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Five Ways to Write a Winning College Essay

Essay writing workshopMarin Mommies presents a guest post by Lindsey Johnson, director and writing specialist at Sage Educators.

Sage Educators is a Marin-based customized tutoring and test-prep center, with offices located in both Mill Valley and Larkspur.

It’s time to start submitting college applications! The University of California system accepts applications from November 1–30, and early application deadlines at many private colleges have been set as early as November 1. Now is the time when many high school seniors are writing—and rewriting—those dreaded college application essays.

Still working to craft your winning college essay? Here’s what I tell my students:

  1. Be vulnerable.
    The college essay is not the proper forum for your list of dazzling accomplishments. (That is what the rest of the application is for.) Rather, the essay is the place to show your true self. When were you scared, anxious, or lost? When were you hurt? When did you fail, and how did you recover? The point of the essay is to tell admissions officers what kind of a person you are, not what you’ve done.
  2. Be real.
    Choose a topic that actually matters to you—no matter unimportant it may seem to others. As your parents and educators, we can attempt to choose a topic for your essay, and we may even be able to convince you to write a halfhearted essay about said topic, but we will never convince the reader. I once worked with a student whose mom insisted she write about an older relative who had recently passed away. The essay was bland and unaffecting; I wondered why. After much prodding, the student admitted, “I didn’t really know him.” She then chose a different topic—one that was genuinely meaningful to her.
  3. Be weird.
    If the most important thing in your life is playing football, then it’s okay to write about playing football. If your most life-changing event was that service trip to Ecuador that a thousand other kids also took, then it’s okay to write about that service trip. However, in your essay you must tell us something unique about these very common experiences. For example, one of my past students wrote about how playing football had helped him to cope with bullying at school. Another wrote about injuring herself on a service trip, and why she’d decided to stick it out rather than go home early. Each of these essays was successful because it allowed the reader to view an ordinary experience through an extraordinary lens—and in doing so, revealed the interior life and personal character of its writer.
  4. Be clear.
    Write in simple, clear, and honest language. Aim to sound like an intelligent human teenager. Do not aim to sound like a professor or a professional brochure. There are two reasons I offer this advice. First, you will not succeed. Second, the language of professionals is often deliberately complex, designed to obfuscate rather than reveal. The point of the college essay is to reveal. Also, when you are almost done writing your essay, look back at the question. Be sure you have answered it.
  5. Be specific.
    This is the single most important piece of advice I have to give, whether for the college essay or any other piece of writing. Don’t write about why you love oil painting in general. Write about why you loved making one particular painting which you painted at one particular time. Tell us how you made it, how it looked, and what it meant to you. Tell us about mistakes you made along the way and explain how you overcame them. It is through specific details that universal truths are conveyed.

Lindsey Lee Johnson is a Director and Writing Specialist at Sage Educators, a customized tutoring and test-prep center with offices in Mill Valley and Larkspur. She holds a master's degree in writing from the University of Southern California, where she was also an instructional coordinator for the undergraduate Writing Program, and has taught writing at USC, Clark College, and Portland State University. As a Sage Educator, she focuses on AP and college essay writing. For more information, call (415) 388-7243 or visit