I am an admission counselor. I read thousands of essays every year. You can have a great topic and fuck it up so instead here are tips for finding a good topic and writing a good essay. @egebert @noviramon please add.
  1. Be yourself
    Look. This shit is hard. Teens don't often write about themselves. They don't have a literary voice yet. But as much as you can have one, you should. Write about something you care about. It should come easily for you to write about whatever topic, even if the making personal is a bit tough.
  2. Follow directions
    If there is a word limit, don't go over. Especially don't email your admission counselor asking if you can go over. If something needs to be in on a certain date, it's not a suggestion. If someone is on the application, we want it. SO MUCH TIME goes into putting together these things! They aren't guidelines, they are directions to be followed.
  3. Have a new take on a cliche
    I don't want to say avoid cliche because there can be a great essay on a cliche topic, but have some self awareness about your life. You aren't the only person to have a sports injury/do community service/not make Varsity or win a student government election/go on a mission trip so if you're writing about it you better be specific about why.
    Biggest trap students fall into is telling a story. Two paragraphs describing a play by play of something and one telling me how they grew and it taught them so much. It should be one paragraph setting the scene and the rest telling me HOW you grew and WHAT it taught you. Everyone interprets growth differently so tell me what that means to you. What is the value in what you learned? How have you applied it since? Reflect!!!! I shouldn't be able to turn your essay into a timeline.
  5. Avoid risk
    Sure it sounds like a fun idea to make your essay an acrostic or write like ee cummings but that is going to work for some people and be an epic fail for others. This is not the place to take risks. If you're applying to a small liberal arts school that has their own application I endorse it a bit more but even then maybe don't make up your own code with a key at the bottom.
  6. Know your audience
    There's a misconception that admission counselors are old men w pipes. More often they are 23 yr olds straight out of college. It's female dominated. Most of the males are gay. 99% of us have huge personalities. Education skews liberal. You can deffo have opinions that differ from mine but maybe don't write about abortion being a sin (unless it's to a religious school. Even then....). This goes along with risk. You never know who is reading that essay.
  7. Avoid grandiose statements
    My pet peeve is the "and then I became an adult" trope. Look, if you grew up in a single parent home or one parent passed away and you worked to contribute to bills and had to feed yourself most meals, you can tell me you became an adult. If you coordinated your Boy Scout project and hit a few speed bumps along the, you have not convinced me you are now an adult.
  8. Have perspective
    I had a fortunate childhood. I didn't have to become an adult as a kid. I did go through things that made me uncomfortable or took me out of my comfort zone. It's okay to talk about that, just acknowledge that it's the biggest thing in your life AT THIS POINT and think about things in the future it's prepared you for. I can't tell you how many mission trips have taught kids "less fortunate people are so happy even though they have next to nothing!" GTFO.
  9. Don't hate.
    I don't care if someone tripped you every day after class for a year, do not name them or tell me how awful a person they are. Don't write about gossipy friends or how heartless your ex is. One otherwise qualified applicant wrote her essay about how awful her public school had been for a year. That was the obstacle she'd overcome. I visit that high school every year/it has one of the best IB programs in the city. I work at a diverse school. Not someone I want to bring to my community.
  10. Don't get TOO personal.
    Periods. Sex. Relationships. Vomiting. Toilets. We are not friends you should not be telling me these things. Pushing submit makes students feel like things go into an ether but nooooope my colleagues and I read those things you submitted and bodily functions are off the table.
  11. My fav essay
    Was about a kid who had moved around a lot and how he stayed loyal to specific things from each city. He wore a NY baseball jersey to 5th grade every day. When they lost to Boston in the World Series, the teacher wrote "we are sorry, Joe!" on the chalkboard. He went on to make thoughtful points about meeting new people and establishing a self amongst chaos of moving (bc as a kid, moving is chaos). I loved him. He withdrew because got in to Harvard early decision.