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.