College Essay, Tips & Advice

by Ethan Sawyer from College Essay Guy

First of all, what is the job of your college application?

To demonstrate a variety of amazing things about you: strengths, passions and anything else that shows you’d be a fantastic and valuable contribution to any college campus.

So how do you make sure your app is doing its job?

Begin by doing your job. And what’s your job? First:

1. Make a list of Everything You Want Colleges to Know About You

Here’s how to do that. In short, create a list of core qualities, essential values, interesting fun facts, brilliant achievements, important lessons, etc. Examples:

  • I’ll be the first in my family to attend college.
  • I speak four languages.
  • Family is super duper important to me.
  • I love running cross-country more than anything in the world; it’s the only time I feel truly at peace.
  • I’ve been to 29 countries.
  • I’m secretly the funniest person in the world. (Only one other person knows it.)

We’ll call these your “gems.”

See? There are gems in your head. Reach in.

See? There are gems in your head. Reach in.

Once you have your list of gems:

2. Ask yourself:

a. Which of my gems are clearly demonstrated in my application?
b. Which of my gems are kinda’ there but not in a super clear way, and could be made clearer?
c. Which gems aren’t there yet, but really should be?

3. Then:

a. Applaud yourself for getting some great gems in there. (Yay!)
b. Clarify the gems that aren’t clear yet. (Polish them.)
c. Find creative ways to work in your additional “gems.” (Tip: don’t get desperate. It’s obvious if you’re bragging. How do you avoid seeming like you’re bragging? Quick answer: put your brag in context of the hard work you did to earn the accolade. The On Debate essay does a good job of hiding a brag by putting an international award in a larger context.)

Sound like fun? It can be. Try doing it with a friend. Turn it into a game.

Sound hard? It can be that too. But you can do it. Remember:

Listen to Boromir: He's High Warden of the White Tower. #LOTR4EVA

Listen to Boromir: He’s High Warden of the White Tower. #LOTR4EVA

Need help? Do this

Paste your “Everything I Want Colleges to Know About Me” list and your application (including your main statement, supplements, activities and awards lists) into a Google doc and share it with someone you trust.

Tell that person you’re trying to figure out if everything on your “Everything I Want Colleges to Know About Me” list (aka your list of “gems”) is reflected in your application.

Tell them you’re looking specifically for them to help you figure out these three things:

1. Which of my gems are really clear in the application?
2. Which of my gems are there but not quite clear yet, and could be made clearer?
3. Which are not there yet, but could or should be?

(Yeah, you can even copy and paste those questions.)

Want an example of an application that does its job?

Click here

About the Author

Ethan Sawyer has been helping students tell their stories for more than ten years and is the author of the forthcoming College Essay Essentials: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Successful College Admission Essay. He has reached thousands of students and counselors through his webinars and workshops and has become a nationally recognized college essay expert and sought-after speaker. He is a graduate of Northwestern University and received an MFA from UC–Irvine.

He was raised as a missionary kid in Spain, Ecuador, and Colombia and studied at seventeen different schools. He’s worked as a teacher, curriculum writer, voice actor, grant writer, theater director, motivational speaker, community organizer, and truck driver (true story). Sawyer is also a certified Myers-Briggs® specialist.

He is an active member of the Western Association of College Admissions Counselors (WACAC) and the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC). He lives with his wife and daughter in Los Angeles. For more information, visit