Essays – How to Write A Super College Application Essay
Did you know one of the most common mistakes students make in their college essays is to mention a different university’s name? Yep, some students write one essay for all the schools they’re applying to and then forget to put the correct school’s name in it.
Don’t let this be you! To write an impressive essay and increase your odds of acceptance, use these seven expert tips.
1. Brainstorm early
Before you sit down to actually write your college essay, take some time to look at the questions and consider all the ways in which you could respond.
Think about your proudest moments, biggest accomplishments, toughest challenges and ways you’ve demonstrated leadership. Also think about your interests, experiences and beliefs and how those things impact who you are and who you want to be. Jot down a few notes or even draw a diagram or flow chart to visualize your thoughts.
Laurel Hasper, admissions counselor at Point Loma Nazarene University (CA), says the process is like creating a recipe because you want to end up with a good product that others will enjoy. “Map out where you want your essay to go ahead of time,” Hasper says. “Start with your intro or ‘hook,’ sketch out the body and then decide how you want to wrap things up. Keep that map to your essay by your computer or notepad while you are writing, and refer to the structure that you’ve decided on as you write. This will enable you to keep your essay organized and will protect you from writer’s block or random tangents!”
As you are thinking about topics, find one no one else could write about because it is so specific to you, suggests Sarah Neal, senior assistant director of admission at Agnes Scott College (GA). If someone else could have had your exact experience, dig deeper by asking yourself how you felt during the experience, why you felt that way and why that experience was meaningful to you.
Starting early allows you the time you need to craft a great and unique essay idea. “Come up with your topic and write a little bit every day over the course of a month or two,” advises Christopher Gage, dean of admission at Hanover College (IN). “The summer months before senior year are excellent for this very purpose.”
Keith Fraser, first-year admissions coordinator at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, adds that students should write about topics that align with their passions. “Conveying genuine interest in the institution and articulating why you are applying will help you connect better with the admissions committee.”
2. Make it stand out
You don’t need to shock admissions officials—you just need to impress them and be honest. “We like when students draw from personal experience or share an inspirational story that demonstrates how they overcame an obstacle or hardship in their life,” says Hannah Bingham, first-year admissions coordinator at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. “Those are the stories that stick out in our minds and help us gain insight into the student’s life, making them more than what meets the eye on their application.”
If you have an existing relationship with a university—perhaps you went to a pre-college summer program there—it can help you focus the essay on your interests specific to that institution.
“When the essay is authentic, unique and flows like a personal story, it brings life to a student’s file, and that will always make the essay stand out,” Gage says. “The essay is the one piece of the admission process where students have complete control. While students can pick who writes their recommendation letters, they do not control the content. The student transcript and test scores stand alone; however, the essay is a chance for students to be creative, use their own voice and differentiate their application. When put in such context, students tend to better understand the value and purpose when approaching their essay. Own it and make it your best effort.”
Hasper adds that your writing should show and not just tell your story. “If you can show who you are through stories and examples, that will draw in your reader. For example, it’s one thing to say ‘I really love the emergency room environment, and I want to work there when I graduate.’ It’s a whole other level if you can tell your story about getting to watch a baby being born while volunteering there, or being in the ER yourself when you broke your arm playing baseball and having such great care from the doctors. Details, details!”
3. Write in your own voice
The purpose of the essay is to show the admission committee what your GPA and standardized test scores don’t—your personality and your writing skills. In other words, use the essay to express who you are and what you’re about.
“A strong essay … is well-constructed, organized and thought out. It is important to write a clear and concise intro, making it obvious which prompt was chosen and outlining what the essay will be about,” Bingham says.“Rather than simply writing out a list of your accomplishments or writing out your résumé in paragraph form, tell us a unique story,” she adds.
Grab your reader’s attention early by vividly setting the scene, similar to the beginning of a movie, Neal recommends. Or start the essay with a quote or an anecdote. Keep your reader’s attention by focusing on the topic, sticking to your discussion points and writing a strong conclusion.
Of course, follow the school’s directions for word limits, formatting and deadlines, and make sure your essay answers the specific prompt question(s) asked. If Mom or Dad tries to help you too much, it’s OK in this instance to tell them to back off. Why? “Colleges can usually tell if students have had too much help with their application essays,” says Neal.
The clear lesson: Make sure your essay is written in your own voice and style. It’s fine to get some ideas and help, but make sure it’s your essay.
4. Be creative
A college essay is a blank canvas. It can be anything you want it to be, as long as it addresses the essay prompt. “College essays are not your traditional English paper … you can write a story, poem, reflection, song, etc. There is no right or wrong format!” Bingham says.
One essay recently stood out to Neal because of its creativity and uniqueness to the student. “One student wrote about a fictionalized conversation between the angel sitting on one of her shoulders and the devil sitting on the other. The angel’s message was that the student should go to college and become a doctor like her family wanted her to. The devil spoke more to the student’s deep-rooted desires to study art history and culture,” Neal explains.
Fraser says sometimes students are worried about using humor and creativity, but he adds that these attributes can really make a difference. “I read an essay from a prospective film studies student who used the format of a screenplay as his essay. The applicant’s approach was unique and his writing was superb. He successfully connected his intended major with his submission.”
Don’t let your fear hold you back! Thinking creatively can give you the right outlet to show just how excited you are.
5. Be careful when reusing your essay
Most college admissions officials agree it’s OK to reuse an essay, especially if schools you’re applying to have the same or very similar essay prompts. But be careful—you still need to focus each essay to each institution.
“If the student is applying to three different engineering programs and he has to write an essay about his experience with engineering principles in his everyday life, then I certainly think it is acceptable to use an adopted version of a single essay for multiple applications,” Gage says.
At the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Fraser says the application process requires one prompt from the Common Application and one short answer unique to the university. “While we fully expect our applicants to reuse essays from the Common App prompt, we expect them to have unique short answers for our question. Remember that if you are reusing essays, make sure any institution-specific information (i.e., mascots, mission statements, etc.) are not used in an essay for the wrong school.”
Hasper says forgetting something like changing the name of the college in your essay is not only embarrassing, but also shows a lack of careful editing.
Overall, you’ll likely find the core of your essays will be similar for each college, but there are also distinct reasons you are applying to that school. Be sure to integrate those reasons into your essays.
Proofreading is the most important thing to do when writing your essay. “Try to revisit the essay daily, as this will allow you to develop the narrative in a manner unique to your voice and style. Remember, it’s not finished until you hit the submit button, so you can always be revising and improving,” Gage says.
Have others proofread your essay, too. “Whether it’s a parent, teacher, counselor or friend, a fresh set of eyes can give you a fresh perspective and catch any grammatical errors you may not have seen before,” Bingham says.
Additionally, ask someone to read the essay out loud. “Hearing your words in a voice other than the one in your brain will allow you to catch phrases that sound awkward and mistakes that you had begun to gloss over,” Neal says.
Hasper echoes Neal’s thoughts, adding that you should slowly read the essay so you don’t skim over the mistakes. “Sometimes when we read things to ourselves in our heads, our minds automatically skip over the mistakes, but they are much more obvious when we say them out loud.”
7. Have fun
Above all, college admission officials want you to enjoy writing your essay. “If you are having fun while writing your essay, the admissions committee will most likely be having fun when they are reading it. The stronger connection you make with your readers, the more likely they will positively view your application,” Fraser says.