There are many things you can do to help ensure that your college application gives you the best chance at admission to your dream college. Making sure it’s on time, making sure you don’t have any embarrassing photos posted on your Facebook (about a quarter of all college admissions officers check your Facebook profile while considering your application), and watching out for spelling errors and other mistakes are all essential (see Emily Driscoll’s “Get Your College Apps in Order Now” for more tips and general advice). Your biggest opportunity to stand out, however, where you can really show who you are and why you’re applying, is through your application essay.
1. Brainstorm: This important pre-writing technique is one of the best ways to make your writing interesting, and yet it is horribly underused. Jon Small, vice president of College Prep at Veritas Prep, explains: “In order to really stand out, students will want to brainstorm several different angles of their personality and then flesh each one out in essay form for review by friends, family, and academic contacts” (cited by Driscoll). It’s the best-prepared essays that will make the most polished impression on admissions officers as they’re reading through essay after essay, so sit down and make an outline of all the things you might want to say about yourself, then choose a few of the best, most interesting ones to use in the finished work.
2. Make the essay a top priority: The essay is really the most important (and the most time-consuming) portion of the application process, so make sure that you give yourself enough time to complete it. Don’t skimp over the pre-writing and drafting process by churning it out at the last minute.
3. Write about things that are important to you. If you really care about what you’re writing, so will your audience. It’s easy to get caught up trying to imagine what the college would find particularly impressive or unique, especially since the essay prompt you get on the application form is usually pretty vague, at least until you start looking into postgraduate programs. The reason for this is that they want to know who you are and where your interests lie, so don’t stray into subjects that don’t fit the criteria.
4. Focus on what matters. When telling your story, it’s important to focus on the goal of your essay. To this end, emphasize the parts of your story or experience that relate to that goal and leave out the rest; these are the parts that will be most important to your readers. (This and the next two steps are adapted from James M. Lang’s article, “Helping Students to Tell Their Stories.”)
5. Use real experiences rather than personality traits. In other words, show don’t tell. You want the admissions committee to know who you are, and the best way to do that is actually to describe what you’ve done and what is was like. It also makes for more powerful writing.
6. Describe your goals for the future. Students who make clear goals and plans are more likely to do well in a college environment, so try to envision where you’ll be in five years, what goals you want to have accomplished and what important lesson you want to learn. Painting this kind of picture shows how serious you are about your endeavor. Then, connect your past experiences with your future goals by talking about how the college you’re applying to will help you move from one to the other.
7. Find good reviewers to help you analyze your essay’s effect. Any personal essay is a risky venture, for the simple reason that we often don’t know what we sound like when we’re writing in first person. Writers often come off as insincere, arrogant, self-deprecating, or even servile without that being their intention. For this reason, an application requires a second opinion even more than most other writing assignments. For more detailed information about tone and persona in application essays, see “The Genre of Self-Evaluation,” by Rachel Toor.
8. Talk to an advisor or tutor. Some high schools and colleges offer advisors specifically for helping with your application essays, but there are any number of teachers with experience in such writing who’d be willing to help you. Tutors can often point to things in your essay that aren’t working with more precision than a casual reviewer, and offer more helpful suggestions about how to improve it.
Most importantly, just write it, and if it isn’t all you had hoped it would be, do it again. Writing a captivating essay takes time, review, and multiple drafts. What are some other tips you have for writing a personal essay?