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How to write the perfect college essay

Here are some tips and tricks to write a flawless college essay.

Applying to college can be a challenging obstacle. One of the main barriers to higher education is wealth. Those wealthier than others can give their child every advantage to attending top universities because they can afford to pay for SAT/ACT tutors and college counselors are professionals with experience writing college essays.

I am just a college student but I do know some tricks of the trade. When I was in high school, I was fortunate enough to have a helpful college counselor. However, when I transferred from a state school to USC I did everything on my own. I hope I can level the playing field by providing a few simple tips and tricks on writing a flawless college essay. 

For every prompt thrown your way, take a second to dissect the question. 

Let’s use “What is a hardship you’ve overcome?” as an example. 

I’d think of the first thing that comes to mind when I think of hardship. College admissions essays can often feel like a trauma competition, but it doesn’t have to be. True, you shouldn’t be afraid to get personal but also don’t write anything that is overly concerning. 

For me, the first thought that comes to mind with hardship is my dyslexia. I’d then try to come up with a few concrete ideas of how dyslexia has affected my life in a specific way. 

  1. Difficulty keeping up in my classes.
  2. Feeling slow or behind other kids.
  3. Struggling with simple tasks my peers seemed to breeze through.

Next, try to make sure it doesn’t sound like a pity party. It’s important to discuss how these make you an asset to the school. 

  1. Even though I had difficulty in my classes I still held my own and spent extra time making sure I knew the material.
  2. I learned that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses and needing extra time isn’t a flaw. 
  3. I am in the unique position to understand that everyone learns at a different pace and that is why I really enjoy mentoring younger students.

Every negative can be turned into a learning opportunity and colleges want to see how you adapt to change. 

Now, it’s time to make it about them. If you have the time and passion, I would suggest writing a different Common App essay for each school. When I reapplied to USC, I made sure that my essay was specific to how USC could benefit me. 

Here is another place to get hyper-specific. Mention courses offered and discuss how these classes can help you achieve your long term goals. Course catalogs are accessible from simple internet searches. 

Here is an excerpt from my transfer essay to USC: 

“I attended Transfer Day on October 20th, 2017 and fell in love with USC. When I walked into the Annenberg School of Communications I felt an immediate sense of belonging. I took my time to stare in awe of the constant news updates on the media wall. I began to explore the course catalog and found that Annenberg has an incredible array of courses that will help me achieve my goal of becoming a talent agent. COMM 363 Media Consumption would enable me to learn how to manage a client so they are perceived positively by the mass media market.“

Close your main essay with another personal anecdote. If it has been your dream school for as long as you can remember, say that. If there is something only this college can offer you, remind them that. However, while you are telling all of these universities how great they are, never forget how great you are.

You are also a hot commodity and don’t be afraid to flaunt. Think about all of the hard work you’ve put in and share it. The reason you worked so diligently is to get into college, so please brag about it. Brag in a way that shows your grace and class. 

  1. Volunteering at my local elementary school every weekend brightens my life. 
  2. Spending 30 hours a week in the dance studio has taught me the discipline that I hope to continue during my time at [insert school here].

Applying to college is scary and stressful. You’re being vulnerable to a nameless faceless admissions officer, but that might be one of the biggest plus sides. It’s not exactly like writing something that is going to go into the ether but I know that is what made me less afraid to share my feelings and thoughts. Bragging is something that has always made me uncomfortable, but the idea that I may never meet the person who is going to be reading this application allowed me to step back from my social anxiety. 

Although it is just a few essays, do not be afraid to be yourself. First and foremost, colleges want students. It’s vital that you remind them why you are a value add to their university and how only that university can help you achieve your dreams.


Sophia Ungaro
Sophia Rose Ungaro is Culturas resident writing intern. Ungaro hails from San Pedro, California. Growing up with a Navajo/Meztizo mother and a Sicilian father has given Ungaro a unique perspective on the world. In 2021 Ungaro will graduate from the University of Southern California with a B.A. in Journalism. Her beats are race, pop culture, and entertainment.
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