Abigail Conyers, admission counselor, Williams College, No. 1 National Liberal Arts College

One stellar essay Conyers read this past year was about language. The applicant wanted to study languages and neuroscience at Williams. He talked in his essay about how he developed a love of language through sharing stories with his grandmother, who developed dementia. To help understand her disease, he joined a neuroscience lab.

He wanted to continue to study how the brain processes language and potentially come to understand dementia more deeply. All these elements of the student’s life were sprinkled throughout his application, but he was really able to tie all the experiences together to give the admissions committee a sense of what he cared deeply about, Conyers says.

Ellen Kim, dean of undergraduate admissions, Johns Hopkins University

One notable admission essay Kim read described a student’s role reading the morning announcements – applicants can read the full sample on Hopkins website. The applicant described why he took the job and what he tried to achieve in those few minutes at the beginning of each school day.

While there may be nothing remarkable about reading the morning announcements, it gave school officials an idea of his personality beyond his achievements. Kim got a sense of how the applicant responds when he’s excited and who he was in his community.

Jarrid Whitney, executive director of admissions and financial aid, California Institute of Technology

Caltech applicants should demonstrate their passion for math and science, and that doesn’t necessarily have to be through a structured school activity. It could be tinkering in a garage or building computers.

Whitney reads a lot of essays about how a passion for Legos as a child led applicants to desire a career as an engineer. While choosing a common topic like this for an essay can work, it’s tricky. The best Lego essays are the ones that tie the experience into something more recent and relevant.

J.T. Duck, director of admissions, Swarthmore College, No. 4 National Liberal Arts College

Duck read an essay recently by a self-described “bro,” a hyper-masculine “guy’s guy.” The applicant talked about going to school every day and “bro-ing” it out with his friends. But after school, he would go home, log onto multiplayer online video games and talk virtually with his friends about vulnerable subjects, such as being turned down for a date.

“This young man wrote about playing video games with his ‘bro’ friends, but what I gleaned from that is how he makes connections with other people,” Duck says.

Lee Coffin, dean of admissions and financial aid, Dartmouth College

In one college essay that stood out to Coffin, an applicant described his role behind the scenes in theater as a member of the set crew, the stage manager and someone who lets the magic happen. It gave a very clear description of the role he would play on campus and why the applicant wants to study drama.

Sometimes applicants are looking for a “wow” factor, Coffin says. They may try to create the perfect piece of writing and end up with an essay that doesn’t add anything.