Crafting a Great College Essay
With senior year comes a feeling of excitement at finally being “on top” and knowing you will soon be finished with a major stage of your life. However, this enjoyment is often overshadowed by the daunting task of college admission applications. More specifically, hopeful applicants tend to stress over writing a good application essay. Whether you are given a specific (sometimes unusual) question to answer or simply prompted to submit a “personal statement” the expectations often feel unclear. However, you can easily write a quality essay simply by following a bit of good advice that takes into account the goals of a college essay. First and foremost, understand that the intention of the essay is to present yourself in an honest, interesting, and new way. It is not merely an opportunity to expound on the activities and achievements you listed in your résumé. Instead, this is a time to move beyond the clear-cut questions and their accompanying blank spaces. You are painting a self-portrait in which you highlight who you really are – strengths, weaknesses, quirks, and passions. The whole point is to demonstrate why you – as a person, not a GPA – are an outstanding candidate. After reading your essay, the admission officer should want to meet you and get to know you more.
Although you may feel that you don’t have anything “unique” to say because you have not struggled with a substantial hardship or had a pivotal “life-changing experience”, there are still many ways to make your essay stand out. Remember that the majority of your peers are other teenagers who have likely not lived through anything earth-shattering either. What will make your essay memorable is the creative angle you take, the genuine emotions you express, and the distinctive way you allow your personality to shine through.
Follow these simple suggestions of dos and don’ts throughout the process of developing your essay and you’re sure to impress:
- Spend time brainstorming: A great place to start is by examining your personality and your strengths. Experts suggest starting with the three adjectives that you feel best to describe yourself. Make sure they are positive, specific, and intelligent. (Saying you are ‘deductive’ or ‘diligent’ will get your farther than ‘smart’.) Next, develop a few sentences that explain and give examples of those characteristics. Does a theme seem to emerge? Can you think of a story that integrates all of those strengths? As your topic becomes more specific, create an outline, then write a structured first draft.
- Focus on something you really care about: The essay section is all about you and what makes you tick. It is your chance to talk about your hobbies, experiences, and the way you really think. All of these things have a profound impact on the future college student you will be, so showcase them. Additionally, writing about something you are passionate about will make the task painless and even fun.
- Be specific and use a lot of detail: This, by no means, insinuates you should add “fluff” to your writing but you do want to effectively set your scene and use detail to make your story come alive for the reader. Vivid descriptions of a place of importance and the use of names of the people you deem important enough to include in your story will make writing come across as more genuine, real, and “human.”
- Write as though you’re talking to a new friend: The essay is the first real impression you will make on the admission officer. Although this aspect of the application aims to achieve broader goals, essentially it all boils down to this – are you likable? Always present yourself in an honest, though positive, light. Your writing should highlight your passions and goals but also express who you are in real life. Use your natural voice and avoid being overly formal.
- Embellish your stories or achievements: Not everyone won first place at a State competition or served as the Class President and that is just fine! Colleges aren’t looking for some who was #1 in a number of categories. On the contrary, it is far more impressive that you have been deeply committed to just one or two extracurricular activities and can explain the impact that has had on your personal development. Honesty is always more compelling than blatant amplification.
- Write about someone else: While your mom, grandpa, and older brother may have all provided inspiration in your life, you really want to focus on yourself. The role others played in shaping you is important – and can be addressed – but don’t allow it to take center stage. Remember that your essay will be read in consideration of your admission to the college – don’t sell somebody else.
- Rely on someone else’s voice: You are the author of your own life and your essay should clearly demonstrate that. Although it can be helpful to pull ideas from the stories others tell about you and the ways that they would describe you, remember that essay needs to reflect your personality and perspectives. It’s always a good idea to ask others to read your essay and provide feedback. Your friends, family, and teachers know you well and can easily evaluate whether or not an essay is written “in your voice.”
- Create a “laundry list”: Always avoid listing your achievements or attempting to cover too many topics in your essay. Like all the other aspects of your application, the essay is merely a snapshot. It is okay – and good – that it doesn’t address every facet of your personality! Remember, admissions officers are reading stacks of essays every day. Try to say as much as you can about yourself as concisely as possible. You are not attempting to explain every complexity of your being; rather, you are giving the reader a tasty tidbit that will compel her to extend you an interview in order to learn more about the intriguing person you are.