How To Write An Exceptional College Application Essay

by Gina Catanzarite

As the end of another school year approaches, kids’ thoughts turn to a summer of sleeping in and lazy days spent lounging by a pool . . . unless you’re finishing your Junior year of high school, in which case your stress level is rising like mercury on a sunny day because (insert ominous music here) IT’S TIME TO THINK ABOUT APPLYING TO COLLEGES!!!

Without a doubt, one of the most stressful parts of the college admissions application is completing the essay. (More ominous music. . .) Essays have become extremely popular as an educational tool in our country, and young people frequently need to write them for applications for college or for scholarships and other competitions.

What do you think college admissions officers want to learn about you from that essay? Proper grammar? Proof that you can write a thesis statement? How intelligent you are?


Take a look at some of these actual essay questions from college applications:

“Describe yourself as fully and accurately as possible in 140 characters.”

“Anna Quindlen says that she ‘majored in unafraid’ at Barnard. Tell us about a time when you majored in unafraid.”

Don DeLillo, Libra, said, “This is what history consists of. It’s the sum total of all the things they aren’t telling us.” What is history, who are “they,” and what aren’t they telling us?
The essay questions are prompts to help you reveal your personal philosophies and personality. They are meant to showcase your critical and your creative thinking skills, as well as your ability to make abstract connections. They require a deeply personal tone with a theme that unfolds largely through personal observations, recollections, and reflections on the writer’s life and experience.

Unfortunately, that rarely happens when so many people “help” the college applicant polish an essay before submitting it.

These people who try to help are well-intentioned to be sure, but what happens is that the student writes a very academic-sounding term paper—thesis, body, conclusion. Parents read it, guidance counselors read it, English teachers read it—and everyone makes comments and edits until it gets distilled, even duller and more generic than it was to begin with!

According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), their number one tip for writing effective college admissions essays is to be yourself. You can achieve that by following these guidelines, used in Luminari’s popular Teen Writer! camps:

  • Relate it to a deeply personal and significant experience and the life lesson you learned.
  • Explore the value of the life lesson you learned. How did/will it change your future?
  • Use precise details and descriptive writing to paint a vivid picture in the readers’ mind.
  • Include research or data to support your opinions.
  • Consider using the “YOU” voice to engage the reader more personally in the essay, e.g. Everyone probably has a clear memory that involved the school bully, and I do, too. VS. You probably have a clear memory about the bully from your high school. So do I.

Most importantly, let the answer grow out of what you want to say, not what you think someone else may want to read. When you write from your soul, the essay will be meaningful, personal, and a reflection of someone with the maturity and self-awareness who is ready to embark on the next phase of life… as a successful college student!

Looking for more tips to create more great writing? Check out Luminari’s 2016 Teen Writer! Fantastic Fiction camp running from June 27 – 30. Learn more about Teen Writer! camp activities and scholarships we offer for reduced tuition!

AND. . . read even more unusual college essay questions here:

Buzzfeed | 22 of the most creative college essay questions

Washington Post | Unusual College Essay Questions


Gina Catanzarite, owner/operator of Arania Productions, and an award-winning television producer, author, media consultant and teacher who has worked both nationally and locally in her fields since 1987.

Gina is the instructor of Luminari’s Teen Writer! camps, being offered June 27 – 30, 2016, in Pittsburgh, PA.