Essay Tips

Writing the college essay can be one of the more dreaded parts of the application process for students, but it shouldn't be! The essay is a great opportunity to showcase your personality and writing ability.

We are often asked questions about the role and purpose of the essay: “How much does it count?” “What should I write about?” and “How do I know if an experience is ‘significant’ or not? Although there is no single thing we are hoping to find out about you, the essay can help you “come to life” and often becomes a way to help us understand your story. Remember, we aren’t looking for perfection. We are looking for the person behind the roster of activities and grades. Think of the essay as an opportunity rather than an ordeal. Don't psych yourself out by thinking the essay has to do all the heavy lifting in your application. It is only one part in our holistic review that allows us to construct an interesting Oberlin community.


  • Write about yourself. We want to learn about you and your writing ability. Share a real story that gives us one slice of your life rather than trying to summarize your life in 650 words. You only are allowed so many words: use them wisely.
  • Keep the focus on you. It shouldn’t be a story you observed, but a story in which you played a central or pivotal role. Write about something meaningful and describe your feelings, not necessarily your actions. If you do this, your essay will be unique.
  • Use your own voice. We can tell the difference between the voice of a 40-year-old and a high school senior. We want to hear your voice, so be you – your strongest, clearest, best, grammatically correct you, but you.
  • Proofread and then ask someone else to proofread for you. Although we want substance, we also want to be able to see that you can write a paper for our professors and avoid careless mistakes that would drive them crazy.
  • Write naturally. Use the vocabulary and writing skills you already have. We find that writers who stumble are often trying to dazzle us with style rather than concentrating on substance. Be natural, but remember that this is not a text, tweet, or Instagram post – in other words, it is not casual communication.

You can also check out some of our blog entries about essays:

  • Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  • Reflect on a time when you questioned a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  • Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be a intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  • Discuss an accomplishment or event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  • Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  • Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

  • Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
  • Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
  • Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?
  • What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
  • Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.