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What Works For Successful College Essays?

This article is more than 7 years old.

It's getting more competitive to get into top schools, and a new company called AdmitSee has compiled data on successful college application essays to help guide students.

It has found that different colleges favor certain words and topics. For example, Harvard seems to prefer students who write about personal challenges, while Brown appears to favor students who write about volunteer work. College students get paid to share their successful essays on AdmitSee, and applicants pay to access those essays.

Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson speaks with Lisa Micele, the director of college counseling at the University of Illinois Laboratory High School, in Urbana, Illinois, about how this might affect the way applicants craft their college essays.

College Essay Tips From Lisa Micele

  1. Be engaged in the process. When you take the time to do some self-reflection you will actually have FUN with the process because you will be sharing the stories that you genuinely love to talk about. Don’t be afraid to reveal significant moments in your life. The admissions office wants to know who you are, how you think.
  2. The essay should reflect your authentic self -- your personal voice. (Read it aloud when you have your first draft or have someone read it to you. Does it sound like you?)
  3. The admissions office is selecting new freshmen each year to add to their community. They are looking for the “likeability” factor in your essay. They want to craft an incoming class of interesting people. (That is why it is so important to be yourself and not the manufactured person you may believe the college is looking for.)
  4. Your essay should be conversational in nature. It should be interesting. It should be fun to read and compel the reader to KEEP reading. (And, by the way, if you think you are not interesting, you are wrong! Find your personal stories -- own them -- and enjoy sharing them to reveal personal and compelling things about you. The details of your story will make it your own. )
  5. Remember that the essay is also showcasing your writing abilities. Do you convey your thoughts clearly? Do you avoid vague generalizations? Your job is to illustrate the qualities you possess with anecdotal examples. Remember to “show not tell.” (You have probably heard this from your English teachers; follow this advice.)
  6. You can’t bypass doing the hard work. Essays do take time. Be patient and give yourself enough time to work on multiple drafts and to proofread closely. Share it with one or two people for feedback.
  7. Write thoughtfully and from your heart. You can do this!


  • Lisa Micele, the director of college counseling at the University of Illinois Laboratory High School. She tweets @LisaMicele.

This segment aired on August 11, 2015.


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