Your college essay is supposed to tell your admissions officer two things: who you are and what you can bring to their campus. With the Common Application’s 250- 650 word limit, you don’t actually get a lot of space to do that. And don’t even think about going over — that’s only going to let your admissions officer know that you’re an overconfident rule-breaker that thinks you have more important things to say than the thousands of other applicants you’re competing with.
Therefore, to stand out, you must paint the clearest picture of your story with the space you’re afforded. Below are a few ways you can bolster the quality of your college admissions essay.
You can select from the prompts listed for the Common Application’s 2021-2022 cycle if you don’t have an idea where you want to start. Determine which question
if you consider yourself a high achiever, you can discuss your journey through the fourth prompt, which talks about events that spurred personal growth. Students with strong passions for specific subjects can also discuss why certain ideas matter to them through the sixth prompt.
Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, a renowned writing guide, recommends brainstorming your writing goals first. Then, divide your main topic into an organized set of points that accomplish these aforementioned goals.
Make sure to arrange your points in a way that makes sense to the reader. For example, you can write your points in chronological order, using your past experiences as a starting point and ending with your plans for the future. Or, you can arrange your points in a logical order. Here, you start with your main argument, then use experiences to build on the idea.
Think about whether the angle of your story has been written before. For instance, if you’re an athlete, you might want to discuss how you worked hard to get into your team’s active rosters. However, you’re competing against thousands of other student-athletes — many of whom might also be writing about how hard they worked for their sports accomplishments.
For your essay to make an impression, it needs to talk about the things that differentiate your experiences from those of others. Think about the unique motivations behind your interests or the things you did differently than other people in your field. For example, maybe you grew up shy, and trying out for a team sport was an opportunity to improve your social skills. Maybe you sacrificed a hobby or two just to have more time to improve in your sport. The more specific you are, the better.
If you talk about achievements that you’ve already placed in your application form, you’re not giving admissions officers any new information to work with. Instead, try to recall the specific stories behind your accomplishments. Then, ask yourself: which parts of these experiences could I not share in my application form?
For example, maybe you listed your competitive debate titles. This gives admissions officers a clear idea of your skills, but not so much of your personality. Extrapolate by narrowing down on a specific part of the experience. Maybe you grew up with social anxiety, and you took public speaking classes to overcome your fear of crowds.
Maybe your parents complained that you were too argumentative, so you found a productive outlet for your skills. Remember, you’re trying to convince your college of choice that you’re a good fit for their campus. If your achievements are proof that you deserve to be there, the experiences you write in your essay can expound on that evidence.
A common piece of advice many writers get is “show, don’t tell.” This means, rather than using language to recount an event, use details such as sight and hearing to paint a clearer picture of the scene. While 650 words won’t give you enough space for the
sensory details demanded in fiction, your point would come across as clearer if you supported abstract ideas with concrete details.
Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft explains that a writer’s job is to translate what they see in their minds into an event the reader can experience. Though you don’t need novel-level descriptions in your college essays, you can talk about concrete details to keep your readers engaged, and to give admissions officers a clearer idea of who you are. Don’t just say something like, “drawing taught me to be
observant.” Instead, describe the labors you took to grow, like how the desire to draw a face exactly right forced you to pay attention to what things really looked like.
When you show characters in action using concise language and fresh images, the scene becomes more vivid to the reader. However, King also notes that restraint is necessary — description makes writing immersive, but too much can be overwhelming. The most important part is to keep the ball rolling.
A fresh pair of eyes can catch grammar mistakes you might have missed, or provide new insights to build upon. NerdPapers has college essay writing services you can enlist if you want capable writers to help convey your ideas.
To market yourself to an organization, especially to the school of your dreams, your essay needs to be structured, distinctive, informative, and charismatic. Should you follow the above steps, the personality that shines through in your essay will be vivid enough to compel any admissions officer to carve a space for you on their campus.