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Nae Tanaka

5 Ingredients of a Winning College Essay

Please enjoy this guest post by friend of Magoosh, Nae Tanaka! Nae is an expert college admissions consultant who runs Winning Ivy Essays.

5 Ingredients of a Winning College Essay

The college application essay is unlike any essay you’ve ever written.

I know, you’ve written many essays for AP English in which you compose evidence-based, argumentative writing about great literary classics like “Jane Eyre.” But, the personal statement is very different. You must be introspective in your college essay. You must show maturity, growth, and write about a memorable story.

Let’s break down the five components of a winning personal statement:

  1. Highlight your personal brand message
  2. Show how the story unfold
  3. Write with an authentic voice
  4. Write a hooky introduction
  5. Finish strong with a positive, upbeat conclusion


Highlight your Personal Brand Message

Before you dive right into writing, do this: At the top of your document, type up a one-liner statement that you want to be the core of the story.

A one-liner statement is the message that embodies who you are. This is that one statement that makes you stand out from the other straight-A students applying to your dream school. What makes you, you? How are you unique?

The key to crushing your college application essay is to figure out what on your message and how to convey it through an anecdote. So, keeping this top of mind is extremely important and can be a make-or-break factor of a winning personal statement.

Show How the Story Unfolds

tell your reader that a series of events simply happened and how it made you feel. Show the the reader the details of how the story unfolded.

You see, if you do a good job describing in detail how the story unfolded, then your reader will naturally feel how you were feeling in that moment.

In other words, you don’t need to explicitly tell the reader that you were excited. You should aim to paint such a vivid picture of the story that the reader will naturally feel excited for you.

In order to show how your story unfolds, be specific about the details of the situation.

Don’t say:
“I was excited when I led my basketball team to state championships.”

“The time was running out; I had no choice but to make the 3-pointer shot. I jumped, took the shot, and held my breath as the ball rolled slowly around the rim of the basketball net. Finally, the ball slowly rolled in — I made the shot!”

The second example is more fun to read, isn’t it? This is what you want.

Before you run off into the sunset, there’s a big but here.

Showing how a story unfolds is absolutely critical. But, don’t overdo it. If you overload every sentence of your essay with adjectives in an effort to show, not tell, it gets hard to read and each unnecessary adjective takes up valuable word real estate.

The solution is this: Alternate between showing and telling.

Write With an Authentic Voice

When you write, you might feel a need to be pedantic.

Fight this impulse. You don’t want to sound so stiff.

Harnessing an authentic voice is a little tricky. But, try this: Err on the side of using language that’s more casual than super formal. n other words, write how you would normally talk. This way, you’ll preserve your voice.

In later revisions, you can always change casual sounding parts of an essay. It’s harder to reinsert voice into an already dull sounding essay.

Write a Hooky Introduction

You need to jolt the admissions officer awake with a hooky introduction.

The introduction is the reader’s first impression of you. Seize it as an opportunity to make yourself stand out from the sea of other highly qualified applicants dying to get into to your dream school.

You see, there’s a chance that your admissions officer is drained from a day’s work by the time he gets to your essay. It’s absolutely critical that your writing shakes him awake, especially if he’s tired.

Make him want to read it.

To get your gears turning, here are five introduction ideas:

  1. Begin with dialogue.
  2. Start with a quote.
  3. State a shocking, bold statement. Keep it appropriate, though!
  4. Start right in the middle of a story.
  5. Pose a question.


Finish Strong With a Positive, Upbeat Conclusion

The feeling you create at the end of your essay has a significant influence over how your reader remembers you.

So, you need to crush the conclusion if you want your reader to remember you on a memorable and positive note.

In your conclusion, make sure you bring your story full circle.

A good way to end your essay is by linking back to the original anecdote. Bring the reader up to date on how you’re handling the challenge or obstacle today. Or, you could simply make your main point in a fresh way.

It never hurts to add humor as a clever zinger, too. Experiment with this as long as it’s within the confines of the voice and tone of your writing.

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About Nae Tanaka

Nae graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and worked at Google for 4.5 years. She has been a college essay coach for since 2010 and has helped students across the world write their best possible college admission essays. Nae owns and operates Winning Ivy Prep as a prep coach and consultant. She lives in San Francisco and works 1:1 with college-bound students in-person or over Skype. Oh, and she’s a rock-climber (sort of). Reach out to Nae directly: Nae@winningivyprep.com.

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