Five tips to make college admissions essays stand out from the crowd

Applying for college is stressful enough. Writing the dreaded application essay — hoping for perfection but seeing only a blank computer screen — can be downright horrifying.

That’s because they’re so important. They can make or break applications. And they’re one of the best opportunities to truly express yourself and display your personality.

But what to say? And how to say it? Especially when essay topics are typically open-ended and leave ample room for interpretation?

The first rule: Relax.

Go ahead and write. You can always rewrite later. Write like you speak. Put away the thesaurus and fancy words you only use to impress teachers. Read what you wrote aloud. If it sounds like “writing,” try again.

Lighten Up.

A little self-deprecating humor goes a long way in a 500-word essay detailing your accomplishments. Kalamazoo College Associate Director of Admissions Hillary Teague says that essays that make her laugh are ones that stand out. Don’t go overboard, and don’t make others the butt of your jokes.

Avoid Lists.

Chances are, you’ve already listed every extracurricular activity elsewhere in the application process. Don’t do it again. The best essays are focused. They tell stories, impart lessons or show how you’ve grown. Display your personality by using the essay to highlight specific accomplishments or activities and how they’ve affected you.


Admissions officers spend their days reading essays. You aren’t going to fool them treating yours like a Mad Lib, inserting the name of the college in throwaway lines like “It’s always been a dream of mine to attend ______.”

Do your homework. Personalize your essay for each school. What is it really that makes you want to attend them? Don’t get carried away with excessive praise. And don’t hurt yourself with honesty: If you’re only applying because the school is an inexpensive backup, it’s probably better to highlight something else.

Be Precise.

Essays may be about expressing yourself, but they’re still an academic pursuit. Spellcheck goes without saying. Check your grammar and punctuation. They matter. Check your facts. Make sure they’re true.

Check the logic of your arguments. Do you back them up? Did you convince yourself? If you didn’t, it’s unlikely you’re going to convince anyone else. Be humble and enlist favorite teachers or friends as proof-readers.

Bonus tip: Be Different.

Consider Michigan’s top 14 independent colleges and universities, where students forge success by following their own path. The colleges are smaller and emphasize community over crowds.

Often less expensive than public institutions, the independents boast higher four-year graduation rates and smaller class sizes for a truly unique and affordable experience.

Be bold. Be different. Go independent.