What Makes a Great College Essay?

By Annie Moran, B.S., M.S.S.E., M.S.

“It sounds odd to say, but a cow saved my life.” Got your attention? I thought so.  These are the opening words of a college essay that one of my students composed. Regardless of where the story went from there, I was compelled to read the entire tale. If the same student had started with, “One of the best experiences in my life has been taking care of farm animals,” would you be as interested in the story they were about to tell? Probably not. That’s one of the differences between a college essay that describes one’s traits and life events and one that invites you inside their world to experience it.  

A great college essay is written from the heart and is based on what is of the utmost importance to you. While many of us experience similar life events, a great essay takes examining those qualities and principles to uncover our real stories. Only then can you make them uniquely your own.  

Discovering and Sharing your Values

Start by prioritizing your top 10 values. Take an online values assessment if that will help. Then narrow those down to your top 5, then 3, then 1. What you value, such as compassion or integrity, is also what you aspire to and how you express your character. You may write your essay in a way that illustrates your top three, but it should have, at the very least, your top value as a running theme. Then, think about how you have developed, experienced, and expressed those one or three values in your life. This is the story you unfold in your essay.  

Purpose of the Essay

The purpose of the college essay is for college admissions officers to really get to know who you are. They don’t want to just know a laundry list of things you’ve done, but who you are and what you’ll be bringing to your college experience. 

What you value most, your strong character traits, and the experiences that have shaped you into who you are should be the foundation of your essay. With these at the heart of your writing, the reader will hear your voice coming through. And that’s the method through which you show them just how that cow saved your life! 

If you’d like help in crafting your college essay, Fusion Academy has Post-Secondary Counselors like me who can walk through the process with you. Learn more here 

About the Author

Southwest Regional College and Post Secondary Counselor

Annie’s interest in all things scientific began at an early age. She grew up in rural farming areas in Iowa and developed a love of gardening and fascination with nature. Always inquisitive about how things worked, she would also find herself sitting on her dad’s workbench “helping” him build such things as a colored TV from a mail-order kit and an RV that she, her parents and older sister vacationed in. Raised in a musical family, she started her own musical journey in grade school, studying organ, flute and cello. All this led to Annie following her interests to the University of Oklahoma where she played in both the band and orchestra and received her Bachelors of Science degree in Science Education. She spent the next 23 years in Richardson ISD as a Biology, Earth, and Physical Science and AVID teacher, curriculum writer, mentor, instructional specialist, and AVID coordinator and trainer. After earning her Masters of Science degree in School Counseling, Annie has since served as a high school counselor for the past 16 years.

Annie is at her best when helping other people find their balance and realize their goals. When not at school, she loves to cook, do crossword puzzles, work on her fixer-upper home, and spend time with her husband David, her son Brennan, and the family’s four rescued fur babies, Tripper, Mimzy, Roo, and Firefly.

Words to live by: Above all, be kind. For everyone you meet is facing some kind of struggle that, by a simple act of compassion, you may provide the spark to diminish.