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 criminal 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.


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.

There’re simple rules for a good essay. It should be well focused, organized and supported. The last means do not just assert that something is true, prove it! Do you keep all these rules? Good person you are :grinning: Sometimes it leads us to be boring. The conception of “be effortlessly interesting” looks like light in the end of a tunnel. It’s something that is always valuable.

I have heard many people write it based on different stuff:

~why they have a passion for their major?
~an experience/accomplishment/ life moment/ personal stuff?

which is better to write about? I dont think most of the time these 2 can be combined into 1 essay

Some of the best essays aren’t about either one. As I wrote before, I read a great essay about Legos, and another one about blueberry muffins. There should be a sort of twist at the end to give the ordinary a larger meaning.

I think “personal stuff” is usually more interesting, and you could describe why you want to major in a certain area in the supplementary essay. But it really depends on how you write it.


There are two crucial elements for a persuasive essay that are not mentioned in this thread. I do not like to share these elements because it may cause applicants to try to force feed these elements into their essays which–in turn–affects the authentic voice of the writer. These elements are only necessary in ultra-competitive situations.

The best advice that I like to share openly is that one should write in a crisp, clear, & concise manner. The writing should be the work product of the applicant in order to be genuine in presenting the author’s voice.

I do not agree with comments about continuing with an application’s theme or that a reader should be able to recognize the writer–at least not in a competitive admissions process.

My preference is to read a first or second draft before offering guidance regarding improvements in the written work as well as with respect to suggesting a list of target schools.

If a reader knows what to look for in an application essay, then there is not much mystery as to why one applicant is offered admission over another who may have superior statistics.

Probably the worst advice that I read about writing college application essays is to research the school and to write what the admissions officers of a particular school want to read. The admissions officers already know about their school–they want to know about you–the applicant.

The second worst advice offered frequently is to start writing one’s college admissions essays months in advance of sending in one’s applications. A highly polished essay often impresses readers as disingenuous.


Why do you need those elements (can you give some hints?) only in ultra-competitive situations? Are you saying an essay to a top schools should be different than to less-competitive schools? Why?

The most elite schools buy intelligence & demonstrated work ethic. Of course, other factors enter into consideration by admissions committees so some aspects are not as clearly evident as they should be.

Sure, provided the student can avoid writer’s block panic at the last moment; and has everything planned in their head so it’s just a matter of finding the right words; and provided the student can simply find enough time for it in the first semester of the senior year, between the insane number of APs, and extracurriculars that tend to be very time-consuming in the 12th grade when the student often takes a leading role.
If you cannot be sure of all of the above, I would seriously suggest writing at least very solid drafts when you have time this summer. I am not a pro but starting in May or June of the junior year has worked very well for our D who tends to do less well under extreme pressure.

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It is wise to think about one’s college essay in advance, but writing skills, maturity and insights / perspectives should be rapidly developing during one’s high school years so better to start writing closer to application submission time. Plus, writing in a short period of time should yield an essay that flows better & shows the writer’s voice in a more consistent fashion.

Nevertheless, writing styles & writing habits differ so it may be best to proceed with the method & time frame with which you are most comfortable.

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