The college admissions essay is a daunting task for most students. Many students have never been asked to do this type of writing before or have never engaged in the deep introspection such an essay requires. It’s a lot of pressure. I hear you. So how can you make the job easier? Check out my top tips below!
How are you supposed to sum yourself up in 500 words? The answer is, you can’t. So don’t even try. The first trick to writing a successful college admissions essay is to let go of the belief that this is even a possibility. Instead, focus on one aspect of who you are and choose a narrow enough topic that you can fully develop it in the space allowed. This always makes for a more powerful statement than a generalized essay that attempts to address your entire life.
As college admissions has gotten increasingly competitive, applicants do all sorts of crazy things to stand out, such as sending in love letters, a plate of cookies, or a shoe to get their “foot in the door.”
Most students don’t go to these extremes, but, in the face of such a momentous and stressful task as writing a personal statement, they do things they otherwise wouldn’t, such as affect an air of maturity they don’t actually possess (or worse, their parents jump in with their red pens and affect this air for them). Or they exaggerate their involvement in a community service project or go waaaay overboard professing their love for a school.
What I’ve seen as a trend in recent years amongst admissions offices is a real appreciation for the “good old days” of the genuine college essay written in a genuine teenage voice. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t carefully choose your words and refine your presentation, but it does mean that you should write about a topic that you truly care about and write from the heart. You don’t need to have saved the world or use dozens of SAT vocab words to impress an admissions officer. In my years of advising students on college essays, it took me about ten seconds to determine which ones were genuine and which ones were not. And this was true regardless of how strong a writer the student was.
Avoid No-No Topics and Overused Topics
In general, you should avoid talking about death, divorce, pets, controversial subjects, or illegal activities. There is occasionally a time and a place for one of these topics (such as explaining a dip in grades due to a death in the family), but you should consult with a college counselor before proceeding. And if you have another topic you could write about, this is often for the best.
In addition to these tabooed topics, you should avoid overused topics such as a sports challenge or victory (the “big game” essay), community service projects (the “I learned how fortunate I am” essay), trips abroad (the “I learned about cultural differences” essay), or overcoming an injury (the “I learned perseverance” essay), unless you have a unique perspective to present. Here is a good way to think about it: the more original a topic is, the less original you have to be in your presentation of it. The less original a topic is, the more original you have to be in your presentation of it.
Have an Attention-Getter
Admissions officers read tons of essays. They get bored. If you don’t nab their attention right way, you are not likely to regain it. So never start off by restating the question (“The most important lesson I ever learned was…”). Here are two options for much better attention-getters:
1. Start with an anecdote. Put the reader right in the middle of a story that introduces your topic. For example, if you are writing about the competition between you and your sister over the violin, perhaps start with an anecdote about the two of you performing together on stage, furiously bowing the strings and eyeing each other sideways.
2. Start with a surprising sentence and then explain how it actually has meaning. For example, “Elephants make the best kind of friends.” Then tie this into a discussion of lessons learned during your internship at the zoo.
Tell a Story
Everyone loves a good story. Telling a story is not the only way to write a college essay, but it is one of the easiest ways to do it well. Rather than trying to cram everything about yourself into one essay, and thus ending up with a disjointed collection of paragraphs about your swim team, drama club, eclectic family, and drum lessons, find an important moment in your life and tell the colleges about it.
End with a Moral to the Story
You have to do more than just tell a story, though. You have to explain what it means and how it has shaped your life. Admissions officers won’t take the time to guess how this moment has made you who you are. At some point, you need to directly tell them. Let them know who you are right now–what kind of person will they be admitting to their school? A good way to do this is to end your essay with a “look to the future,” whether this means explaining how the topic of your essay has resulted in your desire to study biomedical engineering in college or how it has changed your outlook on leadership.
Writing a good college essay takes a lot of work, but if you follow these tips, you are well on your way to making it a worthwhile effort, and one that will get you noticed (in a good way 🙂 )!
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About Kristin Fracchia
Dr. Kristin Fracchia makes sure Magoosh's sites are full of awesome, free resources that can be found by students prepping for standardized tests. With a PhD from UC Irvine and degrees in Education and English, she’s been working in education since 2004 and has helped students prepare for standardized tests, as well as college and graduate school admissions, since 2007. She enjoys the agony and bliss of trail running, backpacking, hot yoga, and esoteric knowledge.
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