4 Tips for Writing a Successful College Admission Essay
Once you’re past a college’s GPA and test score criteria, your college essays become one of the most important elements of your application. Especially if you’re a marginal candidate, a stellar essay can make the difference between an acceptance and a rejection. So, it’s worth putting in the time and effort to write a good one.
A lot of students don’t know where or how to begin with writing their college essays. So, here are 4 tips to get you started:
1) Know what you’re aiming for.
The style and tone of a college essay are very different from most essays and research papers you write in school. So, often students aren’t sure exactly what to aim for when writing their essays. A quick and easy remedy is to read example essays written by successful applicants.
Several schools have posted some of their favorite successful essays online. For example:
UGA – http://ugaadmissions.blogspot.com/search/label/essays
Johns Hopkins – http://apply.jhu.edu/apply/essays/
You can also buy books of admission essays, like 100 Successful College Application Essays
Sample essays can provide you with some great inspiration, and valuable insights into how to write a great essay. However, be careful not to get so caught up reading other peoples’ essays that you neglect to start your own. It’s also easy to fall into the comparison trap and begin worrying that your essays will never be as good as these examples. Remember that the sample essays colleges are posting are the BEST essays from among the thousands of students they admit. So, most accepted students’ essays are not this exceptional. And of course, it goes without saying that you should NEVER copy or imitate someone else’s essay. If you try to make your essay sound like someone else’s, it will end up sounding fake and awkward, and will NOT work to your advantage.
Consider setting a time limit for this part of the process, or a limit for the number of sample essays you will read, and then set the examples aside and move on to creating your own masterpiece.
2) Be yourself.
Your essay is the one place in your application where you have an opportunity to speak directly to the admissions officers, and show them who you really are — beyond the grades, test scores, and list of extracurricular activities. So, it’s important for your essay to show off your unique voice and personality.
Before you even look at the essay prompts, take some time to examine your experiences, personality, and beliefs. What intrigues you? What do you love? What beliefs or attitudes set you apart from your friends? If you were in a room with 100 other applicants who had similar SAT and GPA scores, what would make YOU stand out?
If you aren’t sure what makes you special, try getting some input from your friends and family by asking them questions like:
- What 3 adjectives would you use to describe me?
- What do you admire most about me?
- If you were going to tell a story that illustrated what makes me unique, what story would you tell?
When you’re writing, open up and let your voice come through loud and clear. Imagine you’re talking to a friend. Be honest. Be vulnerable. Be genuine. Be your wonderful, amazing self — idiosyncrasies, quirks, and all. The more real you are, the more intriguing you will be…and the more the admissions officers will love you.
For more about being yourself in your essay, see “Authentic Admissions Essays: Be who you are, not who you think they want”.
2) Tell a specific story.
When you start reading through past admission essays, one of the first things you will notice is that nearly all of them tell a story. The best ones tell a specific story about an incident or moment in time that provides an insight into who the author is and how they view the world.
Two of the biggest mistakes students make when writing their essays are: (1) Trying to say too much, and (2) Telling readers about themselves, rather than showing them.
In any story, there is going to be a balance between “scene” and “summary”. For example, imagine you were telling a story about a kitten you had adopted:
Growing up, I always thought of myself as more of a “dog person” than a “cat person”. To be honest, I rarely thought about cats one way or the other, and definitely never cared much about having one of my own. But that all changed when I met Oliver.
I passed by the “free kittens” sign more out of convenience than curiosity, simply because it was the shortest path between my parking spot and the entrance to the grocery store. But when I looked into the box, my eyes were immediately drawn to the black ball of fur curled up in the corner. He seemed so alone and out of place: obviously smaller than the other kittens, the one black cat in a sea of tan and white. Curious, I turned to the woman standing nearby…
The first paragraph is mostly summary — it tells the reader facts about who you are, things you’ve done, tendencies you have, etc. (e.g. I never saw myself as a cat person). Summaries can be useful for bridging the gap between in-scene moments, or reflecting back on an experience and what it meant to you. However, an essay consisting entirely of summary is going to be dry and boring to read.
The “in scene” sections of a story (e.g. “my eyes were immediately drawn to the black ball of fur”…) are the moments that grab your readers’ attention and immerse them in the experience — where they get to step into your shoes and see what it is like to view the world through your eyes. These are the parts that make your essay come alive. Including in-scene moments in your essay will allow you to display elements of your character (e.g. curiosity, compassion) in a much more engaging, memorable, and believable way than you could by simply telling your reader “I am a very compassionate person”.
Remember: rather than telling your readers what makes you unique and interesting as an applicant, use stories and “in scene” moments to illustrate your personality and character.
4) Start strong.
Good openings start in the midst of the action. They are often enigmatic, surprising, or even confusing. For example, check out these 10 opening lines from Stanford admission essays.
Do you notice how each of these opening lines raises more questions than it answers? They give you enough information to get a sense of what the essay will be about, but not enough to really understand what is going on. This is a great strategy because it grabs your reader’s attention and compels them to continue in order to find out what is going on and fill in the gaps in their understanding.
A quick tip: If you’re having a hard time with your opening, try cutting the first 2 lines from your essay. Often, that will be a better opening line because it will allow you to bypass the generalities and jump right into the action. (For example, in the story we told in point 3 above, you easily could cut out the entire first paragraph and start with “I passed by…”).
5) Start now!
For most students, it takes about 10 hours to write a good college essay. If you’re applying to schools that request supplemental essays or do not accept the Common Application, you may have several different essays to write. Even more if you are applying for scholarships.
It is easy to underestimate how much time your essays will take, so make sure you start early and give yourself plenty of time to work on them before the deadline. Make sure you schedule this time in your planner, like a class assignment or appointment. Build in lots of margin: Plan to add an extra hour or two to all of your time estimates, leave a day between writing and editing each draft, count on going through several rounds of editing for each essay, and give yourself at least a week of buffer time before applications are due in case the process takes longer than you expect. This may seem like a lot of time, but it’s far less than the years you’ve spent improving your GPA and the months spent studying for SATs and ACTs! It’s well worth the investment, and if you give yourself enough time to relax and take your time, writing your essays can be a really enjoyable process. So have fun with it!
For more ‘how to’ tips about the process of essay writing, see “Writing the College Essay”.
And if you have additional questions or would like to discus the possibility of working with us on your essay, please contact us and we will be happy to help!
Dr. Maggie Wray is an academic life coach who helps high school and college students develop the mindset, motivation, organization, and time management skills they need to be successful in school.
Maggie graduated with honors from Princeton University, earned a Ph.D. in neurobiology and behavior from Cornell, and taught undergraduate classes at Cornell for 4 years. In addition to running her own coaching practice, she also works with Applerouth as a premium-level tutor for SAT, ACT, and college essays. If you would like to learn more about Dr. Maggie and how she helps prepare students to succeed, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website at http://CreatingPositiveFutures.com