Essays How to Write a Super College Application Essay
Did you know that 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 schools they’re applying to and then forget to put the correct school’s name in it. In the words of Homer Simpson, “D’oh!”
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.
“Prior to writing … research example prompts and questions, and then spend time brainstorming possible responses,” says Cyndi Sweet, director of admissions at Maryville College (TN).
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 that impacts 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.
Find a topic 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.”
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.
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 show, not tell, 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.
In addition, “Rather than simply writing out a list of your accomplishments or writing out your résumé in paragraph form, tell us a unique story,” Bingham advises.
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.
Hopefully that student will study what she really wants. Nothing “devilish” about that!
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.
Sweet agrees. “There’s nothing wrong with using the same foundation from a previous college essay for a new one if the topic is similar and the response will make sense with regard to the question asked,” she says.
However, avoid the dead giveaway that you copied and pasted your essay. “You would be surprised how many essays start with something like, ‘[Insert school name here] is the only school I have ever wanted to attend!’ … but that isn’t the school where the essay was sent,” Sweet says.
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.
7. Have fun.
Above all, college admission officials want you to have fun writing your essay. “Don’t overly stress out trying to craft ‘the perfect college essay,’ as there is no such thing,” Sweet says. Just be yourself and believe in your abilities and goals.
Dana McCullough is a freelance writer and editor in Milwaukee, Wis.