General Education

How to Write a Damn Good College Essay, as Explained by a Three-Time ‘Jeopardy!’ Winner

How to Write a Damn Good College Essay, as Explained by a Three-Time ‘Jeopardy!’ Winner
Image from
Neal Pollack profile
Neal Pollack February 7, 2019

Were you on Student Council? Did you run track? Did you volunteer at a soup kitchen? Great. So did 95 percent of the other kids who are applying for your spot. Know what makes you different.

Article continues here

This website may earn a commission if you make a purchase after clicking on a product link in this article

Greetings, future college students of America! Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Neal Pollack, and I am the Greatest Living American Writer. At least that’s what I called myself in the year 2000, when my first book was published. The book is a satire that makes fun of snotty literary people, so I may not actually be The Greatest Living American Writer. Though it’s still possible. Time might vindicate me.

Regardless, I’m a professional writer, with 10 books to my credit. I’ve written for hundreds of magazines and websites, some of them more famous than others. I’m also a three-time Jeopardy! champion. And I have decades of experience as an editor. Right now, in fact, I edit an excellent website of movie, book, and TV reviews, so I work with writers every day. I graduated from the best journalism school in the country. I know my stuff. So listen to my advice.

Good news.

If you’re actually taking the time and initiative to read this little essay, then you’re almost certainly going to college. You might not be going to your first choice, or your second. Or maybe you are. But regardless, you’re headed there. Congratulations.

Bad news.

In order to get into college, any college, you’re going to have to write an essay. It’s a painful task that may require you giving up valuable weekend time. But it’s also hugely important. The college essay, other than possibly an in-person interview, provides your best opportunity to distinguish yourself from the thousands upon thousands of other students applying. Here are some tips from the pros. From the pro’s pro. Follow my lead and you cannot fail to look smart.

Know What Makes You Different

Were you on Student Council? Did you run track? Did you volunteer at a soup kitchen? Great. So did 95 percent of the other kids who are applying for your spot. That doesn’t make these things unimportant, but they’re just line-items on a resumé, not distinguishing characteristics.

Everyone who’s applying has good grades, a bunch of activities, and at least an above-average SAT score. This is college we’re talking about. There are certain prerequisites.

The point of the essay isn’t to tell admission people that you’re a motivated go-getter. They know that. To stand out, you need to highlight something that’s unique about you. Think as ungenerically as possible, and be specific. Find something unusual about your family, or from your summer job. Tell an interesting story, though stay away from “I took a really cool vacation” unless something incredibly bizarre happened on that vacation.

Don’t be afraid of honesty and vulnerability. Admit something tough. This is your chance to lay it all out there.

Know What Makes You The Same

Every teenager thinks that they’re special, and that their experience is unique in the history of the world. Guess what? Unless you’re Malala or Justin Bieber or something, it’s not. But that’s OK. If you accept the fact that, at the core, you’re normal, then you can use that as a jumping-off point.

Generic teenager is baseline assumption. From there, find what’s unusual about you, and highlight that. Ask yourself: is this an essay that I could see someone else writing? If the answer is yes, then think, is this an essay that I could see more than a few people writing? If that answer is yes, then find something else.

I remember once applying for a scholarship, and writing a long, pretentious essay on “the importance of being a leader.” That was one scholarship I didn’t get. I sounded generic.

Have A Take

If your essay involves something opinion-based, then make your opinion unusual. Everyone has read “cliques are stupid” and “politics are boring” and “we have to save the planet.” So be very careful when picking your topic. Research it well, and say something smart and unique. You’re not running for Congress here, trying to please the largest number of people.

You’re trying to get an admission officer’s attention. They look for people who can think originally and critically, not just repeat the party line. A well-researched, clearly-written and divergent opinion will get you in the door every time.

Get An Editor

Guess what? Your first draft won’t be perfect. Abraham Lincoln wrote five drafts of The Gettysburg Address. There were at least nine drafts of the U.S. Constitution. Don’t think you can just slam out your college essay in two hours on a Sunday afternoon.

You need to find someone who you trust—a friend, a teacher, a relative, a tutor, or me—who will be able to tell you if your essay’s not working.

You can even ask a parent. They love you and want what’s best for you, and you’re not allowed to yell at them if they make suggestions you don’t like (That last comment was meant for my son, who’s getting ready to apply to schools).

Remember, with very few exceptions, you’re not a genius. You’re just a smart, motivated kid getting ready to take a big step. Listen to wise advice when people are generous enough to offer it to you.

That said, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s advisors told him to not use the “I have a dream” line in his most famous speech. They said it was clichéd. Wow, were they wrong. Sometimes, when you’re writing, you’re best off going with your gut.

Good luck, and don’t forget to stay hydrated!

Questions or feedback? Email


Related Articles

Categorized as: General EducationGeneralResources