7 great college essay writing tips from ex-Stanford admissions officer

At its core, Irena Smith’s job as an independent college counselor means being a writing coach. With a PhD in comparative literature, the former Stanford admissions officer helps her teenage clients pen the all-important essays they’ll submit with their college applications.

Certainly, the essays should be well-written and, no, they shouldn’t be the product of ChatGPT. The essays primarily should tell a good story about who the student is as a person — their personality, passions, values, unique life experiences — as Smith writes in her book, “The Golden Ticket.”

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Often, writing a good story means means abandoning the idea that a convincing personal statement should brim with self-promotion. A student can tell a more engaging narrative about failure or about the most vulnerable time in their life, Smith said. They could also write about situation that seems minor but that illustrates an important point about their interests or motivations.

When coaching her clients, Smith asks them to “mine the minutiae of their experiences, to be specific and honest and self-aware.” That minutiae, she says, forms “the texture and weave” of a narrative that could potentially compel an admissions officer to see the student as an interesting human being who would make a great addition to the school’s next freshman class. Here is other advice from Smith for penning a good college essay:

  • “Failure can make a great topic for a college essay,” Smith said. “It’s much more interesting than success. No one wants to read a smug essay about you scoring a 3-point shot or winning the debate tournament.” On the other hand, Smith said it could be interesting to read how the student athlete suffered a career-ending ACL  injury and learned to adjust to watching from the sidelines, or how a star debater stumbled in a key moment and had to overcome that embarrassment.
  • Think twice about writing an essay about that service trip you took to a developing country and made “meaningful eye contact with an emaciated child on the street,” Smith said. Readers of applications usually aren’t moved by essays from privileged American teens reflecting on poor people leading “simple, pure lives.” 
  • Don’t be afraid to write about personal struggles — contrary to the belief that certain issues should be kept private. Smith recalls a student who was told that writing about her eating disorder would lead to an automatic no from her dream college. But her first draft, about volunteering at an eating disorders clinic, “fell flat” because it left out what motivated her to get involved in the first place, Smith said. In a more authentic and powerful revision, the girl wrote that understanding her mental health challenges was key to her recovery. Smith also coached a transgender student into connecting the risk-taking inherent in entrepreneurship with the risks he took in identifying as male. The essay also allowed the student to explain why his grades dropped during his sophomore year of high school; that was the year he had gender affirmation surgery. 
  • Write about the small moments that lead to bigger conclusions. Smith recalls a community college student who wrote a fun essay about how unclogging a toilet during a Parks and Recreation job inspired an epiphany, laced with a quote from Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” during which he realized he wanted to start taking school seriously. 
  • Avoid using Silicon Valley-esque style buzzwords to describe yourself. Students may think colleges want to hear they have “leadership” qualities, or showed “responsibility” or worked at the “cutting edge” during their summer internship. But Smith said those words are abstractions that don’t necessarily say much, adding that the word “thought leader makes we want to stab my eyes out.”
  • Use the essay-writing process to learn about family history – parents, grandparents and other relatives – even if you don’t end up writing about them. “I think it’s helpful for students to reflect on how the people closet to them shaped them,” Smith said.
  • Read drafts out loud: “It’s amazing how far that goes, both toward helping students catch awkward constructions and toward ensuring that the essay actually sounds like the student,” Smith said. 

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