Summer is the kickoff for many college admissions essay attempts, as rising seniors finally break free from the academic rigors of junior year with space to let their mind wander and develop a compelling piece.
After working with hundreds of students on their admissions essays, we have some suggestions to share for developing and refining an effective college admissions essay this summer.
Your Voice Is the Foundation
The essay represents the best opportunity for the applicant to speak directly to the reviewers, making it critical that the essay be written in the applicant’s voice. If the essay sounds like someone else, overly refined, or like a machine wrote it, reviewers will take notice. Be confident in your story and proud to tell it in your own words so it delivers maximum effect. No one else will ever be as passionate about your life as you, the person who lived it.
Aim for a piece that anyone who knows you could pick up and know you were the author by the end. And while they should know you wrote it, they should also learn something new about you in the process.
If you do not already have it, find that voice first before you begin to write.
Your Voice Is the Foundation
Your essay should not read like your resume in reverse order. Your goal is to tell the readers one story, with one or more valuable lessons learned, that led to a result that greatly influenced the student who will join their school in the fall.
It is okay if that story involves an activity or award the reader may know about because of your application. If you have spent years of your life focused on just one main activity, then the events that shaped you are likely to have happened in those spheres. In this case, it is important to find the small moments that might not be obvious, but which had an outsized effect on your development. Winning a championship game leaves an indelible mark on everyone. What 10 minutes of failure in a game two years before or missed chance at varsity sophomore year led you to playing in that game? Who got you playing in the first place? Those are the stories to tell your reader that can demonstrate your developmental arc as a person.
Details Make You Memorable
Even a great story can be forgettable. How do you ensure you connect with the reader and more of your story sticks in the reader’s mind? Details – specific details – and especially proper names.
As a quick example, which of these sentences is more memorable?
They both have the same word count, but the specifics enable the reader to see the picture more clearly and more memorably. Which sentence would you remember later? Which could you quickly improve by adding a just few adjectives?
How do you get more specific? First, keep asking yourself who, what, when, where, why, and how about each moment you choose to include in the essay to help flush out the details for your reader. Keep in mind that they were not there – only you lived that experience. You have to provide the scene for them to see. Second, look through your nouns for easy substitutions. You will quickly find that most can be swapped for something that provides more detail to the story.
Don’t feel like you must change every word – often just a few changes will make a huge difference.
Become a Piece of the Puzzle
Admissions staffs build their prospective classes with the goal of having a diverse community of individuals who will all fill different roles during their time at the school. So at the end of the essay, the reader should have a great feeling about you as a person and your potential to grow from that over the next four year, and even more importantly, they should have a strong idea about the role you would fill on their campus.
With this in mind, and in conjunction with writing with your own voice, it is also important to know yourself and what you do best, and then incorporate this into the essay through the examples you choose to use in the story. Are you a helper, a leader, a knower, a doer, an innovator, or something else? Or many of these? How can your story let these role(s) shine through? Help the reader see you next year doing the same thing to add value to their community, and you are checking an important box in the mind of the reviewer. As you plan the essay, think about how your topic and examples will convey who you are and what you can do to make your future school a better place.
Write 25% Too Much
The word count limit for the Common Application essay is 650 words, and we generally recommend using as much of that as possible to tell your story in the final essay you submit. To get there though, you really need to write 25% more than that, around 800 words, which will provide you with more material to choose from to edit it down to the best parts for the final. If you are having trouble finding enough to write about, you might consider changing topics or rethinking your piece. The best essays start with too many details and take shape from tough choices about what to cut or keep.
Having trouble getting started from the prompts? Remember they are just suggested guides. Your essay can be about anything that shows the readers who you were, who you are, and who you could become. And if you feel inclined, we always encourage more creative writers to step beyond the confines of a regular prose essay if it helps them to tell the story better through dialogue or other techniques.
With many colleges taking more holistic reviews of their applicants, the college essay continues to grow in importance for its ability to show unique qualities about every applicant. Especially in reviews at elite and small schools, we continue to find it provides a useful means for the real student to shine through and set themselves apart from other applicants.
Need help starting or editing your college admissions essay? Contact us to discuss your needs. We offer hourly rates and package deals to serve a variety of needs. Essay services are available individually throughout the summer and fall or as part of our college application workshops in August.