Why college essays are important:
Crafting a college admissions essay is an art in itself. Most applicants struggle with how to write a college essay. Often the only thing that can truly set your application apart from your peers’ when applying to extremely selective schools, your essay needs to be bold, gripping, and heartfelt.
College essays matter even more this year:
Everybody is curious about how colleges are going to make their decisions this year in light of the disruption created by Coronavirus. Many high schools did not even give grades for the last semester. SAT and ACT have been canceled for spring and summer and many colleges have already announced that they are not going to require the students to submit SAT or ACT scores. So, how do you differentiate from other applicants? Knowing how to write a stellar college essay is the answer.
How to Write a Great College Essay
Whether you’re writing about a family tradition or a volunteer experience, here are ten must-know tips to make your essay shine.
1. Write about something important to you
It cannot be understated just how well this piece of advice works. When you’re stuck between multiple topics to write about, a good way to prioritize is to simply ask yourself: which of these things matter to me most? Which feels more integral to your identity—that if it was taken away, you would no longer be yourself? These topics will naturally generate a more passionate voice, and it will be easier to convince your audience that this is something you really care about.
2. Show, don’t tell (Seriously)
You’ve probably heard this a million times, but it’s a cliche for a reason. This advice speaks for itself. The difference between “I felt nervous as I stepped on stage” and “my chest tightened as I feverishly checked my notes” can be what separates a winning essay from an average one. Go through the scenes described in your essay and imagine them as if you were watching a movie of yourself—what can you see and hear that shows what was internally happening to you?
3. Give them a peek inside the real you
Our experiences make us unique. Colleges want to know the real you. They want to know about your experiences and how they have shaped you. Stand out by sharing your experiences and how they have shaped. For example, if you grew close to an entrepreneurial parent or grandparent, tell them how you led a project for them, what you learned from it. If you failed, what you learned from the failure. If you succeed, how did success feel like and what you learned from it. Does that experience want you to be an entrepreneur in the future? If so, where do you want to make an impact?
4. Consider what parts of yourself you haven’t shown in other parts of your application
If you’ve come up with a sizable list of potential topics, narrow them down by strategizing in context. Take a look at the rest of your application—which extracurriculars do you highlight in your activities list? Do your course load and achievements serve to underline one particular subject of strength? The essay is an opportunity for you to showcase a side of yourself that isn’t as easily perceived from the rest of your application. Maybe you want to talk about how you enjoy poetry even though you’re a STEM-focused student. Maybe you want to convey how empathetic you are. Take this chance to think about the missing jigsaw piece. Show them you’re multi-dimensional.
5. Take your time brainstorming
Choosing a topic is the most fundamental part of your application. Instead of expecting the best essays to come from the most obvious ideas, take time to sit with your life, and really think about something meaningful to you. This doesn’t have to be about a huge project you did—it can be as mundane as the subway system in your hometown and what it means to you, or the little herbs you’ve been growing on your windowsill. Small things can often act as powerful metaphors to describe an aspect of your identity.
6. Start somewhere exciting
Writing about an important piano recital? Tempted to start with a paragraph describing your car ride to the recital, setting up background details? Well, why not start right in the middle of the recital as your fingers are gliding across the keys, and your mind is flickering through images of all those times you cried during practice?
One great strategy to ensure an engaging beginning is to start with an exciting, climactic moment. Then, you can jump back in time to provide the supporting information and fill the audience in on the rest of the story. By the end of your essay, you return to the climactic moment to let the story come full circle—much more compelling than a linear, chronological essay.
7. Don’t try to sound like someone you’re not
It may be tempting to try to create the facade of someone more intelligent, accomplished, and impressive than you are. You might find yourself anxiously clicking through synonyms to drop big words you’ve never used before, or make references to tough concepts you don’t fully understand. Resist this temptation: it will most likely end up backfiring, and you’d risk coming across as contrived and artificial. Instead, trust that your own voice and personality is what colleges want to hear, and lose the desire to sound like someone you’re not. Write what you know, and write it well.
8. Show them your values
Colleges want to know your values, what drives you, what excites you. Our values are the deepest part of our personality. They are formed early in life and usually don’t change throughout our lives. Colleges want a glimpse into your value system. Whether it is climate change that drives you or if it is equality for all or if it is community service, share your value system and let the colleges know the real you and how you will leverage the college education to mold the world in your value system.
9. Share your vision
Colleges want to know your vision for the world. Tell them how you will leverage the education and experience gained at the college to make the world a better place. Tell them how you will contribute to the college and make the learning experience meaningful and impactful to your fellow classmates. Share with them your dreams and aspirations for the world and what you will do to take us to the vision you have for the world. We have seen many examples where students got into amazing colleges on the strength of their essays with not so great grades or test scores because they laid bare who they really were, where they come from, and what impact they wanted to make to the world.
10. Start long, then cut it down
Word limits can become the bane of your existence, but a good technique is to ignore it at first. Write as much as you want, and aim for 20~30% more than what the word limit allows. Unless you’re a highly experienced writer, chances are your first draft is not nearly as concise as it could be. If you write a longer essay at first, you force yourself to cut the essay down by closely looking at what words are unnecessary, and by the time you get word-count down, you end up with a much tighter, well-written piece!
How to write a good college essay can feel like an impossible wall to climb, but it can also be a valuable opportunity for you to reflect on your life. Have fun, be true to yourself, and take these tips to heart!