How to Write The College Essay: 20 Tips for Success
By Peter Van Buskirk on October 03, 2019
Courses. Grades. Scores. Extracurricular activities. Letters of recommendations. All are historical elements of your college applications. Well established over time, they determine your general competitiveness in the selective admission process.
College essays, however, are arguably the most challenging—and, potentially paralyzing—assignments you will face during your senior year.
As the essay prompts seem to stare tauntingly from the pages of your applications, the growing anxiety can be overwhelming. Even the best writers struggle with the questions, “What do they want to see?” , “How can I set myself apart from the competition?” and “How long should a college essay be?”
If you find yourself in this situation, you’re not alone. Writing a compelling essay is not an easy task given the high-stakes nature of college admission—nor should it be. In fact, few practiced writers are able to do it on demand. That said, if you can pull it off—if you can produce essays that complement your other credentials—you will be able to introduce an effective “hook” into your applications. Let’s take a look, then, at why colleges require essays in the first place.
The Role of College Essays
Despite the bothersome nature of college essays to those who must write them, the essays do help admission officers learn more about you. For example, they want to see if you’re able to:
- Write well. College professors don’t want to have to teach you how to write. They want to teach you how to think. From a technical point of view, then, your essay should reveal that you have good command of the language, understand the rules of grammar and can convey ideas concisely.
- Think analytically and reflectively. Admission officers want to get past the facts of your application to better understand how you think. How do you process information about yourself and the world around you? What do you care about? Which experiences have defined you? Your essay should reveal how and why have they shaped you.
- Be creative. It is important to remember that your college essay is not work you are producing for a grade. Rather, you need to make an impression. Think of your college essays, as evidence of your art. Just as artists have an array of brushstrokes and a rich palette of color at their disposal, you can employ language, literary forms and punctuation to convey important messages. As the artist, you are at liberty to create. So, what will your art say about you—how will it reveal the story you want to tell?
- Take risks. Risk-taking is an interesting element of creative writing. Done well, it can lift your presentation from the mundane and safe to the provocative and insightful. Moreover, your capacity for making yourself vulnerable reflects a level of self-confidence that can be reassuring to admission officers who want to discern your ability to perform on their highly competitive campuses.
- Reveal the “invisible you.” So much of what you have accomplished in school and in life is data that will be found in the body of your application—it’s there for the world to see. The true evidence of your character, personality and sense of compassion, however, lies within you. The power of a good essay is often found in its ability to give the reader this insight. Go beyond your résumé to reveal your humanity.
Essays Reveal a Sense of Purpose
Admissions officers are seeking students who are purposeful in their pursuits when choosing among highly talented students. They see a ton of candidates who are drawn by the fame or prestige of their institutions—who are simply applying to see if they can get in. Such candidates, regardless of their credentials, are not very compelling and are easily dismissed.
Selective institutions often employ supplemental essay prompts to sort the whimsically submitted applications from those that are more intentional. The applicants who get a longer “read” are those who can clearly express a sense of purpose—they know what they want to accomplish in college, how they can best accomplish it, and have identified the instructional elements of the institution that speak to their objectives and learning styles. They can clearly demonstrate the synergy that exists between themselves and the institutions in question.
As you prepare your supplemental essays, focus on:
- The things you want to accomplish. Why is college important to you? What are your objectives? If you have a specific academic/career interest, how can you prove it? What do you know about the discipline? If you are uncertain about your academic/career direction, do you recognize—and can you articulate—the value of a broadly-based educational experience?
- The manner in which you like to engage in learning. We don’t all process the same information the same way—and colleges don’t all deliver it in the same manner! Know your learning style. This is especially true if you are an experiential, hands-on learner who values testing ideas. Be prepared to provide evidence of this learning style in your supplemental essays.
- Proving the synergy! Selective colleges are most interested in students whose sense of purpose is illustrated in their recognition of compatible learning opportunities on their campuses. When they ask the “why do you want to come here” question, they are not interested in knowing whether you can recite their institutional superlatives. Rather, they want to see if you have made the conscious connection between your sense of purpose and the opportunities that exist within their educational environment.
The Next Step: How to Write a Compelling College Essay
You need to craft a statement that speaks to who you are as a person. As you can see, the risk-reward element with the essay is very high, especially if you aspire to highly selective colleges and universities. While we can’t write your essay for you, the following essay tips should be helpful in developing a personal statement that becomes the glue for a thematically cohesive application.
- Resist the temptation to buy the “best college essays” book. It will only contribute to the “paralysis by analysis” you might be experiencing. The genius for your essay rests within you, not an essay someone else has written. Focus on your own storyline.
- Ignore the Common Application essay prompts! Talk about paralysis by analysis! Too often students get stuck on the choice of a prompt and never get to the essay itself. The Common App essay prompts are not requirements; they are ideas designed to stimulate a creative thought process. Focus instead on the key messages you want to convey and develop a storyline that illustrates them well. There is a very good chance an essay developed in this manner will meet at least one of the listed essay prompts.
- Don’t restate information that can be found elsewhere in your application. This is your opportunity to provide insight and interpretation. Essays that become travelogues or resume narratives have little value to the reader and are wasted space.
- Focus on your experience! You’ll hear a lot from “experts” about taboo topics (sports, death, disease, divorce, pets, etc.) and generic essays on related topics are not a good idea. On the other hand, if you have experienced something intensely personal and profoundly meaningful within such a topic, help the reader to know how the experience affected you.
- Find the story within the story. Quite often, metaphors are effective in framing key messages in college application essays. If you have identified themes or messages to be conveyed in your application, think about vignettes or moments of revelation or clarity that speak to the bigger picture of your developing perspective. What were you feeling at the time? How did you react? What has been the impact of that experience on how you see yourself in the world?
- Reveal—don’t tell. It is best not to recite the facts of your life. Instead, take the reader between the lines to better understand you, as a thinking person. Colleges value diversity of thought in their classrooms. The essay is your opportunity to reveal that element of diversity that can be found uniquely within you.
- Demonstrate the synergy between yourself and the institution in response to the “Why do you want to come here?” essay prompt. You don’t win points by telling them you want to study with their “world famous professors” in their “top ranked programs.” Instead, reflect on your research and/or campus visit experience to project yourself into the culture of the place. Reveal an awareness of instructional style and independent learning opportunities.
- Be measured and concise in your presentation. While complex sentences are sometimes necessary, it is best to err on the side of simplicity. This can be especially true in a story-telling narrative. A series of short, “punchy” sentences can have a powerful effect in delivering emotionally laden messages.
- Allow paragraphs to be your friends! An essay that is presented in a few long paragraphs is not only hard to read—the resulting word “blocks” can be overwhelming to tired eyes—it effectively obscures the author’s key messages. Change paragraphs with each new thought. And remember—a one line, one sentence paragraph can be more impactful than a 3-4 sentence paragraph.
- Find creative solutions to conveying ownership of your thoughts. Don’t use the word “I” to start sentences any more than is necessary. It is assumed that you are the author. You don’t need to remind the reader at the start of each sentence.
- Speaking of unnecessary words, check to see if the word “that” is needed wherever it appears in your draft. If not, delete it.
- Avoid dangling prepositions (e.g., to, for, from, with, about). Such words will undoubtedly play important roles in the articulation of your thoughts, but they don’t belong at the end of sentences!
- Punctuate creatively to emphasize key points. The strategic use of long dashes (double hyphen) and exclamation marks as well as italics and bold-type characteristics can add emphasis. Use quotation marks to indicate you are giving special meaning to a word or phrase. Be careful about using semi-colons, though, as they often set apart independent thoughts that should be punctuated as sentences.
- Don’t restate the essay prompt. Doing so is unnecessarily redundant and can limit your ability to take a more expansive approach with your essay.
- Eliminate qualifying phrases such as “I think” and “I believe.” They convey a lack of conviction. Generally speaking, you should try to project a more confident, assertive voice in your presentation.
- Make sure there is agreement between nouns and pronouns as well as verb tenses. Failure to do so is an indication of poor grammar skills, carelessness—or both.
- Whenever possible, write in the active voice.
- Eliminate unnecessary adverbs. There is a tendency to want to impress with flowery language—and adverbs often comprise the “bouquet.” Don’t overdo them.
- Speaking of flowery language, use the thesaurus judiciously! The words you use need to sound like they are coming from you. If not, they can be rather jarring to the reader!
- Don’t worry about the word count until you have developed a complete draft. Word and character counts can be paralyzing if you allow them to dictate your approach to an essay topic. Instead, commit yourself to an idea. Write it down from start to finish. Then, take a step back in order to gain perspective. As you begin to edit and refine the idea, challenge your word choices. Are they essential to conveying the key messages? If not, eliminate them.
Make a Good Essay Great!
Finally, when you think you are finished with your essay, dare to make it great! First, attempt to reduce your word count by 10%. Doing so will force you to examine every word, thought and article of punctuation. Even if you are not able to reduce by 10%, making an honest attempt at it will make your essay better.
And then have someone read it out loud to you. When you proofread silently, your brain will play tricks on you (there is only one “and” in the sentence when, indeed, it reads “and and”). Hearing the words as written will force you to acknowledge the script as it is. Don’t be surprised if you need to ask the reader to pause while you make a change or two!