What Makes a Great College Admissions Essay? - An Interview with Essay Coach Julia Byrd

For students trying to get into their dream school, a big part of most college applications are college application essays. They can also be called a personal essay or a personal statement essay or even just simply a college essay, but the goal of any student applying for college or university where these essays are needed is to make a great and strong essay.  

Some schools may provide an essay topic to write about as part of the college admissions process, but usually, what is more commonly required is for the student to write a personal essay that would give the school a better insight about the student applying to the college or university.

The personal statement essay is quite different in nature from academic essays that students submit while studying in high school, and there are definitely things to do to make a great college or personal statement essay.

Interview Q&A Summary with Julia Byrd - What Makes Great College Application Essays?

Writing and submitting a great college admissions essay is a very important part of the college application process whenever it’s required. Below we have the summary of the important points of an interview with Essay Coach Julia Byrd in a question and answer format on how to master the essay part of the college application.

Julia Byrd is a College Essay Coach who has also been a professional writer for 15 years. She works with students one-on-one or in small groups and helps them write amazing essays by offering a customized approach. She helps students "recognize their accomplishments and draw the unique connections between their life experiences, their values, and their college and career goals that help their essays stand out." Her students have been accepted to a great range of colleges in the United States and some even continue to work with her on their other essays or writing work while in college, or application essays for postgraduate or specialized studies, or even with writing their resumes.

The goal here is after reading the summary of this interview, the student knows what would be considered a strong essay or a great essay for his or her college application. The student should know what to do when writing the college application essay, and what are the things to avoid. Additional tips are also given to help in writing a great college application essay.

Q: Tell me a little about your background and how you got started assisting students with college essays.

I've been a professional writer for more than 15 years, helping businesses craft their stories for their websites and print publications. I’ve also written more than 500 corporate bios and hundreds of blog posts and email campaigns — all designed to attract attention and generate business. While I’ve loved this career, back in 2018, I wanted to start making a difference in the lives of individuals.

So I combined my master’s degree in counseling psychology and my extensive writing and editing background and became a college essay coach. My unique combination of skills lets me help students find their deepest stories, develop their voice, write essays that can help them stand out to admissions officers, and develop the writing skills that will serve them long after graduating from high school.  

In 2019 and 2020, I had several opportunities to learn from the well-respected College Essay Guy (Ethan Sawyer) online and in person. Many of the techniques and strategies I use today were developed by him (and are used with his permission), and I encourage students and parents to check out the wealth of resources he makes available on his website.  

I continue training today by partnering with mentors; taking online workshops (I completed the WOW College Essay Experience in March 2021); testing out my techniques by writing my own personal statements (check out my latest one here), and reading books and blog posts and listening to podcasts to ensure I'm giving my students the best, most current information I can. Most recently, I've been working with Dr. Cynthia Colon and Obicoach as an essay coach and editor and learning more about their approach to essay writing, brainstorming, and editing. I'm also a contributing writer to the College Essay Guy's website.

Q: What makes an essay great?

Your first instinct might be to say “one that’s well-written.” And while that’s important, I’d say it’s not THE most important.

What’s more important, in my opinion, is that the writer is able to choose an important/unique aspect of themselves and can tell their story in an engaging and vulnerable way that shows the writer in a new way.

Q: What are some definite NO NOs when writing an essay?

Not following instructions. Admission officers want to know that you can follow directions, and failing to do so (even if you have the best of intentions) doesn't win you any points.

 And while these aren’t exactly no nos, you should think twice about writing your essay on:

  • Potentially controversial topics (religion, politics, etc.).
  • Unresolved mental health issues.
  • Common topics (mission trips, sports injuries, winning the big game, etc.)

Q: Why do some colleges require essays and others do not?

According to Rick Clark at Georgia Tech, “admission reviewers simply want to get a sense of students’ ability to express themselves or provide insight into their character, background, motivations, and so on.” It gives them another data point for evaluation and an opportunity to get to know you better. Also, schools that are more competitive tend to require (and require more) essays.  

Q: How important is it to let someone else read over, critique, and revise an essay?

There’s no one perfect answer for this. Plenty of students have written, edited, and submitted essays without anyone else ever reviewing them – and have been accepted into great schools.

But having someone else read it can also give you great feedback. Does it sound good? Does the reader learn something about you they didn’t already know?

If you DO have someone else review the essay, be really clear about what you want them to do in their review.

When it comes to having someone else revise, tread carefully. I can easily tell when parents have had too heavy of a hand in a student’s writing. And if I can tell, you bet an admission officer can tell, too.

Q: What tips do you have for a student who is stuck choosing a topic?

You might be overthinking it. A great essay can be written on a very simple topic.

 What do you enjoy? What’s a unique hobby or skill you have? What’s an important lesson you’ve learned?  

Think about your potential major or career. What qualities/skills/traits/values does it require? When have you shown those in your life? So if being a doctor requires problem-solving, can you tell a story about a time in your life where you had to come up with a creative solution?

Q: How important is the word count?

If they give you a word count, follow it. Remember how I talked about the importance of following instructions earlier? Plus, some portals will cut off your essay if you go over, and that’s not a good look for your application.

If the essay has vague word counts – like “in about 250 words” – I recommend keeping to no more than 10% over that maximum (e.g., 275 words for a 250-word essay).

Q: Tell me about the best essay you’ve read. What was the topic and what made it stand out?

That’s really a tough question. There are many essays I’ve read over the years that stick with me – not because they were the “best essay” but because they were written with such emotion. One first-gen student wrote about the impact a school counselor had when he first moved to the United States and how it’s impacted his life ever since. One student loved escape rooms and showed the skills they learned from that. One talked about learning to ride a bicycle at 16. Another talked about five soccer balls they’ve had through their soccer career and how they grew personally during the time they used each ball. Some of these are simple topics, but they work because they show so much about the student.  

Access the Full Interview with Essay Coach Julia Byrd and Get More Details on How to Write Great College Application Essays

Like we said, writing a college application or personal statement essay is not the same thing as writing academic essays and just showcasing your writing skills. We hope that the interview with Essay Coach Julia Byrd that we summarized above gave you a better idea on how to write great essays for your college applications.

To access the full interview and get more details and insights on how to write a great college admissions essay, please join our Navigating US College Admissions + Scholarships Facebook Community if you aren't a member yet. You can then access the full interview here.  

The group gives you access to a wide range of resources on the college admissions process from applications, test prep, student loans, essay help, financial aid assistance, scholarships, and more. It is helpful for college bound students or their parents to be in a community where you can ask questions and get answers and resources on anything related to getting into college and paying for college.  

Furthermore, follow Christens Scholarships on Facebook to get even more tips and resources on college applications, essays, scholarships and more.

Categories: : essay

About the Author

Christen is the founder of Hive Education. She is passionate about helping families navigate the college application and admissions processes. She helps students set goals to work towards their own debt-free degrees with her personalized scholarship searches, scholarship courses, and by sharing her scholarship strategies that won her over $900,000 in for her own college education. With four years of experience in higher education, two years working with teens in inner city high schools in New Orleans, and starting her first college consulting company during a pandemic in 2020 she strives to make college accessible for everyone, especially for first generation, low income, and minority students. In her spare time she loves to share her love for books with her daughters. You can find her on Facebook.

And don't forget to follow us on socials for latest updates.

As Seen On