Student studying at Bucknell Writing Center

Tips for Writing a College Application Essay from Bucknell Admissions Counselors

June 22, 2020

by Matt Hughes

Photo by Emily Paine, Communications

For many high school seniors getting ready to apply to college, the college essay can be the most intimidating part of the process. You may be thinking: Shouldn't my grades and activities speak for themselves? How will I stand out among thousands of applicants? Is anyone even going to read this?


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At Bucknell, we can assure you that a real human being (at least two, actually) will review your entire application, including your essay, and that they (not computers) will decide if you get in. Since Bucknell doesn't include an interview as part of the admissions process, the college essay is your best chance to put your individual, unique stamp on your application.

We don't want it to be an intimidating process — rather, we want to get to know you, and your essay is the best opportunity to show us who you are. So to help, we're offering the following tips for writing your college essay.

Let's start to break down the process of writing your college essay into a few simple steps:

  • Start early, so you have time to think about, write, revise and proofread your essay.
  • Tell a good story — one that shows colleges something important about yourself.
  • Share it with others, especially those who know you well, but don't send it to too many people.
  • Revise and then proofread carefully.

Now, let's take a look at each of these steps in a bit greater detail.

Give Yourself Time

Even if you're the sort who thrives under pressure, the best time to think about your application essay isn't while you're sitting in front of a white screen, watching the cursor blink down the seconds until your application is due. The earlier you get started, the more time you'll have not only to craft a great essay, but also to think about what you really want to write about, and what will best help colleges get to know the real you.

As soon as you've narrowed down the list of schools where you want to apply, check the Coalition App or Common App essay prompts, and also check to see if there are any additional essays your schools require. You'll find these within the application itself, so create a profile and start the application right away. You can save your progress and come back any time. (Bucknell has one supplemental question: "Please explain your interest in your first-choice major/undecided status and your second-choice major, should you opt to list one." We also require the standard personal essay with either the Coalition App or Common App.)

As early as the summer before you're planning to apply, start mulling over how you might reply to these prompts. You might want to schedule some structured brainstorming time to get started, but you can also think it over whenever you have some time to yourself, like when you're at the gym or on a walk, or during your car or bus ride to school. Jot down any ideas you want to return to later in one place, whether that's a notebook, the notes app in your phone or somewhere else you can easily find them. When you start writing, do it in a word-processing program, not the application website itself, so you can revise, spellcheck, autosave your progress and come back later.

Be sure to leave yourself enough time to revise and proofread your essay (including running it by others) before you submit. Aim to write your first draft at least two weeks before you'll apply. If you plan to apply Early Decision I to a school, your application deadline could be as early as Nov. 1 (Bucknell's ED I deadline is in mid-November each year), so the earlier you get started, the better.

Tell a Good Story

Admissions counselors read hundreds or even thousands of application essays each year, most of them in the span of a few short weeks after their ED I, ED II and Regular Decision application deadlines. At Bucknell, we give every application the attention it deserves, which means your application and your essay will be reviewed by two different admissions counselors. They're real human beings who care about admitting the very best class for the University we love, and they want to get to know you. The best way to help us understand and remember who you are is to tell us a story that reveals your personality.

When you're choosing which essay prompt to respond to, consider the stories you can share in response to each. The one you choose to answer should be the one that gives you a chance to share the most interesting, revealing story.

As you're writing, keep the following in mind:

Make Sure It’s a Story About YOU

Rather than listing your accomplishments (we can already see those in other sections of your application) or telling us what you think we want to hear, choose a topic that you're truly passionate about. If you're bored by your topic, you'll leave your readers bored too (not good!). But if you write about something you really care about, your passion will shine through. So tell a story you'd tell to others, not just on a college essay. (And don't shy away from a topic you have strong feelings about because you feel it might be too "controversial.")

One word of caution: Maybe you want to tell a story about your relationship with your grandfather or something you learned from him. That can be the start of a great college essay, but remember that your grandfather isn't the person applying to college — you are. The same goes for the mission trip you went on or your athletics career. Rather than dwelling too much on the details of those experiences and the other characters in the story, show us how they shaped who you are today and how you think about the world. Remember, the whole point of the essay is to help us get to know you.

It should also go without saying that the story should be your own — not something you heard from a friend, and definitely not an essay you found on the internet.

Start Out Strong

Think about a memorable story a friend or family member told you, or a great book you read or movie you watched. It probably didn't start out with a thesis statement, did it? Your college essay shouldn't either. Rather than starting your essay by telling us what it's going to be about, think about how you're going to catch our attention, and pull us into your story.

Here are two examples from essays written by real Bucknell students:

I'm sure if I went back there today, I could reach out my arms and graze my fingertips on both sides. It was barely enough for a twin bed and a dresser, but plenty of room for a little kid with a carefree attitude.

One of the things I most enjoyed about my first three years of high school actually occurred each day before school. At 6:57 a.m., my mom and I embarked on our daily drive to the bus stop. We fine-tuned the logistics to a near science.

Do you want to know where these stories go next? Our admissions counselors did, too.

Show, Don’t Tell

From there, your essay should build toward the ultimate point you're trying to make about yourself. Make sure to include the details that lead toward that end, and don't be afraid to cut what doesn't. You only have a few hundred words to show us your personality — make every one count.

You've probably heard the expression, "show; don't tell." The details and descriptive language you include should show us who you are with anecdotes and examples, and bring us into your world with compelling descriptions of scenes and events in your life. And don't go overboard with the thesaurus — a good story in your own voice is worth way more than a fancy word.

Time to Share

Now that you've got an essay you're happy with, it's time to see what others think. Share it with a few people who you trust and who know you well. Maybe that's your parents or your high school guidance counselor, or maybe it's a trusted friend or favorite teacher. Ask them to read it over and tell you whether the point you're trying to make is clear, and whether it rings true to who you are.

You should ask for general feedback that you can use to revise your essay and make it stronger. But you shouldn't let your readers rewrite your essay for you, and you should resist sharing your essay with too many people. Remember, we're trying to get a sense of who you are, and an essay written by committee will dilute that personality or stop it from shining through. When you've revised, share it again, but resist going back and forth too many times.

Don’t Forget to Proofread

Once you're happy with what you've written, put it away until the next day, or ideally, a few days. Then, come back and proofread it, and share it with one or two more people — not to offer advice but to look for errors.

Before you paste your essay into the Common App or Coalition App, hit spell check, then read it one more time in the application window to make sure nothing was left out and there are no formatting problems.

Now congratulate yourself on getting over the hardest part of the college application process. By following these steps, you've done your best to help colleges see the real you, and decide whether you're a good fit for their institution.

If you'd like to learn more about applying to Bucknell, and whether you might be a good fit here, click here.

More Tips From Bucknell Admissions Counselors

Want to know more? Here are a few additional tips from a few of our admissions counselors — who've collectively read tens of thousands of college essays — about what makes an essay stand out.

The essay is where I like to feel the heartbeat of the student — what makes them tick. My favorite ones usually end with me thinking "I can't wait to meet them or see what they will do with the resources here at Bucknell." — Josh

You don't have to have an extraordinary life experience to write a good essay. Some of my favorite essays of all time have been about ordinary activities, like learning how to make pasta from a grandmother every Sunday. Remember, the ordinary or day to day things you do make you who you are. And that's who we're trying to get to know. — Kevin

We aren't often asked to write about ourselves in storytelling form, so the college essay can feel difficult. As you are writing, if you find yourself thinking, "this is what I'm supposed to say," then that's a good time to take a break. Come back to it when you are ready to write what you want to say! — Lauren

Try to view the college essay as an opportunity rather than a chore: an opportunity for you to reveal a bit of your personality and tell us something about you in our own words. Make sure your voice shines throughout so that the essay can help you go from being an applicant on paper to being an individual with a personality. — Candace

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