male student agonizing over his college application essays

Maybe you’re a senior sending out last minute applications to beat those regular admission deadlines. Or maybe you’re a junior staring down the tunnel at college application season (which is, terrifyingly enough, mere months away).

Either way, if you’re reading this, you’re probably worried about your college essays.

I’ll be honest: There’s a really good chance that the early drafts of your college essays stink. Over the years, I’ve read a lot of college admission essays, and out of all of those hundreds upon hundreds of essays, there aren’t many that start of good. There aren’t even many that start off okay.

If you’re staring at your college essay thinking, “Man, this essay is just really bad,” congratulations! You’re just like almost every student who applies to college.

We’re here to help. Keep reading for some tips on how to write a killer college application essay.

BAD College Essays

A lot of bad college essays fall into one (or more) of these categories:

  1. Boring Essays
    These essays tell the reader about you without adding a single bit of color or imagery. The opening line makes the reader roll their eyes and groan. By the end of the essay, the reader just wants it to be over. If your essay opens with this, it needs some help:The person who I admire most is my grandmother…If, on the other hand, your essay opens like this, you might just have some great stuff to start off with:My grandmother claims that the secret to a long life is to refuse to wear shoes…
  2. Clichéd Essays
    There are certain trends that anyone who reads a large volume of college admissions essays learns to hate. We’ve got a whole post on some of the worst essay clichés. Here’s a bonus cliché to avoid: I got an A after working really hard or this essay’s close cousin, I didn’t get an A, and it was the worst moment of my life. Just about anyone with good grades (which, if you’re applying at a selective school, is probably everyone else applying) could write either iteration of this essay. It’s boring, it doesn’t tell the reader anything meaningful about you, and no one is particularly interested in reading it.
  3. Riddled with Error Essays
    By the time your essay reaches a college admissions officer’s desk, it had better have been proofread – multiple times and by multiple people. There is absolutely NO excuse for submitting an error-ridden college essay.
  4. Pretentious Essays
    The whole point of this essay is to make yourself look good, and it can be really easy to go from making yourself look good to coming off as pretentious, snobbish, or just downright unpleasant. Admissions officers admit people, not just some cardboard cutout of “the perfect college student.” Your essay is the only place on your application to show yourself as a person – make sure you show yourself as a person people would actually want to get to know.

GOOD College Essays

Good college essays usually share a lot of these traits:

  1. They’re interesting. Even a mundane topic (like, for instance, getting ready for school in the morning) can be made interesting if you tell the story right.
  2. They’re focused. Good essays do one thing, and they do it really well. Don’t try to make your essay tell your life’s story – just a little piece of it.
  3. They’re well-written. They’re not just error-free – they use syntax and word choice and humor and imagery to good effect.
  4. They’re self-aware. Know yourself, know your audience, and know what positive image of yourself you hope to convey. Let this awareness shine in your essay.
  5. They’ve been read by many trusted people. You’re too close to your essay to judge it objectively. Given how personal the essay is, your mom and best friend are probably too close to the essay to judge it, too. Your English teachers, college counselors, and tutors are your best bets for truly objective and brutally honest feedback.

We have some great college essay examples for you to read, and for more tips on writing essays that definitely don’t stink, check out 10 Tips for a Great College Application Essay. And don’t forget about essay help with C2. Our expert teachers can tell you exactly how to take your essay from blah to awesome.