Applying to college Early Action or Early Decision? Here is advice about how to write outstanding common application essays.

  • Answer the question up front.

If the reader has to wonder which question you are answering, you aren’t framing your response well enough. In the first paragraph, ideally in the first line, please clarify your topic. Literally say something like “I am most content when volunteering at the local animal shelter, because I feel like I am using my skills and making a difference.”

  • Don’t think that you need a dramatic example.

Most applicants haven’t rescued a baby from a burning building, founded a non-profit or won an Olympic medal. The strongest essays are honest, reflective, responsive to the prompt and revelatory about what really matters to you. Some of the best essays that I have read are about the little things – tutoring your brother, an after-school job, a favorite book, radio show or hobby.

  • Don’t recycle an essay that you wrote for something else.

Although this may be tempting, it almost always backfires, leading to a response that isn’t quite on point. Admissions officers are also pretty adept at spotting essays that are recycled, and you don’t want them to penalize you for failing to put in the requisite effort.

  • Don’t try to sound like an adult.

This advice applies to your entire application process, but is particularly relevant here. As a high school senior, you aren’t supposed to have an adult perspective or voice. It’s extremely important for the schools to hear how you think about the world, in your own words.

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Karen Marks

Karen has more than 12 years of experience evaluating candidates for admission to Dartmouth College and to the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. Since founding North Star Admissions Consulting in 2012, she has helped applicants gain admission to the nation’s top schools, including Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Wharton, MIT, Tuck, Columbia, Kellogg, Booth, Haas, Duke, Johnson, Ross, NYU, UNC, UCLA, Georgetown and more. Clients have been awarded more than 20 million dollars in scholarships, and more than 97% have gotten into one of their top choice schools.