Ironman essay tips

My brother, Scott, forwarded me this article about how triathletes can make their race reports less boring because he thought the tips might also be applicable to college essays. They are, and it’s not surprising, as the rules for writing a good college essay overlap with the rules for most good writing.

Here are the relevant tips, with my college essay corollaries.

1. Keep it short.
Most college essays have word limits to guide you here. But in just about all written communication, good editing usually leads to making your point just as effectively with fewer words. And most readers will thank you for that.

2. Know your audience.
High school students should be careful with this one, because the surest route to a clichéd college essay is to try to impress admissions officers by writing what you think they want to hear. Just remember that there is a difference between writing something to send to your best friend and writing something to send to a college. Knowing your audience doesn’t necessarily mean you should pander to them or try too hard to impress—it just means that you should remember who will be doing the reading.

3. Talk more about what you thought or felt, and less about what happened.
Yes, the story of what happened is still important. But some students get so caught up in describing the events of their debate victory, life as an army brat, or struggle to overcome a learning disability that the writer actually disappears from the story. College essays are supposed to help the reader get to know you. Make sure you include yourself in the story. Often, the best way to do that is to describe what you thought or felt.

4. Explain what you learned and, hopefully, how that might benefit others.
College essays don’t need a moral, and you shouldn’t try to inject deep meaning that wasn’t there. But you also don’t want admissions readers wondering why you bothered to share this story with them. If you learned something, even if it’s important only to you, be honest about it. Lesson or not, make it clear why this particular tale is important to you. And as far as how it might benefit others, the best way to do that is to describe what’s next.

Not a blueprint

Three annual events have recently taken place like clockwork.

1. Ivy League schools proudly released their (dropping) admissions rates.
2. One student has been accepted by many or all of them.
3. The press is running headlines touting “the essay that got her admitted.”

Here’s the problem with the headline. We don’t know if it’s true.

Did the essay get her admitted? Or was it a non-factor? Or was she admitted in spite of the essay? Maybe the committee believed she could take the school’s physics department to the next level? Maybe none of the readers much cared for the essay but admitted her anyway because of something else that impressed them? In fact, it’s entirely possible that each school had somewhat different reasons for admitting her. That’s the way admissions works.

The only people who know how a college reached a decision about any particular student are those who sat there in the room when the admissions committee discussed and voted. The one occasional exception is a high school counselor who communicates with the admissions office.

I’m not trying to downgrade any student’s admissions glory—these applicants should feel proud of their accomplishments and excited about their opportunities.

But the essay is just one of many factors that an admissions office considers. And offers of admission are rarely made based on one piece or part alone.

So please don’t bookmark those articles with the intent to mimic the story or the writing when you apply. It’s an essay, not a blueprint.

No hooks necessary

I’ve fallen for them, and I’m sure many of you have, too. Those dopey “articles” online whose headlines I just can’t resist:

You’ll never believe what happened next!
Top Ten_______. Number 6 will blow your mind!
Best sports photos ever captured.

Those headlines are just hooks—false drama acting as a bait to lure otherwise uninterested readers. And not surprisingly, the articles themselves almost never live up to the hook hype.

College applicants may have heard that your essay needs a hook, something to grab the reader’s attention. That’s why so many essays include sentences like “As we hurtled toward the icy rapids, our paddles frantically churning in unison…” or, “In that moment, I realized that teamwork and friendship were far more important than winning.”

But you’re not writing click-bait here.

If an experience was dramatic, by all means, relay the drama. But if you’re injecting drama after the fact, you run the risk of moving away from good story-telling into something more akin to the online headline baits.

Yes, your college essay needs to be interesting—no reader will want to slog through six hundred words about why you love popcorn. And I love a pithy opening as much as any reader (one of my all-time favorite essays from a Collegewise student began, “I am a good loser. It is an art that I’ve perfected). Good writing means good story-telling, after all.

But the most important of the many differences between a college essay and the online click-bait is that you are not writing for an otherwise uninterested audience. You’re writing for willing readers who are invested in learning about you. You have their attention. You don’t need to pique their interest. You just need to satisfy it. And that’s a no-hook-necessary goal.

Is a personal struggle an appropriate essay topic?

College applicants often write essays about personal struggles. Sometimes, those stories provide great insight into the human being behind the grades and test scores, revealing strength, resilience, and the ability to overcome challenges, all of which are valuable traits that can help those students be happy and successful in college.

But in other cases, tales of personal struggle raise red flags to the point that an admissions officer is reluctant to offer the applicant a space in the class. How can students, parents, and counselors tell the difference between a personal struggle story that helps—and one that hurts— a student’s admissibility?

There is no irrefutable list of “OK” and “Not OK” topics. But the litmus test we use at Collegewise when students ask our opinion is, “Will this story give an admissions officer cause to worry about your health, stability, or safety if you joined their class?”

First, it’s important to remember that a college application—even one with essays, letters of recommendation, and interviews—is an imperfect instrument of measurement. You’re far more complex and interesting than any application can possibly communicate. And that’s exactly why it can be risky to mention some particular challenges.

For example, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, suicide attempts—these are very real challenges, and no admissions officer I’ve ever met will think you’re less worthy as a human being just because you’ve faced these types of demons.

But college can be a challenging adjustment for even the healthiest, best-supported students. And these stories can raise very real concerns for a reader who does not know you like your friends and family do.

Are you ready for the challenges of college life? Do they need to be concerned about your health and safety? Is there a chance you could be a danger to yourself or others?

It might seem unfair for an admissions officer to consider those questions, especially when you aren’t necessarily given the chance to offer a response. But that’s their job. They have a responsibility—to you and to the students who would be joining you in the campus community—to raise those concerns.

I would never tell a student not to write a story she felt strongly about sharing. But I think every applicant deserves to understand the risks of some particular topics.

If you’re a student (or the parent, or counselor of one) who is considering writing about a struggle like these, please consider including the following information.

1. Have you successfully overcome this challenge?

When mentioned in college essays, struggles like these are often less concerning when they’re followed by triumph. What evidence is there that you are happier and healthier today than you were before? Spend the appropriate time in your essay to show what life on the other side of this struggle looks like.

2. Are you offering, or will you be able to offer, support or guidance to other students who might be experiencing the same thing?

We once worked with a student who spent six months in a drug rehabilitation center, but her story (which she did discuss in the essay) included that she was not only two years sober, but that she also now worked in that same center counseling other teens who were in the throes of addiction. What once might have been seen as a liability now becomes a very real asset to her fellow students and to the college.

And finally, whatever story you choose to share—personal struggle or not—please don’t choose it based on what you think colleges want to hear. There’s a common admissions myth that hardship is inherently rewarded, causing many applicants to exaggerate or even manufacture it. There’s no such thing as admissions extra credit based on your essay topic. Choose a story that helps them get to know you in a way they could not have done by the application alone.

And most importantly, make sure that you’re proud of what you share and what your story says about you. If your story passes that test, the right colleges will appreciate it, too.

Free webinar: Four Keys to Better College Essays

Our Collegewise counselors are delivering a free webinar, Four Keys to Better College Essays, with four options of times to attend online. Attendance is limited to 200 people per session, and these tend to fill up very quickly. If you’re a senior applying to college, the parent of one, or a counselor who works with seniors, you can find all of the details here.

For parents: no essay hijacking

It’s not uncommon for parents to offer feedback on their kids’ college essays (though I advise against that for the same reason the American Medical Association advises against doctors treating their own children—more on that here). Still, many parents insist on doing more than just correcting grammar and spelling. Some will suggest new material, insert their own rewrites, or even compose their own original paragraphs in the name of improving the essay.

I understand that this comes from a good place of wanting to help your son or daughter as much as you can. But please remember three things:

1. Admissions officers want to hear the student’s version of the events.
2. When a parent gets over-involved, it’s almost always glaringly apparent to an experienced reader.
3. It’s your student who inevitably pays the price with a negative impact on their admissions chances.

Parents think and write differently than kids do. That’s expected considering that kids have only been on the planet for seventeen years. Encourage them to seek help from outside the family circle—counselors and English teachers are great sources. And if you are called upon, remember that while feedback and even some proofreading are fair game in the name of helping, once you start inserting your own thoughts, words, or voice into the essay, you’re hijacking, which can only hurt.

No essays by committee

Here’s a sure way to end up with a college essay that you aren’t confident about or that you just plain don’t like: ask for feedback from too many people.

Feedback is good. Too much feedback from too many people is bad. You’ll get conflicting opinions, you’ll second-guess yourself, and you’ll fall out of love with a story you used to feel good about.

So pick one, maybe two, people who know you, preferably people with experience like your high school counselor, English teacher, or qualified private counselor.

Your college essay may very well be read by a committee. But it shouldn’t be written by one.

The best stories present themselves

Students often approach me at the end of my college essay seminars to ask what I think about a topic they’re considering. It’s difficult for me to tell students I’ve just met whether the story they’re considering is the right one. In fact, few stories are inherently good or bad—it depends on how they’re approached and written.

But I can say that a student who struggles to even describe the topic is likely to struggle to write it in an engaging way.

For example, is there potential in a story about how a student found her love of poetry after leaving the violin behind? The way she describes it tells me a lot. Compare these two sample descriptions of her own topic (this is fictional, but based on actual conversations I’ve had with students):

I started playing the violin when I was younger, but I kind of want to explain that I did it for social and family pressures, not so much in elementary school, but later in junior high. And I thought I could talk about how writing poetry was like a way of going against that. And how my parents always encouraged me to do music, so at first I only wrote in my spare time even though it wasn’t really something that other people were doing. And then I could talk about how poetry took the creative side of me that music used represent. Basically, I’m a creative person. That’s what I want to get across.


The best decision I ever made was to quit playing the violin and start writing poetry. I’m so much happier now. I actually lose track of time when I write. It’s my favorite thing to do.

I’m not evaluating the student’s story-telling ability. But the first description sounds like a student who is working too hard to wring meaning from the experience. It’s not top-of-mind or from the heart. It sounds like so many college essays where a student scans her life for something that she thinks colleges will appreciate, then tries to draw a formative experience or lesson from it to share in her essay.

The second description isn’t just pithy—it’s real. She isn’t struggling at all to find the story or the meaning. It’s right there, spilling out of her. Her biggest challenge will be just fitting all she likely has to say about it within the word limit.

I’ve often said that the best stories for college essays write themselves. But that’s not entirely true. Great writing takes time, thought, and revision. The best stories for college essays present themselves. You don’t have to work too hard to find—or quite as hard to write—them.

What’s next?

When I would brainstorm college essay topics with our Collegewise students, I always recommended that the final paragraph answer the question, “What’s next?”

For example, say you write your essay about your experience playing on the lacrosse team. Do you hope to play for a college team? A club team? Will you play other intramural sports instead? Or will you leave athletics behind entirely (and if so, why, and what do you envision doing instead)?

An essay that doesn’t answer what’s next is like a movie that leaves you hanging at the end with no sense of what happens to the characters. It’s natural for a college admissions officer to wonder how you will bring—literally or figuratively—this activity, experience, lesson, etc. to college with you. For you, it’s, “What’s next?” For them, it’s, “What’s in it for us?”

The most important thing to remember about a “what’s next” paragraph—and frankly, any paragraph in a college essay—is to be honest. Colleges don’t expect that everything you did in high school will translate directly to your life in college. So if you aren’t sure what’s next, say so. That might sound like this:

As much as I’ve loved lacrosse, I don’t think I want to continue playing in college. In fact, I may leave sports behind entirely. I’m so excited about studying what I want to study, meeting new people, and getting involved in activities that have nothing to do with athletics, I think it will be a nice change of pace to know I’m not spending 2-3 hours a day on the field. Lacrosse will always be there for me if I miss it too much (I’ve made my mom promise not to give away all my equipment just yet). And of course, I’ll always be proud of these scars I earned playing my favorite sport in high school.

Don’t bury the lead

Journalists are taught never to “bury the lead.” The lead is the first sentence of a story. When well-crafted, it clearly and concisely communicates the main point. A busy reader should need to read only a sentence or two to know what a story is about—everything after that is just secondary details for particularly interested readers.

Identifying and communicating your lead can also help you craft stronger college applications.

If you spend more time playing the violin than doing just about anything else, don’t bury that fact in a long list of activities.

If you write your essay about the part-time job you took after school, don’t leave out that you did so to help with your family’s finances (that would be burying by omission). That’s an important part of the story that deserves to be shared.

If you won an award that’s unique to your school, don’t bury the significance by neglecting to explain what the award actually represented.

Most admissions officers are patient and thorough readers. But you can make their jobs easier—and your case stronger—when you avoid burying your leads.