What makes a "good" essay?

I think it would be helpful to clarify in this discussion, what kind of essay we are discussing. An open-ended personal statement, an essay on why x school?, some other directed essay?

I have been writing here about open-ended essays. Two of my kids went to “to Ivies” after writing about muffins, for one, and Legos, for the other.

In the course of helping people over the years, the personal essays that too obviously sell themselves are not likable and therefore not effective. In fact sometimes changing a word that seems a little like bragging, may be the only suggestion I make.

That is entirely different from knowing what to highlight in the application or in an interview, or making essay choices, or even writing some of those directive essays where the admissions folks DO want to know what you have done.

Personal essays can be whimsical or serious. They should reveal something about the person that cannot be known in any other way. Personally, I like essays that are almost conversational, that are likable and charming, often with quirky subjects (like a shoelace!). Overly creative language with too many adjectives can be a turn off but whimsy and quirky is great.

Intellectual interests, career goals and other serious matters are often covered elsewhere. The personal essay is a chance to have fun. (And leave the imperfections…)

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Imagine you’re competing as a figure skater. And you’re trying to put together a compelling performance to earn top marks from the judges.

Advice 1: “Just be yourself out there on the ice.”
Advice 2: “Hey, there are five categories you’ll be rated on. Here they are. Let’s build a routine with these five categories in mind.”

Giving Advice 1 to a college applicant is just as . . . unhelpful . . . as giving it to a figure skater.

Giving Advice 2 is simple, logical, and effective: “Hey, they’re rating you on your intellectual curiosity because you’re applying to be a university student. Can you think of some creative ways that you might write an essay to demonstrate that?”


We can agree to disagree. Essays, in my opinion, need to be natural. Having categories to meet may interfere.

We may be talking apples and oranges. I am referring to a relatively open-ended personal essay. For more directive essays. applicants should answer the question.

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There is no difference between the personal essay, a diversity essay, the activities section, letters of rec., interview reports in this sense: the ratings don’t change. You are looking for the traits @BKSquared listed above at all times: intellectual energy, academic interests, unusual talents. A compelling application hits these traits as often as possible in as many places as possible. (Just one take, of course.)


This thread is about what makes a good essay. This is NOT the place to ask people to message you for personal feedback. All such posts will be deleted.

If you want help with your essay, please refer to THIS thread, linked below:

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That essay reader thread has not been functioning lately. We have been reading essays that people ask help with, via PM’s.

I have to say, I have been reading some really charming personal essays, none of which were written with a checklist but have quite an impact on the reader once done.


Thanks for sharing. How different was the final draft and how did you approach refining it?

What are the typical word counts for Common App main essay? Not supplementals.

There is no word limit but they recommend not exceeding 650 words.

The Common App cuts you off at 650, so it’s really more than recommended.


Just repeated what is published online.

If you have been published, is it too obnoxious to put the link in your essay?

I would not include a link in the essay. The link, if it belongs at all (and I would posit it does not), would go in the activities listing. Many AOs will not click links, and many applicants will fruitlessly try to
read the tea leaves by reviewing the analytics.

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I also wouldn’t put the link in the main essay.

You may not have enough characters for the link to go in the activities section, but it can go in the covid statement section (if it was something done during covid) OR the additional info section. If the publication is impressive, I see no reason to not include the link.

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IMO, the COVID section is not a catch-all dumping ground for stuff that does not fit elsewhere. The prompt is

Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.

Yes, you could put the link in the additional info section. But the better strategy, again IMO, is to list using AMA Manual of Style.

Again, most AOs won’t click the link. Even if they do, they likely will not be well-versed on the subject. And, perhaps most importantly, more stuff to read does not equal more time spent on the application. So include links at the risk of them glossing over other aspects.

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I am not suggesting to use the covid section as a dumping ground. It is appropriate to use the covid section not only for negative impacts but also to highlight new activities that the student did during covid, or was able to still do by transforming an activity to still meet covid restrictions. I doubt getting published could neatly fit in to this structure, but it could.

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Actually very helpful to know…. The published article was about a hospital-based COVID initiative kiddo created after having COVID. Maybe that’s a good place for it?

IMO a resounding yes. Assuming that is not the focus of the main essay though?

Thanks, no it is not….the main essay is about something else.

Very much appreciate your feedback.

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T’was the night before deadlines
And all through our crib
Not an essay was finished
Not a draft or ad-lib!

My kiddo was nestled all snug
In their bed,
With visions of topics
Dancing around in their head

“Get moving, Get writing”
I yelled in distress
“The clock is ticking
But you’re stuck in a mess”

Write a sonnet
Write a poem
It’s 300 words
Not a long-winded tomb!

The words hit the keyboard
In a dash it was great
The topic was heartfelt
“Why I love to procrastinate!”