The college essay. A project whose mythology is much bigger than the actual project itself, one that is on the minds of students years before they actually apply to college. It’s also a hotly-contested topic, with many differing approaches suggested by experts and students.
Luckily, we’re here to help demystify the process.
While every student is unique, and every college admissions committee is different, we can offer some tried-and-true guidelines to help you nail your essay—from choosing the topic to the execution.
It’s about the why, not the what
- Many students seem to think they have to have saved someone from a burning building or cured a disease or done 5,000 hours of community service in order to write a good essay. They may think they haven’t done anything “interesting” enough. But here’s the secret: whatever you’ve done so far in your life, it’s worth writing (and reading) about. The truth is, admissions personnel want to see what you can MAKE of your experiences, what perspective you have, and how your life so far has prepared you for the future. You’re 18 — they won’t blame you if you haven’t done much yet! Show that you are mature and ready to take on the world. That matters more than you summing up your medical mission trip abroad or reading off your list of extracurriculars.
Avoid controversial topics
- We know that many students may have encountered and overcome incredible obstacles in their lives, such as trauma or mental illness. However, we recommend that you err on the side of caution when it comes to these topics. This is not to say a great essay couldn’t be written about any of them; however, you never know who is on the other end of this essay. Colleges want to mitigate risks wherever possible, and you do not want to take the chance that your essay reader(s) worry you will not be able to withstand the pressures of college. We know it sounds harsh, but you’re better off safe than sorry. Another item to tread lightly is religion. If you want to write about your faith as an important part of your life, be sure to explain how it has shaped your character and how it will make you an ideal student on their campus.
Show, don’t tell
- Use active verbs, sensory imagery, and examples wherever possible. Hook them with a story at the outset of the essay. Make it fun for them to read!
Practice the art of the humble brag
- Instead of stating you are kind, can you describe a time when you helped your younger sister with her homework? Instead of saying you are dedicated, can you describe a late night spent finishing your term paper or perfecting the layout of the yearbook? This goes with “show, don’t tell.” You don’t need to declare your best qualities; you can show them more subtly.
Tailor it for each college
- While it’s a great idea to have a few generic essays (which is to say, ones that are complete but that could be adopted for different prompts or colleges), you also want to ensure that whoever is reading your essay knows it was written specifically with them in mind. Find a way to work your school’s core values or mission statement, or something unique about their culture. Even if it’s only inserting the name of the university, a little personalization goes a long way. (Side note: take extra care to triple-check you are sending the right essay to the right school!)
Don’t write about the “big game”
- We can say from experience that admissions committees read TONS of essays about this. We know it’s important to you—but you want to stand out. Dig deeper.
Keep your tone authentic
- This isn’t a formal school essay. It’s a chance for you to breathe life into your application, to tell people who you are outside of your list of activities and your grades. You’re a real person, and you’re writing to a real person. Be conversational and authentic to your true voice.
You’re more than a resume and a list of numbers. When you’re done, your college essay should not just answer the prompt, but showcase you as a three-dimensional person: someone with passion, humility, and ambitious plans for your future. Above all, be true to yourself, and show why you are truly a good fit for that school because of your goals and your character. They know you are not a finished product; you are just getting started. Let your excitement shine through. Happy writing!