5 Things Colleges Look for in a College Essay

How To Write A college Application Essay

5 Things Colleges Look for in a College Essay

Published May 3, 2020 | Last Updated March 27th, 2024 at 01:03 pm

How To Write A college Application Essay

Think of the college application process as a video game, and the dreaded college essay is the dragon that needs to be slayed. 

Most essays are typical and, frankly, boring. Students have no clue what to write that will wow admissions staff and faculty members from hundreds of other essays they will read. 

But the personal essay doesn’t have to be that terrifying a beast if your student holds the keys to writing one that will stand out from all of the rest. 

Most colleges and universities look for five traits in a student essay.

Once a student picks one or two of these to focus on in their essay, they are on the writing path to a stellar essay that describes exactly who they are and why they would be an asset to a college.

How to Write a College Essay

Here are 5 essential traits of a compelling college essay. Your essay doesn’t need to have all 5, but college admissions officers look for at least one of these traits or possibly two.

1. Drive

Think self-motivation. Sure, any student can list achievements, but that’s not what the admissions gurus are looking for in an essay.

They want to read about the down times when a student has failed. Yes, really. 

Is there a time when a student has struggled, only to reboot, conquer, and win the situation? That student has initiative and courage.

When times get hard, a student can pick themselves up and carry on while learning invaluable life lessons. A student should show what they learned from that experience and how it made them the person that they are today.

For example, a student’s story could even focus on athletics, which isn’t usually a recommended essay topic unless an athlete went through transformation.

One football player was placed in a position he didn’t want. He knew he wasn’t good enough to play the position he wanted. What did he do?

He spent the summer studying videos, learning the position and practicing skills. Ultimately, he got the position.

With his hard work, he could show drive and personal growth in an essay.

2. Intellectual curiosity

Does a student like to learn independently away from the classroom?

Is your student always watching YouTube videos in their free time or hanging out after school asking the teacher tons of questions?

Has your child always conquered homework without having to be pushed?

Maybe your student is fascinated with a topic, talks endlessly about it, and has a solution to a problem that he/she wants to achieve while in college like a public transportation problem. Yes, that’s intellectual curiosity.

3. Initiative

A student with initiative does not accept the status quo.

This student may have an entrepreneurial spirit, starting a business, new organization, or event at school like a slam poetry night or an IT group.

If they join an existing group, they may think: How can I make this group better and stronger?

A student should consider this question: If I was not in this organization, how would it be different?

The student should seriously think about the impact they had while writing their essay. 

A student was involved in Quiz bowl, and she tried various ways to improve her team’s ability to win.

Her methods worked, and she began tutoring other students about Quiz bowl.

Her efforts had a quantifiable impact on her team, which could be summarized in a few words in an essay. 

4. Contribution

Has a student made a contribution that has improved their community, their peers’ lives, school, or an organization?

If students are focusing on this topic, they should discuss not just their contributions but how they impacted the people they helped.

If a student spent many hours during high school feeding the homeless, they made a contribution to their community for the better.

Did they friend a homeless person and help them get assistance?

That student shouldn’t simply say they helped the homeless.

They should tell about an interaction or experience they had while they were giving something back to their community that says why a college would want them on their campus.

5. Diversity of experiences

All students have various life experiences and ways of looking at the world.

How can these experiences add to campus life and the student body?

Maybe a student spent a summer interning with an award-winning artist or on a political campaign. 

Another example?

A student was bullied because of their gender identity. That student could discuss some anecdotes that helped them grow. They could attend a college and assist with gender issues.

If a student comes from an ethnic background, they could write about their heritage and how that has transformed them into the person they are today.

A simple family tradition – making tortillas from a centuries old recipes – could be just the hook a college is waiting to read.

A student doesn’t have to hit all of these traits in an essay. Two or three will work.

Every student has an unparalleled story that should showcase their shining personality and unique interests.

Students should remember to tell a story, and not merely recite a resume.

Be authentic and honest, not fake and obnoxious.

That truthfulness will likely woo college admissions staff and faculty.

Getting Help on How to Write a College Application Essay

We have found that the #1 reason for essay procrastination is that students don’t feel confident in getting started – i.e. they aren’t sure what to write about and how to structure it.

The best way to get started is to help the student decide what to write about in an essay. 

Our partner Prompt does this and more and offers several options that will meet all of your student’s essay writing needs.

We have found that students write better college essays in less time with feedback and editing from someone who is experienced in offering guidance.

Do not fear the college essay!

Yes, it’s an endeavor but one that can be conquered with proper planning and help.


Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

Other Articles You Might Like: 

A Community Member Shares HBCU Scholarship and College Application Tips

Need College Admissions Help? Stay Sane with These Tips & Tricks

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