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Writing an Outstanding College Admissions Essay

October 8, 2014

By Judy Razo 

Write an Outstanding College Admissions Essay | An essay is edited with a red pen.

A college application usually includes the application itself and additional documents that help paint a bigger picture of the applicant. Those documents can include an official transcript, standardized test scores, a résumé, letters of recommendation, and the college essay.

The essay tends to be hard for a student to write because it’s a personal essay, not a report assigned in class. Guiding your child along this task will be especially important because most students have never written anything of the sort. Let’s talk about the basics of how you can help.


To start, keep in mind that a college essay should only be between 250-650 words; that is about one to two pages when double-spaced. Remember that 650 words is a limit, not a goal. Admissions counselors read hundreds of essays, so you want your child to stand out without writing a novel. The essay should be expressive but concise. It’s an opportunity for your child to demonstrate his or her writing abilities as well as showcase his or her personality.

Outline, Research, and Draft

It will take more than one draft to create the final essay, so make sure your child is working on his or her essay far in advance of the application deadline. He or she needs enough time to write, rewrite, and edit the essay without the pressure of a looming deadline.

Before your child starts writing, suggest that he or she sketch out ideas and do any necessary research in advance. If the essay is based on a personal story, ask your child to jot down a few main points that he or she doesn’t want to miss. Then, encourage your child to write a first draft in one sitting to put his or her thoughts down on paper. You can later help your child organize what he or she wrote into a basic 5-paragraph writing outline.


Is your child having a hard time choosing a topic or direction? Suggest writing about a challenge or failure he or she experienced and how he or she overcame it. If that doesn’t feel right, suggest writing about what makes your child unique. Your child should consider how he or she would contribute to the university culture. Why should the college not only admit your child, but also want him or her to be a part of the student body? Let the ideas flow and you can always go back and edit accordingly.

Don’t encourage your child to write about what you think the admission counselor wants to read. Let him or her write about something that has significance to your child. A sincere and honest essay goes a lot further than a contrived one.

Make sure your child answers the question or addresses the topic given. If the essay doesn’t cover what was asked, it’s a sure sign to the admissions counselor that the student doesn’t know how to follow instructions and has poor attention to detail.

Proof and Edit

A great way to help your child is by proofing the essay. Check for spelling, grammar, and typos, as this is very important. If proofreading is not your strength, find a friend or coworker who can help you proof the essay as well as provide feedback.


It is important for your child to receive feedback from someone other than you. As the parent, your advice might be taken as criticism instead of as helpful feedback. Have your child share the essay with a few trusted adults, including a teacher, or someone in your circle of friends that you think could influence your child in a positive way.


There are a few recommended resources for both you and your child to reference as you work on this ever-so-important essay. Big Future by College Board offers great articles with tips for your student and videos that college applicants will find helpful as well as appealing. The National Association for College Admission Counseling can also guide you and your child along the entire college application process.

Don’t worry, getting into a college or university doesn’t entirely hinge on your child’s college admissions essay, but it is an important component that neither of you should neglect. Aside from using it to showcase your child’s personality and writing ability, the college admissions essay can be saved and repurposed when applying for scholarships. Websites like College Greenlight are great resources to help your child find scholarships that will come in handy when paying for college.


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