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College Essays, From the Editor’s Perspective

By Robert LeVine and Sarina Patel

When it comes to college essays, the most important concept is this: if the essay is dropped on the floor without the author’s name on it, and if someone picks it up and recognizes who wrote the essay, then you have a great essay.

But to get to that point, you need to know how to write a great college essay, and how not to write.

Every year, UCA (University Consultants of America) hires former students to assist with editing college essays. This allows us to get multiple sets of fresh eyes, but the greatest gift is to the new editor, who gets to see essays from the point of view of a reviewer rather than a writer. Among others, this year we brought in Sarina Patel, who is a published author and an excellent writer, to help with several outlines and drafts. The opportunity was eye-opening for Sarina. Here are some of her thoughts and tips:

“Write what you want, not what you “should.’ Despite what you may have heard, there is nothing you must write about. This is not an essay for a class. This essay is part of a presentation about you. If you don’t believe that there are no limits, re-read one of the essay prompts on the Common Application: ‘Share an essay on any topic of your choice.’ If you were an admissions reader, would you want to read 1,000 essays about the same topic? Of course not. Admissions is not about an essay; it’s about selecting a person. Just write about yourself.

“Do not be afraid to dream big and write small. Many of the best essays synthesize small moments in the student’s life to provide key insight into how the student acted and how their behavior will present in college.

“Flesh out your story. In reading your essay, admissions officers will take a trip back in time. As the narrator of your personal essay, you take them inside of the story. Just ask yourself: how would you normally tell people about your trip? Remember the five guiding questions that you were taught in grade school: who, what, when, where, and why. Answer those with as much detail as possible. Concrete imagery creates clarity.

“Do not edit as you write. Admittedly, I too was guilty of ‘writing’ until UCA set me straight. Think of drafting and editing as two separate actions, much like talking and eating. You wouldn’t talk while you eat, would you? Likewise, you cannot edit well if the document is not complete, and worse yet, editing can disrupt your writing flow, stripping your essay of an engaging and entertaining voice. Do not remove your personality from your personal statement. The takeaway: we can always do spell check, but we can’t get your voice if you don’t provide your voice. Editors are essay fixers, not fairy godmothers!

“Do not spend all day writing your essay. At UCA, students should spend no more than 30 minutes in the ‘flow,’ to avoid burnout. There is no award for ‘Most Time Spent Writing Your College Essay.’ Even if someone creates such an award, you should not try to achieve it. More time does not equate to a better essay. It just doesn’t work that way.

“Know when to step away from the screen. Once finished, close your laptop and mentally decompress. Go outside, listen to music, do something that brings you joy. Being in a good mood definitely equates to better writing.”

To be perfectly honest, Sarina Patel quite often told me how surprised she was that so many of our students are, at first, unable to write anything compelling (or even age-appropriate). There is a skill to college essay writing (and it’s not grammar). College essays are not like academic writing, or fiction, or poetry. They are “sales” pieces, designed to get you selected by admissions officers, people who are looking for people to become part of their campus communities. There are different structures for different kinds and different lengths of essays. Because this is not something that students have ever done before, do not feel sheepish about asking for help. Just be sure not to embrace the hype, hyperbole and hysteria you see online. Remember: admissions officers selects great applicants, not great essays.

Robert LeVine is the founder and CEO of University Consultants of America, an independent educational consultancy assisting students around the world with applications to colleges, universities and graduate schools. For more information, call University Consultants of America, Inc. at 1-800-465-5890 or visit

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