Applying to College: Writing a Killer Application Essay
If you’re writing an application essay, you need to stand out. Some colleges receive as many as 20,000 application essays—or more—and it’s likely that only a handful of admissions staff are tasked with reading through them all. If your essay can be the one that makes the reader smile or tear up a little after days of mind-numbing reading, your chances of admission to the college will skyrocket. Here are a few practical tips for writing memorable college application essays.
Whether you’re applying to a traditional or online college, your first step should be to decide what your main point is. What are you trying to say about yourself? Boil it down to a single sentence. Like a basic English paper, you’ll start with your main idea and then cite specific evidence to support that idea. Except this time your citations won’t be from outside sources—they’ll be stories from your life.
Back up your assertions with story
Don’t make any claims about yourself that you can’t tell a story to corroborate. It’s not enough to make broad, sweeping generalizations about how your mother’s illness has sparked your passion for medical research or that your visit to Venezuela has made you really excited about your own Latin-American heritage. You need to expand those vague, general statements about your passions and heritage with specific, vivid stories that show us where those passions come from—and what makes you who you are.
Reaching Out: Looking For Signs of Interest
There are no excuses for spelling and grammatical mistakes in an essay. Admissions officers are reading thousands of essays over several months, and they’re looking for easy reasons to reject some applications.
Take us on a journey
The best application essays show some sort of transformation in the writer. It’s not enough to tell readers that you have a passion—they want to know how you came to have that passion. What awakened it in you? How have your priorities changed? What major decision have you made in your life, and how has it affected your life and the lives of others around you? Tell readers a story about how you’ve changed, and it will tell them not only about what has happened in your life, but how you make decisions and how you think and experience major life events.
Broad, sweeping generalities are the kiss of death for good application essays. Admissions employees read thousands of essays every day with statements insisting students have a grand passion for helping people or music or engineering. They read very few interesting, specific stories that show these passions, rather than telling them. Make your essay personal. Give the reader a sense of place—write strong descriptions of where you are, and give details that set the scene. Good application essays are often more about strong creative writing skills than people realize.
Always proofread carefully
There are no excuses for spelling and grammatical mistakes in an essay. Admissions officers are reading thousands of essays over several months, and they’re looking for easy reasons to reject some applications. Don’t make it easy for them by failing to check your document carefully before sending it off. Run spell check, but also check it over manually several times—no spell check program is perfect. Have older siblings, guidance counselors, parents, and English teachers and other trusted friends and family read your essay and offer tips to improve it. Don’t send an essay out before several people have read it over.
Don’t try to inflate your achievements by bragging, exaggerating or lying. It’s possible admissions officers will be able to spot inconsistencies in your application and transcript—and if they catch on, it’s likely to get you rejected. Instead, impress the readers with your depth of feeling, strong writing skills and impressive analysis of the event you’re writing about.
Stand out with good writing—not gimmicks
Some students try to stand out by folding their essays into complicated origami cranes or writing their essays on the back of a posterboard collage. But ideas like this that seem creative at the time may actually make your essay more difficult to read—and that’s never a good idea. Instead, stand out with a strongly written essay full of specific detail.
Your application essay could make the difference between a thick package and a thin one. Give specific details and back up your assertions with story. Give readers a sense of how you’ve grown, changed and faced adversity, and you’re more likely to stand out.
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