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5 Tips To Writing The "Undeniable" College Essay (2020-2021)

Updated: Dec 27, 2020

Who am I to be writing about college apps? Hi, my name is Troup Wood, and I'm a professional college consultant. I have conducted workshops in over 10 major cities and helped hundreds of students get accepted to universities ranging from the UCs to the Ivies. You can watch my "welcome video" on my homepage to get to know me better.

I formerly volunteered as an admissions interviewer for Dartmouth College and got to see which specific traits set certain students above the competition, even if they had poor SAT scores. Often, it came down to something called their "personal score" -- in other words, who they are as human beings. The college essay is a critical part of that score.

As a Hollywood screenwriter, I specialize in helping students find their creative voice in their college essays. This blog post is a quick refresher on what makes a good essay. When you're ready for a deep dive into your writing, let me know!

Let's jump into the list...

1. Show the Admissions Office who you are. This is not a place to rehash your resume. It's your place to tell the Admission Department something true about yourself that can't be found in your resume or test scores, which they have already read.

Think of college as a dinner party... The "party planners" want people there who represent all sorts of diverse interests--poets, scientists, jugglers, what-have-you. But, all these people need to have some critical traits in common... They must be driven, passionate, positive, good-hearted, responsible people.

It's hard to tell those traits from a GPA or the fact that you're the treasurer of the chess club. For all they know, your parents made you join that club. Admissions Officers need your essay to see how you think and express yourself. To see how your brain works when you're faced with a setback. Or to see what really matters to you.

So, use this essay to tell the Admissions Office that you're one of those people who deserve an invite to the party! What are the core traits and values that make you who you are? How did you become that way? What have you done or accomplished with those values thus far in your life?

I have some great exercises that will help you come up with a list of these qualities you want to put into your essay, and which activities you've done that demonstrate those qualities. And this brings me to my next point...

2. *SHOW* the Admissions Office who you are. Remember "show, don't tell?" It means, don't tell us the moral of the story; simply show us how you changed as a person through an experience by giving us examples. Show a time when you discovered what mattered to you in life. If you tell us what you did differently -- or what you did in response to a challenge -- then we (smart readers) will come to our own realization that you learned a lesson or grew as a person. Or we'll see that you're a responsible/kind/dedicated young person thanks to your summer in Africa.

3. Don't write about your summer in Africa. We've had enough of the "savior" cliché, in which you helped the poor and learned some cliché lesson from it. That's the essay you think you should write. It's what you think they want to hear. And it's not authentic to who you really are.

Be AUTHENTIC and ORIGINAL. Tell the story only you can tell. Say something deeply personal and brave. That means brainstorming, like, 50 ideas. Ugh, I know. But trust me, it's better to put in the hard work now, rather than write a superficial essay and have to perform major surgery on it later.

4. Don't be a jerk. I was talking to an admissions officer from a Top-10 school who read me an essay from a top-level applicant. This essay lost him his admission.

Why? He mentioned how he used to be a bully, but came around. His language was aggressive in the beginning to illustrate his point. Even though the essay was well-written and he redeemed his former "bully" self by the end, it left a bad taste in your mouth. He just didn't seem like the kind of person this admission officer wanted at her school, even if he's reformed.

So... remember you're asking to be let into a "dinner party" when you're applying to college--it's not the time to confess to past sins. Save that for your priest or therapist.

5. Write well. I'm not just talking about checking for spelling issues and taking "Harvard" out of your Princeton essay. I mean--use figurative language, descriptions involving the 5 senses when appropriate, metaphor, etc... Read a chapter of your favorite literature before polishing your essay and make sure it's an engaging read (here's an example with Hemingway!) But don't overdo it. Nothing's worse than the rotting stench of overwrought, gaudy, magniloquent, and verbose prose imposing its garish self on the page. (See what I did there?)

Lastly, and most importantly, make sure it's your voice in the essay. It's okay to be funny, blunt, sassy, or bold. As long as you're being real. I've had many students ask for help on essays that they wrote but later hated since the words don't reflect their personality. If you put on a dinner party, wouldn't you want to invite people with personalities?

Should I write about COVID-19?

That depends. If Covid has truly made an impact on your world view and who you are, perhaps it's worth it. Many others will be writing Covid essays, and you want to make sure you stand out. Usually, speaking to something from your life that is unique to you is a good bet. But, let's talk about your options! This is a tough question to answer for everybody. Also, keep in mind that some schools give you a special place to write an extra blurb about Covid, apart from your regular essay.


There's more I want to say. I want to talk about how to tailor your application to the specific university you're applying to. How to show that you fit in with the school's culture. How to write supplemental essays. But nobody would read this post if it were longer, so stay tuned!

Want a FREE counseling consultation? Let's talk today! It will take 30 seconds to reach out to me, and it might make all the difference for your application:

*If you want more info on any of this or personalized advice, call/email me, and I'll happily chat about what you're working on. Or if you're in Los Angeles or the San Fernando Valley, hit me up--let's grab a coffee and go over your essay together - (During Covid-19, we can socially distance and talk about your essay!)


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