AMA & GIVEAWAY: Have your college-essay questions answered by a Harvard-educated professional editor


From an essay writing perspective, your position as an “international student” offers a potentially unique vantage point for you to draw on. For example, when have you felt most like an insider or outsider, whether in the US or elsewhere? After attending high school in the US, have your values, beliefs, and/or traditions changed?

Unfortunately, I am not able to answer your question about how admissions officers would react to specific word limits.

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I am worried about something in my application and I was wondering if you could offer your opinion!

I feel like I have underperformed in international math Olympiads in the last two years - in 2020 I didn’t make the team, while in 2021 I didn’t achieve any award. But in 2019, I achieved an Honourable Mention, so I feel that it looks like I’ve gotten worse at math!

Do you think this would raise any eyebrows with the admissions officers, or do you think it is a minor detail they’ll gloss over?

Considering I want to major in math and this was an international Olympiad, I’m worried it’ll negatively impact my application.


A montage can work well to connect different moments or experiences together. The crux of the issue lies in how these different moments or experiences build upon one another and what theme they culminate into. What do your values say about you when taken as a whole? How do they help your reader interpret what you want to accomplish and how you go about doing it?

Regarding each individual moment or experience, remember to show not tell. Take your example paragraph about stretching. You could strengthen your description by providing imagery about the physical movements of your stretching. What does your stretching look and feel like? You could delve into how you plan and execute each movement. What does excellence look like to you and how do you achieve it? You could also highlight when you felt the most proud of your stretching prowess. What does it mean to be the best stretcher?

Also, take care to craft transitions that connect your moments/experiences together in a way that allows your reader to breathe and take in what they just read. Based on your example paragraph, to create a break, aim for contrast using concise, impactful writing. What is the takeaway? Where are we going next? Why there?

Any tips on how to make your College Essay stand out from the rest ,especially for students who are intending to apply to top tier institutions ? Do the Ivy leagues focus on personality aspect or the achievements in Essays ?


Whether you are writing about one event or many events, you do not necessarily need to describe the event(s) in full detail. After you establish the context of the event, aim to highlight and provide concrete details about a particular moment in a given event that illustrates the points you are trying to make. Think about sensory information you could depict as well as internal thoughts, relationships/interactions, and/or physical actions.

In other words, show when you need to illustrate a point. Tell when you need to frame and interpret what you show. Oftentimes, you weave together these two organically (e.g., introduction “tells” the background and context of the events, body paragraphs “show” the events and then “tell” your interpretation/point).

The advice you mention about dismissing showing seems to suggest that telling can be a mode of showing, so I am not sure what they mean by dismissing “showing.”


Learning to cook is an invaluable life skill for college and beyond! However, whether you should write about cooking in your essay depends on how you connect cooking with your academic studies and/or related career/life goals.

For example, do you plan to study a subject that has applications in cooking or food (e.g., food chemistry, gastronomy, nutrition, health science)? Do you want to be a chef or get involved in the hospitality or restaurant industry?

So, consider if cooking for you is an end in itself that you could learn anywhere/anytime, or a means to a larger goal that the college can help you reach.

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Like the advice I gave to @SteadySeas112 and @Samuel_Opoku-Agyeman (see my answer above), I recommend first identifying your values, beliefs, and interests, as well as what you want to convey to your reader, before searching for a specific moment. The moment you choose matters less than knowing and communicating who you are.

I would also note that a moment can come from a specific event, but it could also come from a conversation or as part of a longer experience or shared history and culture.

If you are still stuck, consider talking with those who know you best - sometimes you need another perspective. How would they describe you? Have they noticed how you have changed during the past few years? Can they suggest a particular moment that reminds them of you?

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No, you do not need to focus on a conversation or niche topic.

Your perspective may not have been challenged verbally or by a specific person, for example. You could react to a recently implemented law, policy, or rule that you disagree with. Or perhaps a piece of art or story pushed you to consider a new position on an issue.

I would argue the topic per se also matters less than how you engaged with the challenge, and how and why your perspective changed (or did not). Think of the essay as an opportunity to show how and why you think and act the way you do.

I think the best way to approach this question comes from a place of passion and experience though. What do you care about? Why do you care? How do you know you care? If your perspective on a certain issue or topic was never challenged, and you never had to defend it (whether to yourself or someone else), how do you know you really believe what you believe?

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As long as you provide enough context to help your reader understand the history and cultural logic behind your perspective on a subject, and approach the subject with honesty and respect, I would argue almost no subject should be discounted.

That being said, you may want to ask people you trust (e.g., teacher, counselor) for their feedback on the subject you have chosen, and more importantly, your perspective on that subject. You may have missed a crucial piece of context, or framed the issue in a way that most Americans would not understand.

In regard to your second question, you can certainly write about a specific phase of your life, though take care to provide context and distinct anchor points / experiences to highlight key moments.


You should certainly take advantage of websites and brochures to learn more about schools and their resources. However, you should draw on information that relates directly to the specific resources and opportunities available for your program of study, or life and career goals, at the schools. In other words, take a deep dive into schools’ websites, and discuss their resources and opportunities in a way tailored to you. Avoid generic information (e.g., location, class sizes, school ranking) that could apply to any applicant (which is what I assume the webinars meant).

For more information, you may want to check out my response to @user9 about the “why us” essay (above).


To help prioritize information in your essay, first consider the prompt - does the school emphasize a particular value or approach? If so, then does the education or social justice aspect of your activity speak to that value or approach?

If the prompt offers no clues as to what the school is looking for in particular, then consider your goals - do you intend to study education, social justice, both, or neither? If only one, then your essay should be weighted toward that subject. If both, then try to give them equal attention and also emphasize how they relate to one another in your perspective. If neither, then it may depend on the theme you want to emphasize (and how much the education and social justice aspects relate to the theme), or simply your passion for one aspect or the other.


I would argue no topics are off the table. However, please see my response to @yvit for more information.


If you are worried about your performance at the Olympiads, I recommend using one of your essays to frame your experience on your own terms. Take control of the narrative!

So, for example, rather than emphasize not making the team or winning an award in 2020 and 2021, you could discuss what you love about the Olympiad, and why you persisted - even in the face of setbacks - to reach for the highest possible accolade it offered. Doing so would demonstrate your passion for math, even when it spites you.

Or you could discuss how the setbacks - perhaps more than the Honorable Mention in 2019 - shaped your attitude and approach to competition. You win some, you lose some, but you always play the game and never give up. Persistence in the face of setbacks shows maturity and drive.

Of course, you may also want to point to any mitigating circumstances (e.g., in your personal or family life) that affected your performance in 2020 and 2021.


Regardless of where you apply to, you should aim for your essays to showcase your individuality and unique perspective. Personality is a component, as are achievements, but they are building blocks for highlighting a topic or experience, and providing an interpretation of the topic or experience grounded in your personal background, values/beliefs/interests, and style. So, think deeply about who you are, and flesh out those elements with specificity, concreteness, and intention.

That being said, I recommend reading well-written essays and engaging stories, and taking notes on what you think works well and could be implemented into your own essay writing. In addition, get as much feedback as possible from people you trust (e.g., teachers, counselors) and continuously iterate until you are satisfied.

Any topics we should not write about?


I would argue no topics are off the table. However, please see my response to @yvit for more information.

Hi Folks,

In addition to answering your questions about college essays in general, I am happy to provide feedback on a few lines or a paragraph from your own essay. If you share your writing, please let me know a bit about what you hope to achieve, and any particular areas you would like feedback on!

For clarification, If you’d like to share a portion of your essay with @GradeSaver_Neal, please send them a private message. Not able to send a private message because you’re too new? Poke around and read some other threads on CC Forums for about 15 minutes and that ability should be unlocked for you.

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What are your thoughts on the Covid-19 question on the Common app? Necessary for a very strong student already writing a great essay and several other required essays for different schools?

I have 3 questions

  1. I am doing a montage essay and I was told to provide sentences that help the reader transition into each paragraph but I am not exactly sure what that means.
  2. Are we supposed to design a question that relates to our essays if we choose prompt 7 or is it just “prompt-less”.
  3. Is important our essay is centered around answering a question?

Thank you so much for doing this