How to Write Successful College Application Essays

Your college application admission letter or essay is one of the most important documents you will ever write. I want to show you how to write yourself to the head of the pack. To do that I need to first explain to you the concept of Stump Speeches, which are often used by politicians. Regardless of the question a politician is asked they will try to answer it in a way that lets them talk about a few areas where they are strong. One guy will always come back to talk about cutting taxes. Another will always come back to talking about economic growth because they know, from their research, that when they talk about these specific things, people like them more.

I’m going to tell you what to say in your college admission letter (or college admission essay) so that the readers at Stanford or Yale will want to choose you over everyone else. The people who are going to be reading your letter want to see that you tick certain boxes. So you need to think about these people as your market. You are trying to sell yourself to these essay readers at Harvard, Columbia or UC Berkley. So you’ll want to answer the essay question in a way that let’s you touch on the Four Traits every top college wants to see in their new students. The good thing is that once you’ve developed your letter for one school you can use much of the same content as a Stump Speech, to use (slightly modified) for another college’s admission letter. Below I describe the four traits (that the readers of your essay are generally looking for) and explain how you can show that you have these traits.

The four traits:

[dropcap]1[/dropcap]Show them that you are hard working. Provide evidence of this. Hard working doesn’t just mean good grades. They want to see real evidence that you will stick with something even if you aren’t good at it at first. Try to tell a story to make it clear how hard working you are. You stuck with a hard subject until you mastered it. You did an overseas working holiday in Cambodia, where it was hard, but you worked through it.

[dropcap]2[/dropcap]Show them that you know about their specific college. Tell them details about the college and even the specific program. This shows that you’ve done your homework about the place, which will make them think that:

a) You are the kind of student who does their homework.

b) You are taking the decision seriously, and

c) You appreciate and value the school. Everyone wants to be told that their university is great. I went to Queen’s University in Canada and I love hearing great things about it. By valuing the school you’re subtly telling them that you would fit in there. You are Queen’s University material.

Also (if this is true) you may want to convey the idea that you have been interested in this school for a long time. You have always admired professor so and so and the way he has used the study of whatever to help develop the such and such. All of this should be true, of course.

[dropcap]3[/dropcap]Show evidence of contribution to the community. Show you have a conscience, that you care about other people. Universities really do care about this. They want to see themselves and their students as helping the world. So show them, using real-life examples, that you like to do your part to make a real difference.

[dropcap]4[/dropcap]Finally, explain your vision for yourself in the future and how LSE or Princeton fits into that plan. Here is where you can really grab them. Even if you aren’t completely sure yourself yet about what you want to do in the future, you’ll still want to paint a picture for the reader of where you see yourself in 15 years. And again it should be clear why you need to take this specific program in order to achieve that vision. For example, you might say that, “My dream is to work for the World Trade Organization, helping raise the health standards of children in developing countries.” If you aren’t sure, pick something that you think you might like and go with that. You are allowed to change your mind later, but the reader of your essay will enjoy feeling like they are playing a part in making your dream come true (especially if this dream is about helping people).

Those are the four traits. However, I’d like to touch on two other things you should keep in mind.

How to Use Evidence to Strengthen Your College Admission Essay

You notice that I keep using the term “evidence”. By evidence I mean specific details about what you did: locations, number of people involved, the amount of money you raised. Basically I’m saying provide details.

So don’t just say:

“I raised money for charity.”

Instead say, say,

“I worked in a team of 5 students to raise $800 for the Japanese Red Cross Society’s Tsunami Relief Campaign.”

Do you see how that second sentence is a million times better than the first one? Specificity and detail makes it much more compelling and convincing? Of course, as always, these things also need to be true as well.

How to Use Stories to Strengthen Your College Admission Essay

Stories are brilliant ways of gripping your reader. You won’t have time to tell a whole story of course, but you can use the small version of a story, an anecdote, to reveal aspects of yourself. (The 20 second story explains how anecdotes make you and your message memorable). Stories are powerful. And they also work as evidence because it’s hard to tell a convincing story about yourself that isn’t true. Also people can relate to them, so they start to feel like they know you. So they are a great tool that you should take advantage of. You might want to tell us, for example, about when one of your personal heroes did something that made a difference in your life and what this experience taught you. So try to tie-in a real life story of when you had an experience which helped you to develop the Four Traits.


I just got this advice from a friend of mine, who is an Academic Advisor. It provides some more insight into how you should approach the UCAS essay (UK) and a US university application essay differently:  -The UCAS essay should focus on why you will be a good fit for that course (i.e. Economics, Biology, Medicine).  So while mentioning ECAs or volunteer activities is great, using that as evidence for why you should be admitted to the course is important. -In a US college essay, the questions they want you to answer can be a lot more “squishy”, something like “discuss a character from literature that has influenced you and why”.  They may just want to know you can write and show are a creative thinker, even if you are applying to Engineering.  So while evidence is important, how the evidence is used is crucial. Also, as one interviewer from Oxbridge I heard speak said, UK universities often are looking for “pointy” students who are good at a particular thing and really want to study that subject, because they will be studying it intensively for three years. Whereas, the US, in particular smaller and more selective colleges, are looking for more well-rounded students who are a good “fit” for their campuses. So a student who gets in to Oxford may not necessarily be a good candidate for Yale or Stanford.

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13 Responses to How to Write Successful College Application Essays

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  4. Bushra says:

    Thank you so much. I’m in awe of how much time you must put into all this.

  5. Mindy Marshall says:

    Thank you for writing this article Mr. Woods. I am returning to college after taking too much time off and this article has given me a great outline for my essay!

  6. Jmedina says:

    This is great Mr. Woods, thanks a lot for the hints and tips.

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  8. Juliehaise says:

    woooooooooooooow this has opened my eyes like so wide.thanx tim woods i sure will apply all this tips

  9. Leonardo Radomile says:

     This is very useful very student.

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