine” and “coronavirus” because they will be so widely used this application season.

To ensure your essays are cliché free, I have a quick two-step process.

1.) Ask yourself—Is this a story only I can tell?

If you are writing about an experience that you know several friends could also write about, you have not thought of a story or topic personal enough to you.

2.) Show, Don’t Tell

This phrase should be written on a post-it note and stuck right above the computer you write your essays on. This is the number one rule that will make sure you are not using any clichés. That’s because when you go into detail and describe settings, emotions, and observations, you enter a world that is entirely your own. No one has your unique perspective and that is why all the best essays are written with this phrase in mind. 

3 Easy Tips To Write Your Personal Statement And Get Admitted

3 Easy Tips to Write Your Personal Statement & Get Admitted

Does your dream college require a personal statement for their admissions process?

Many of my seniors who are applying to state universities will complete a personal statement for their application, rather than respond to an essay prompt. Prompts on the Common Application are typical for college admissions essays. Although the personal statement is also used to determine college admissions, it’s quite different.

What is a personal statement?

Think of the personal statement as a brief bio, about 1 to 1-1/2 pages. It should be just as interesting and creative as an essay. When I say “bio”, the first response from you may be to start with “I was born…” That’s boring and too far back.

Here are three tips I share with my seniors so that they write a compelling personal statement to get admitted:

1. Brainstorm about 3-4 highlights of your life story.

You can start by listing experiences, activities, or people that are important to you. Taking this first step will help you think more broadly about who you are and what matters to you.

2. Focus on an important experience that you think speaks to who you are.

Nothing is more boring to read than a laundry list of your accomplishments. This won’t help you stand out. Focusing on one experience will be more interesting to your reader because it will:

  1. a) have more depth
  2. b) grab the reader’s attention, and
  3. c) keep you from rambling.

Yes, it will take more time for you to write. But it will also have more impact.

3. Use your own writings but not the writing of others.

Your personal voice is critical in a personal statement.

Reviewing personal statements that others have written to get into college will get in the way of telling your own story. If you need more inspiration, you can incorporate what you’ve written in your other college admissions essays.

Remember that the personal statement, like the college admissions essay, is written from the heart (not the head). In short, that means it should not be treated as something you write for school, i.e. no five-paragraph essay allowed.

If you are applying to schools that require admission essays rather than personal statements, here are some tips for making your college essay to stand out among thousands of others. And what if you come across a college application with questions noted as “optional?” Should you still answer them? Click here to find out.

Whether you need to write a personal statement or a classic college essay to get admitted, it just takes a little planning to ensure your chances of admission success.

Which colleges are you applying to that require a personal statement?

If you’re looking for one-on-one guidance to help you get into (or pay for) college, click here to learn more. 

Want to see more posts like this? Don’t miss these: 

What to expect at freshman orientation

Top 10 must-dos for college-bounds juniors

7 ways to support your child during the college application process

This article was originally published on July 26th, 2016, and has since been updated. 

Top 5 Checklist for college-bound 10th graders

Sophomore year is a great time to jumpstart the college admissions process. If you have taken any standardized test by this point or submitted your contact information online, then it’s highly likely that you have started receiving college brochures. Yes, those glossy brochures can be very enticing. However before you get too excited about those beautiful campus pics, follow this top 5 checklist to get into your top colleges that are a good fit for you!



1. Take courses that challenge you.

Don’t worry about what your friends are taking or the rumors about a teacher to avoid. Colleges will consider how well you took advantage of the curriculum that your high school offers. Your success in these courses can also lead to merit scholarships from colleges.


Blue lights are everywhere on college campuses.
Blue lights are everywhere on college campuses.

2. Get involved in extra-curricular activities that interest you.

If there’s a club that you can see yourself leading, consider getting involved during sophomore year. Perhaps you could see yourself as yearbook editor, student council president, or secretary of 4-H. Then, sophomore year can be the time to learn more about those roles, as well as whether you enjoy participating. Please remember depth, instead of breadth. Focus on the few activities that you enjoy and excel in, rather than participating in 10 different clubs just for the sake of including on your resume.


3. Get to know your teachers and let them get to know you.

Your teacher recommendations will be an important aspect of your college applications. Set a goal to meet with 1-2 teachers on a monthly or bimonthly basis. Be sincere in your efforts by meeting with those teachers that you want to know better and/or have an interest in their subject area.


4. Read outside of school assignments.

Believe it or not, your local library has some fun ways for you to enjoy reading! If you have a library card, use it regularly and get involved with the teen events. If you don’t have a library card, get one right away . . . it’s free and easy to use. You can also take advantage of winter and spring breaks to read a book that you enjoy. Now, how does this relate to college?? Reading for pleasure will help with getting higher test scores, developing your intellectual curiosity, and writing your college application essays.


5. Own your online persona.

If you have any social media accounts, make sure that they are updated to protect your privacy and represent you well. Delete any questionable or unfavorable comments. (Do the “grandma check”: if you would be embarrassed by your grandmother seeing it, then delete.) More and more colleges are reviewing prospective students’ social media presence, so be careful!


Which of these action items is at the top of your to-do list?


Where’s the money for college? Case studies of how students earned big scholarships

Big college scholarships: Do they exist as readily as you might have heard or are they unattainable for the “average” student? I often hear from prospective students and their families who are convinced there aren’t as many scholarships out there as they’ve been told, or they just have no idea how to find them. 

As college-bound high school students finalize their lists and begin the application process, their parents may be left wondering: “Where’s the money for college?” 

One of the places that parents start their search for extra money for college is on websites that provide a list of scholarships, including niche scholarships for things like athletics or particular areas of study.

There are several websites to choose from, and I especially like collegexpress.com for its variety of options. As parents are looking through these options, they may end up thinking, “Wow, we could have been applying for these scholarships a long time ago.” And yes, that’s true! In fact, many there are many scholarship applications available for students as young as 13 years old. 

So parents shouldn’t wait until junior or senior year to start asking “Where’s the money for college scholarships?”

Lottery scholarships.

When I’m counseling students each year, I don’t want families to leave any money on the table. 

Some students apply to these “lottery” scholarships (I refer to them with this term because of the low chances of “winning” the scholarships.) 

When you look at the fine print text of the instructions, you’ll learn that the chances of winning are often based on the number of submissions. These scholarships are indeed quite competitive. Even for a prestigious scholarship like the Coca-Cola Scholarship, there are thousands of students with strong ACT/SAT scores and perfect GPAs.

Instead of putting all your eggs in the outside scholarship basket, students should consider scholarships directly from colleges. That’s where the real big money for college is found. 

Don’t believe me? My students have received scholarship awards ranging from $40,000 to $300,000. These scholarships came directly from their colleges.

Now, let’s go over how they did it. 

How my students earned big scholarships.

Colleges are recruiting students who will contribute to their campus community in a myriad of ways. 

Here are five real-world examples of merit scholarships that my students have received and what they did to earn these awards:

CASE STUDY 1: Scholarship for fine and visual arts. 

To obtain these awards, students submitted a portfolio as part of the application process. Much of their portfolio preparation was completed during the summer before senior year. 

I also encouraged them to attend a National Portfolio Day as a way to get feedback on their portfolios before they submitted it to colleges. Students also took advantage of the National Portfolio Day to learn about potential colleges they wanted to visit. 

The subsequent campus visit reinforced their interest in some colleges and further helped with securing scholarship awards.

By the way, campus visits don’t have to be agonizing for students or their parents. Here are 5 tips for a stress-free campus visit.

CASE STUDY 2: Scholarships to travel abroad. 

There are a number of college scholarships that are posted on a college’s website and listed in my firm’s online portal

My students have applied for a number of these scholarships. Several of them have been for travel funds to study abroad. Students submit an essay discussing how they would benefit from traveling abroad as part of the application process. In most cases, these were short essays, which I think are harder to write!
claremont colleges

CASE STUDY 3: Scholarships to do research with faculty mentors. 

There are several colleges that seek students who are interested in research. (One of the colleges that I found particularly advanced in its research scholarship offerings is Clark University.)

My students who received these college scholarships had all demonstrated their interest in research through summer experiences. The summer experiences included working in a laboratory, conducting research through a formal summer program offered at a university, or continuing a project with a high school teacher.

CASE STUDY 4: $100K+ scholarships.  

These awards went to students who expressed interest in a specific department or program featured at that college. 

Students wrote about their interests in supplemental essays and had also demonstrated interest in that particular area through a summer experience. Their interests ranged from departments of business to natural sciences to engineering

Several colleges required essays for a particular named niche scholarship and a few offered invitation-only interviews. Colleges are seeking different types of students and will offer niche scholarships to attract THAT student.

Want to learn more about writing essays for college? Don’t miss this podcast where I break down the best practices. 

CASE STUDY 5: Scholarships for being MALE.  

I don’t know how else to say this, but there’s been a trend over the years where my male students get awarded more money. 

This is the only common attribute that I’ve found…some of them didn’t even have the strongest GPA or high school resume. (Go figure, right?) A college admissions officer from a well-known Florida university even stated at a professional conference that:

“We gather all the applications from males first, review their credentials, award scholarships, send their offers and wait on their response. Then we look at the female application pool…Frankly, we need more males on our campuses.”

Yes—I was shocked to hear this too! But the fact that more women are enrolling in college means that a number of campuses have more women. Colleges that seek to reach a 50/50 gender balance will continue to award these scholarships.

Okay, now tell me what you’re thinking. What have you been doing to find more money for college?

Are you looking for one-on-one guidance for how to get into (or pay for) college? Click here for help. 

If you enjoyed this post, don’t miss these either: 

Living Off-Campus: Pros and Cons

College Application Checklist

Colleges with Free Laundry: A Time and Money Saving Consideration 

This article was updated from the original post from 19th September 2016

3 Tips for Dealing with College Application Rejection

Rejection hurts.

Let’s face it, any kind of rejection can be difficult to navigate. It can be especially painful when your application to a college you had high hopes of attending is rejected.

Here’s the good news…

As much as it might feel like your rejection letter is the end of the world – it most certainly isn’t! You’ve still got plenty of options for forging a path forward that will lead you to a successful and exciting college experience.

This article will help you to navigate the muddy waters of rejection and move into a more positive and productive mindset.

Here are three tips for dealing with rejection from a college and creating a path for moving forward.

1. Allow Yourself to Feel the Loss

Pretending it didn’t happen won’t help. You’ve just experienced one of life’s setbacks – that’s the reality. And that’s all it is.

Allow yourself time to process and even grieve the loss of what you had hoped for.

Grieving a loss is natural—it’s also an important part of moving forward. And after a period of grieving, it’s time to move on.

Quick Tip: To help make the experience of being rejected from a college a little bit easier on you, remember to manage your expectations BEFORE you hear back. Remind yourself the college application process is incredibly competitive. If you don’t get in, it isn’t because you’re a failure, in other words . . . . It’s NOT about YOU!

2. Don’t Miss Out on Other Great Schools

Just because your top college choice might not be in the cards, doesn’t mean there aren’t other incredible colleges out there that you could attend!

Consider the things that made you the most excited about your top choice school and look for other schools with those same qualities that could still be a great fit for you. Don’t allow the disappointment of not getting into your top choice to overshadow the potential of other colleges being an excellent choice for you.

Likewise, you can check out the list of colleges that still have openings at the National Association of College Admission Counseling. Should you decide to any of these colleges, please also do everything you can to make your essay and application stand out so you’ll know you’ve done whatever you could to get accepted

3. Consider Your Options

When your application is rejected from a college, you’ve got a few options when it comes to moving forward.

But you know what isn’t an option?

Giving up!

Here are some of the things you can do instead:

  1. Consider taking a gap year to improve your application and try again next year.
  2. Remember there is the possibility of transferring down the road. You could attend another great school in the meantime and get some credits there. Eventually, you could transfer to your top-choice (of course this isn’t guaranteed).
  3. Channel your disappointment into motivation and excitement about another great school. Getting a new, stronger focus is going to be key to your success moving forward.

They say when a door closes a window opens. When it comes to your college experience, a window may be opening that leads to the best experience of your life!

Looking for one-on-one support and other resources to help you or your child get into (or pay) for college? Click here!

College Essay How-to: Who is someone you admire?

This article was originally published on April 23, 2012, and has been updated.

For many students, one of the most stressful and confusing parts of the college application process can be answering the essay questions.

To help you prepare for answering the 5 common college application questions, we’ll break each of them down. We’ll also go over some useful tips for answering these questions effectively and making your application stand out.

The second of the five most common questions you’ll see on a college application is:

“Who is someone you admire?”

On the Common Application, a similar question is worded as, “Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you and describe that influence.”

Even if your college application has the simple phrasing of, “Who is someone you admire?” applicants should go further into detail when they answer the “why” part of that question by describing that influence.

And to elaborate on what I mean by this. . . .

It should only take you about 5-10 words to tell “who” you admire. Then, the other 150+ words should show the readers “why” you admire that person.

As the applicant, you have a lot of leeway here in terms of who you choose, and that means you shouldn’t always opt for the low-hanging fruit.

Wondering what I mean by that?

Opting for the low-hanging fruit on a college essay question means writing about safe people, including historical figures like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, or even your mom or dad.

These aren’t necessarily bad choices, but they’re considered safe options that every other student will likely choose as well.

If you want your college application to really stand out from thousands of others, don’t opt for low-hanging fruit on the essay questions. Instead, dig deeper when you’re choosing what or who to write about.

Now you might be asking, okay, like WHO?

To start thinking about who you should write about, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is a meaningful experience I can describe well? (And when I say “describe well,” I mean that you should be able to write about this experience in a way the reader feels they were there with you)
  • What happened in that meaningful experience?
  • Who was there with me during this meaningful experience?
  • What characteristic of a specific person present during this meaningful experience was most memorable?

While you think about your responses to these questions, please free-write your initial thoughts. (And yes, I do mean to handwrite. You can read more about that here.)

Your responses will start you on a path to writing a strong college application essay that stands out above the rest!

Who did you choose?

Next, I’ll cover the 3rd most common essay question:

#3. Why do you want to attend this college?

Is it better or worse to start CommonApp essay in the summer?


With all the heightened excitement and anxiety around college applications, many rising seniors will wonder if they should start their CommonApp essays sooner. While many may want to start in the summer, I think it’s not always the best decision and here’s why: however a college-bound teen spends their summer before senior year will influence their college application essays period.


My students in the past have participated in a wide range of activities in the summer before senior year like job shadowing, working at a restaurant, conducting research in a university lab, visiting college campuses, attending an engineering program, or volunteering in a hospital. A few students even spent their summers reading books and traveling with family. Each of these lived experiences is ripe college essay material.


College-bound teens already have a full plate of activities and school assignments over the summer, so adding college essays slights the full attention that writing deserves. I believe that teens can and will write their best college essays at the close of the summer, when they are less distracted. Waiting until then also means that students will have the opportunity to reflect on the summer experiences and incorporate any lessons into their college essays.


CommonApp essay prompts for 2018-19

Prior to the summer, it may be helpful to know the Common Application essay prompts. (I start with the CommonApp because there’s a growing number of colleges and universities (800+) on this system, which makes it very likely that the majority of college-bound teens will apply through the CommonApp.) For the 2018-2019 school year here are the prompts that students can choose from for their personal essay:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Source: 2018-2019 Common Application Essay Prompts | The Common Application

Any earnest writing is better left closer to the start of senior year. However, if there’s an irresistible urge to start sooner, you can try this exercise (taken from my ebook, Write Essays that Get In and Get Money for College.


Prep exercise for CommonApp essay

  1. To start your first college application essay, get a sheet of paper. You will use one sheet of paper per essay.
  2. At the top of the page, handwrite the essay prompt/question.
  3. Set the timer for 6 minutes.
  4. Handwrite freely your initial response to the prompt/question that you wrote at the top of the page. IGNORE grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc. Keep your pen on the paper and only STOP when the timer ends.
  5. Wait a day or so before writing more on this essay. As you have new ideas related to this essay, you may handwrite on this same page before typing.

You can repeat this exercise for each prompt.

How would you vote . . . start CommonApp essay sooner or later?

Are you applying to The University of Chicago this Fall?

university of chicago student

The University of Chicago has been know for some of the most creative, thought-provoking application essay prompts. If you will be a high school senior in the Class of 2015, you can sneak a peek at the questions that will be in your application.

2014-15 Essay Questions:


Essay Option 1.What’s so odd about odd numbers?images_uchi

Essay Option 2.In French, there is no difference between “conscience” and “consciousness”. In Japanese, there is a word that specifically refers to the splittable wooden chopsticks you get at restaurants. The German word “fremdschämen” encapsulates the feeling you get when you’re embarrassed on behalf of someone else. All of these require explanation in order to properly communicate their meaning, and are, to varying degrees, untranslatable. Choose a word, tell us what it means, and then explain why it cannot or should not be translated from its original language.

Essay Option 3. Little pigs, french hens, a family of bears. Blind mice, musketeers, the Fates. Parts of an atom, laws of thought, a guideline for composition. Omne trium perfectum? Create your own group of threes, and describe why and how they fit together.

Essay Option 4. Were pH an expression of personality, what would be your pH and why? Feel free to respond acidly! Do not be neutral, for that is base!

Essay Option 5. A neon installation by the artist Jeppe Hein in UChicago’s Charles M. Harper Center asks this question for us: “Why are you here and not somewhere else?” There are many potential values of “here”, but we already know you’re “here” to apply to the University of Chicago; pick any “here” besides that one.

Essay Option 6. In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose a question of your own. If your prompt is original and thoughtful, then you should have little trouble writing a great essay. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun.

via Essay Questions | College Admissions | The University of Chicago.

For this year, students have three options for applying to University of Chicago – through the university’s website (opening soon); Universal Application (which opens July 1); and the Common Application (opening August 1). Either way you choose, you will have fun with these questions!

Please check our site for more tips on writing a winning essay!

What does “College Fit” mean?

santa clara campus

During a recent talk to high schools, Peter V. Johnson, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Columbia University stated elegantly:

Columbia University, where I almost attended!

“We do not admit statistics to an institution. We admit people to an educational community.”

His statement defines college fit which we have been hearing more and more about these days.

Student perspective on College Fit

There are 2 sides to this “college fit” coin. Dean Johnson intimates the importance of fit from the college’s side. On the other side of this coin, the student can select colleges based on fit. While I don’t have a pithy quote like Dean Johnson, I will share three aspects of college fit from the student’s side.

Three aspects of college fit that students can consider when developing their list of colleges are

  • Academic fit
  • Social/cultural fit
  • Financial fit

Questions to ask about these components may include:

  • Academic – Does this college have my major interest?
    What are the required courses for graduation?
    How long will it take me to graduate based on the course offerings and schedule?
  • Social/cultural – Will I fit in?
    Can I get the type of support I need within this campus community?
    What will I do on the weekends?
  • Financial – What available scholarships will make this college affordable for my family?
    What financial sacrifices must I make to graduate from this college?
    Am I OK with those financial sacrifices?

Students have the best chance of graduating on time when these areas of fit are considered up-front.

In the same way, colleges have the best chance of admitting students who will contribute to the quality of their communities when they ask the right questions about students upfront. If you want to see the questions that matter to a college, check out their essay questions. Those questions say a lot about the type of people they want to join their educational community!