What makes a "good" essay?

I’ve seen on multiple admissions threads, as kids/parents list stats, you will often see something to the effect of: “good essay” or “great essay”.

I’m wondering how one knows if your essay is good or great? It’s so subjective. What makes you think your essay was good or great?



A good essay either strongly supports the theme of the application/main way the student wants to be perceived to admissions, or brings in a totally different aspect of him/her that will make admissions say - I like that kid. It should never include a laundry list of accomplishments and if it is about one accomplishment, should emphasize a particular aspect of that accomplishment or something specific that happened or was learned during it. Showing is better than telling, but telling can work just as well if it is written creatively and with humor. Good and great essays should avoid cliche topics, although when someone takes a common topic and does it way more interestingly, that can still work. Well written is important, and memorable is a plus. How would you like to have to read 100 essays in a single day? Hope this helps, and of course, these are just my opinions. Pros can read an essay and tell you if it works or not. The problem, however, from my experience - even a pro can be challenged to create a great college essay from scratch. Pros are english teachers, private counselors and admissions officers BTW.


What worked for my D was a careful self-reflection about the very core of who she is, how she perceives the world, and why. That’s how, after many drafts, she decided to write about her “stranger” experience, living in (and between) four languages, three cultures, and using the perspective of each of them to shed light on the others. There were childhood memories in it but with a little dusting of Camus and Sartre. Beautifully written but frankly, not focused on her educational and professional plans, which some people she consulted saw as detrimental - but ultimately, it worked in a very selective LAC.
Start early! Use it as a tool of self-discovery. It isn’t the only approach but its advantages are clear.


Most importantly, it needs to be memorable. You want the reader to connect with you in a way that goes far beyond the objective stats of your application. Not who you are (your accomplishments), but why you are who you are (the what makes you you piece).

I’ve worked with students on hundreds of essays. The #1 most important thing I help students aim for is authenticity. That’s what makes an essay good or even great. If I read the essay and feel I know the student, then I’ve helped them do a good job.

Most students are able to at least come up with a good essay if they stay focused on themselves.

A great essay takes it all to the next level. There really aren’t that many people who are excellent writers, especially at the age of 17. I can think of a handful of essays that were exceptional. One in particular is head and shoulders above all others.

A student wrote of an encounter with a drug dealer at the age of 14, while waiting for a train. It wasn’t particularly long, but it was compelling. It gave me great insight into the student’s personality and thought process. I wanted the essay to go on and on. If I see a novel in the bookstore by that student, I won’t be one bit surprised.

In that case, the student had exceptional writing ability. Most people don’t, but an essay can be memorable if the student has an interesting story to tell. If you have something interesting to say, an admissions officer will notice. Getting an AO to notice you is half the battle. Think about your story and how it reflects your personality, and what the admissions officers at a particular school are looking for in their accepted students. This means understanding what that college wants.

Other memorable essays: a student who went on a research trip to the absolute middle of nowhere in a state known for being very rural, a student whose fear of mannequins inspired his interest in robots, a student who loved the color red, a girl who loved carpentry.

Only one of the essays mentioned above was a masterpiece, but the others were at least interesting. The masterpieces are few. In fact, right now, I’m struggling to think of another essay that was a masterpiece and I am drawing a blank.

All of my students got into colleges they were happy about. Many have been accepted to tippy top colleges, despite not writing a masterpiece. My point is that you don’t have to aim for something amazing. You just have to be yourself.


Authenticity, likeability, and sometimes a kind of twist at the end. I recommend looking at photos of childhood for inspiration. I read one good essay about blueberry muffins, and one about Legos, as an example. Many students think they should write about how they want to cure cancer, or something weighty, but topics about the ordinary can work really well. And essays don’t have to be perfect: imperfections can also convey who you are. Too often adults interfere with essay writers’ “voices.”


In one essay I wrote about how I have mini panic attacks when I go to Subway. I told them how I need to rehearse my sub order in my mind even though I get the same thing every time. My admissions counselor and dean loved my essay and were quite smitten with me when I visited. I would say don’t be boring, be effortlessly interesting.


I like the concept of “be effortlessly interesting”. One has to be quite comfortable with themselves and able to reveal their persona. Not always easy. The good news is everyone is interesting. You have something deep down that is interesting. Let it come out.

I generally find in writing that if you don’t commit to anything and just start brainstorming ideas, pretty creative things happen. Then the effortless interesting appears.

1 Like

A good essay fits in with the theme of an application—it makes the rest of your application make sense. It should be only something you can write. It should be emotional and strong. It should be well written. It should be you. You’ll know it’s the right topic when you find it.

And if you have any reservations about the topic, then you NEED to address them. Be in touch with how you feel about the essay.

In my opinion, a good essay should have a good start. It should up to the point. The problem, as well as the solution, should be discussed. It should be around 200-250 words.

Always have an issue with the word count requests on college aps (or anything). They give a topic and say 400-500 words. Brevity is king and it takes real talent to make impact while being concise. I would encourage kids to make their essays concise yet powerful. Have read so many that just drone on and on.