Oberlin Blogs

The Writing’s on the Wall

June 23, 2021

Cora K. Hasegawa ’19

Writing is never an easy process, but it can be difficult to make the transition from academic papers to the personal essay for your college application. Instead of finding a clear thesis statement and providing evidence to back up your case, you should instead approach your essay as a personal introduction. As someone who’s read a decent number of essays, I hope I can shed some light on some things I’ve noticed that all good essays have in common. 

Focused Writing

We know you can’t tell us everything about yourself and your life’s story in 650 words, so narrow your focus to just one central event or theme. Essays that try to fit in too much tend to lack focus and ramble, which unfortunately means we don’t learn all that much about you. Being focused doesn’t mean that you can’t share broader aspects of your personality, but rather that you should share just one example rather than twenty. It’s always easiest to write a long essay and then edit it down. Methodically break down every part of your essay and highlight the parts you want to improve. When rewriting, make sure that every sentence adds something new and different to your story. If you find that you’ve said the same thing three times, pick the most succinct version and rebuild your essay around it. 

Accurate Writing

When editing, you shouldn’t just cut down the text but also use that time to fix any grammar or spelling mistakes. As I said in my blog on emails, a simple mistake won’t have a huge effect on your application, but frequent mistakes will tell us that you didn’t put in that much effort. Some mistakes are barely noticeable, but there are times when a sentence (or worse a whole essay) is so poorly structured that we have to read it a few times to make sense of it. The best advice I’ve received is to read your writing out loud. If a sentence is hard to say, you need to rewrite it and if you can’t say it in one breath, you need to cut it down. If possible, ask someone else to read your essay aloud and see where they stumble. The more times you do this, the clearer your message will be. 

Personal Writing

Every piece of your application tells us part of who you are, but nothing is more personal than your essay. Not only is it the only time we read a sample of your writing, but it is also your main opportunity to communicate directly with us. When writing and editing your essay, you must constantly ask yourself if your writing is truly reflective of your voice. We want to know you, so don’t try to pretend to be someone you’re not (more often than not we can tell). Your essay has to walk the fine line of sounding like you without being too informal. Be sure to fully answer the prompt while making it unique to you. Always share your authentic experiences and never be a dispassionate narrator.


There are many ways to tell a story, but when it comes to your essay, there are some common mistakes. All parts of your essay work together to build your case for admission, and your essay should be the focal point. By making your writing more focused, accurate, and personal, you let us know that you’ve put real effort and heart into your application and that will always make a positive impression on those who read it.

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