Example essay

How to Write Your Best College Application Essay: NewsCenter

September 28, 2021

(University of Rochester / Illustrations by Julia Joshpe)


The Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Rochester offers college applicants dos and don’ts of writing the personal statement.

By Robert Alexander, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, Financial Aid and Enrollment Management for Arts, Science and Engineering, University of Rochester.

Many universities require applicants to include a college application essay (usually a personal statement or similar essay) with their application materials. With more students apply at selective colleges than ever before, and with many of these colleges placing less emphasis on standardized test scores, the admissions test can be a crucial part of a candidate’s record.

We made this shift away from testing at the University of Rochester. As a selective private research university offering programs in liberal arts, science and engineering, the undergraduate college draws on a global pool of high performing students. Since nearly all of these applicants are at or near the top of their class, we use a holistic approach to select those who have a strong ethical character and who align with our institutional values. So, as a candidate, how can you stand out?

One of the most important ways is to go through your college application essay.

Many students may dread this part of the process. Yet with the right attitude and the right strategy, you can write an essay that will improve your application for admission. A good college application essay won’t overcome a student’s poor grades at the bottom of a school’s candidate pool, but it can help a qualified candidate stand out from the crowd.

Pencil drawing graduation hat to illustrate choice of college application essay topic.

Bring up the subject of the university essay

The traditional college application essay typically requires an open personal statement in response to general or general prompts that might make you share a story, reflect on an event, or discuss a topic. Common Application, College Application Coalition, and other online application forms usually have a set of options for you to choose from.

Of course, some colleges and universities require that you answer a specific prompt or question. In that case, you want to make sure you answer that prompt or question clearly and directly.

Whether the guidelines are open or specific, the topic itself is less important than how you express yourself.

Most importantly: don’t write an admissions essay about something that you think is impressive or that you think the admissions officer wants to read. While it’s good to look at sample college application essays, don’t just emulate one. Write about something that is really important to you.

Width versus depth?

  • Dig deeper into an aspect of your subject instead of trying to cover many aspects superficially in your college essay. Be brief by explaining who, what and where; leave plenty of room for Why and How? ‘Or’ What.

For example: If you are writing about a trip that changed your life, don’t spend six paragraphs about where you traveled, how long it took you to get there, and the weather. We want to know why you went and why the experience was meaningful. How are you different now because of this?

Details bring your application essay to life

  • Be specific. It’s the details, rather than general statements, that bring your essay, and therefore you, to life for an admissions officer who reads hundreds of personal statements.

For example: If you write about how much you enjoyed playing your sport in high school, tell a story about a winning game (or devastating loss), how you felt and what you learned.

Pencil with the text

Writing a University Application Essay: Dos and Don’ts

Here are some guidelines for writing a college application essay that effectively expresses who you are while helping you stand out from the thousands of other applicants.

To do :

  • Present yourself in a dimension that goes beyond ratings, recommendations and test results. Think about the things that built your character, perhaps a special relationship in your life, your most meaningful extracurricular activity, or a class or idea that changed the way you think. We want to know what motivates you, how you might fit into our community and how your distinctive qualities and experiences would contribute to our interesting and vibrant campus.
  • Make sure your essay reflects you. Ask yourself: am I the only person who could have written this essay? Or could everyone in my senior class have written it?
  • Tell a story about yourself with a beginning, middle and end. Hook the reader up with a compelling opening paragraph: surprise us, teach us something we didn’t know, or share something vulnerable and make us curious to read more. End with a clear ending that links back to your introduction or provides a compelling conclusion to your story.
  • Have someone proofread your essay or give their opinion, but make sure your essay is written in your own voice and style. It won’t serve you well for someone else to write your essay for you!
  • Respect the required or suggested time. Usually it is around 650 words. This shows that you can follow the instructions. Plus, good writers can stick to a word limit while getting their point across.
  • Pay attention to formatting. If you write your essay in word processing software (like Microsoft Word or Google Docs) to use spell checking or other features, be sure to proofread it after you copy and paste it into the app. herself. Some of the original formatting may be lost because different combinations of word processors and web browsers can cause errors. Double check before clicking “submit”!

And a few don’ts:

  • Avoid writing about anything fake, fake, or outrageous.
      • Humor and creativity can work, as long as you don’t push them to extremes. Remember: you don’t know your reader’s sense of humor, and it might not be the same as yours.
      • Don’t be controversial or sensational for itself; but there is nothing wrong with taking a risk if you share a unique point of view or a particularly strong conviction that is dear to you.
      • You are not writing a legal brief for the Supreme Court or trying to sway the public on your side of an argument. Instead, you try to share something of yourself with the admissions committee.
  • Avoid using words that are not part of your usual vocabulary. Again, be yourself.
  • Do not repeat information available in other parts of your application, unless you were using your college admission essay to develop an academic activity or opportunity that was particularly important to you.
  • Avoid regurgitating your CV or write about the story of your whole life. There’s no point in listing all the awards and semesters you’ve given on the Honor Roll, but share how you felt when a beloved yet demanding English teacher said you were her best student. has more potential.

Ultimately, your college application essay is a chance to tell the admissions committee who you are and what is important to you. We want to know: What are your values?

At the University of Rochester, for example, we have a motto: Meliora, which means “always better”. So it stands to reason that when we read a candidacy essay we want to know: how are you going to make yourself better, or improve your community or the world?

Tell us your story. This might be your best chance for success as an individual, so make the most of it!


About Robert Alexandre

Robert Alexander, dean of undergraduate admissions, financial aid and enrollment management for the arts, sciences and engineering at the University of Rochester, has over 22 years of experience in the management of enrollments in higher education. He joined Rochester in June 2020 and previously held leadership positions in admissions, enrollment and communications at Millsaps College, University of the Pacific and Tulane University.


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Key words: college admission, star-post-side, Robert Alexander, thought leadership

Category: Highlighted


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