Stanford ex-admit officer dishes: the dos and don’ts of college essays

October 13, 2006 at 12:01 am Leave a comment

Posted by Helen

One of the great things about living in the Silicon Valley is that one of the world’s greatest universities, Stanford, is right next door. The seniors at our school got the chance to hear Holly Thompson, a former admissions officer at Stanford, as well as Harvard, give a presentation on the dos and don’ts of college essays. She’s read thousands of essays over her 34 years of AdComm experience, and here’s the gist of what she had to say Wednesday night:

While there is admittedly no formula to writing the perfect essay and no basic criteria for a “good” essay, there are some specific things you can do (or not do!) to make your essay sparkle.


1. Make sure your essay tells one specific story. Great essays may be on a broader topic, but really hone in on one specific idea or event.
2. Write a story that only you could write. Admissions readers will be reading often 100 applications per day, and after a while many essays will start to sound exactly the same. Make sure your essay is a unique story, or is told in a unique way.
3. Use your voice. Although using “big” words may sound impressive, if it is not your style the readers will be able to see right through bombastic language. Your personality and mannerisms should be made evident in your essay.
4. Create an essay that is pleasurable to read. Putting a smile on the readers face is a winning situation for everybody!
5. Show thought. Simply telling a story isn’t enough, make sure you analyze and explain why it was important and/or meaningful to you. Make sure that your story does in fact have a point to it.
6. Be precise. Use detailed examples generously to truly breathe life into your essay.
7. Get advice from friends, family, and teachers. Be sure to ask them if they feel the essay represents you, and is interesting and unique.


1. Whine. Although it seems obvious, make sure you avoid using an off-putting tone in your essay. This will only send a negative message to the reader about your personality.
2. Answer a different question. Your essay shouldn’t be a manipulation of the question so that it fits what you would like to talk about, but rather a thoughtful answer to the topic given.
3. Gratuitously include resume stuffers. The reader is fully capable of looking at your list of extracurriculars, so do not feel the need to repeat any of that information.
4. Be esoteric. The reader doesn’t want to have to decode your essay or analyze for hidden meanings.
5. Make careless spelling and grammar mistakes. It really looks bad, and distracts the reader when in the middle of a powerful sentence you say “less” instead of “fewer.”


Entry filed under: Academics, Admissions, California, College trends, English, Essays, Extracurricular activities, Grammar, Harvard, High school, Ivy league, Punctuation, Reading, Resumes, Spelling, Stanford, Teacher, Tips/Tricks, Vocabulary, Writing.

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