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  • Writer's pictureCortney Dowdle

How to Write a Winning College Essay

It is college application season here in the USA. Are you calm, cool, and collected? OR...are you freaking out about submitting an amazing application with an even more amazing university essay?

International students often overlook how wonderfully unique they are and how that can help them during the university admissions process. I'm here to give some tips on essay writing, but overall, remember that you are the only one with your story.

Personally, I’m a process person - I like things that have multiple perfectly laid out steps that lead to success. Writing a college essay sounds overwhelming if you go from thinking about topics to trying to picture the perfect finalized essay for submission. This blog dives into some tips for getting from start to submitted in the essay writing process - expert advice included!

If you haven’t read my blogs on admissions tips or understanding university rankings, start with those and then dive into this blog about essays. You can also check out tons of essay writing blogs and courses from The College Essay Guy. This is one of my favorite resources for students. The College Essay Guy is an amazing resource for students at any stage of the college application process, but especially for essay writing.

If you’re short on time, here is the N2K (need to know...are the kids not saying this yet?):

  1. Brainstorm - write - feedback - edit - feedback - revise - finalize - submit

  2. Share your personality.

  3. Don't downplay the essay.

So you want to write a great college essay? Let’s talk first about a few mistakes you should avoid in the writing process.

  • DON'T submit a previously written paper.

  • DON'T try to impress the admissions reviewer by using a bunch of big words to try and sound smart.

  • DON'T brag.

  • DON'T talk about a weakness of yours that isn’t really a weakness (I'm just too patient with others...).

  • DON'T summarize details that are already in your application.

Now, let’s shift to the things you definitely DO want to include in your essay.

  • DO use your own voice - that means write like you speak and don’t sound like a totally different person on paper than you do in person.

  • DO write about every day life.

  • DO be honest and true to yourself - don’t write an essay about being an accomplished equestrian and using horses to overcome mental illness when you’ve really just been on a few pony rides as a child and watched the movie Secretariat.

  • DO Be vulnerable and authentic.

As with academic papers, creative writing, investigative writing, or novels, many times the hardest part is really just getting started.

So how can you get started?

Brainstorm - this can be the longest part of the entire process. The College Essay Guy has great examples of brainstorming exercises to get you prepared to pick an essay topic.

Brainstorming ideas include:

Teacher and student asking question
Ask questions and complete some writing prompts to get ideas for your essay.
*International students often downplay their own uniqueness. So many students think of the fact that they completed multiple study abroad experiences in high school “not a big deal” because it’s really common in their home countries. Remember that you are applying to college in the USA, and that automatically makes you interesting. Don’t be afraid to highlight things relative to your culture, geography, traditions, or experiences. These are often very unique to where you are from and often very different from American student experiences.


Figure out what you want essay readers to know about you and figure out a unique way to tell them (connection is key):

  • Brainstorm

  • Write - write a draft of your essay

  • Review - read your story out loud and make notes on how to edit the parts to sound more authentic and like yourself

  • Share - get feedback on your essay - try to have a counselor or teacher/mentor review your essay and give you some comments

  • Revise

  • Review again

  • Final edits

  • Submit

Remember to give yourself plenty of time to write your essay. The pressure of writing the essay is enough, you really don't need to add last minute deadlines to the process! My advice is always to start early and give yourself time to work through your different ideas.

But what do experts who read thousands of essays each year say?


I reached out to some top universities in the USA to get their feedback on what is most important to convey in your Common App essay or personal statement.

Lisa Mortini from New York University, Abu Dhabi, says, “Writing a good Common App essay does require a certain level of self awareness”. Those brainstorming exercises above will help you identify what’s important to you and how you can talk about it. In addition, Mortini says that one of the keys to writing a great essay is, “finding the balance between your natural voice and the level of academic writing expected in a university application”.

Topher Bordeau from the admissions office at Dartmouth shared some writing tips in a blog and highlighted the importance of bringing the “you-iest” part of your personality into your writing. He also discusses how common writer’s block is, and as crazy as it sounds, “if you feel like you just can’t write, don’t”. It’s important not to put crazy pressure on yourself to sit down and write the best essay ever in one sitting.

Nada Azem from Georgia Technical Institute says they are looking at both content and writing/grammatical skills, meaning it’s all the more important for international students to edit, edit, edit! Azem says that the essay is one of the biggest ways they learn more about individual students and also more about how that student would benefit the university. Check out this video to see more tips from a Georgia Tech admissions expert!

So there you have some advice from a few industry experts. These admissions representatives read hundreds if not thousands of essays each year. Overwhelmingly they seem to agree that the essay is the best way for students to show their personality. Maybe it’s nothing that seems super exciting or different, maybe it seems mundane, or maybe it’s even a topic that’s been written about thousands of times before. The point is that it’s how you tell it that matters. And it’s important not to discredit the essay part of your applications. Sometimes, the essay is the only thing that distinguishes you from thousands of other applicants with similar grades or test scores.

Good luck writing those essays and feel free to comment questions you have during the process!

The Savvy International

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