3 Tips to Writing a Compelling College Application Essay

Aug 2, 2018 | College Admissions, College Applications

Depending on your feelings about writing in general, the idea of writing college essays could cause you great anxiety or great excitement. But whether you love writing or hate it, there are some tips that can make it easier for you and more likely to catch the eyes of the decision-makers in the admissions office.

  1. Write Early, Write Often

Start thinking about your application essays during the summer before senior year. Look into the requirements of your top colleges. Over 750 colleges accept the Common Application, which means you can use one main essay for any of the Common App colleges you apply to. However, many also require additional essays, and others offer optional essays.  Always do the optional essays, too. It’s another chance to help the college get to know you.

With the Common App, you’re given several broad prompts to choose. Because of their breadth, you may feel overwhelmed by the options. But if you start early, you have time to brainstorm. Narrow the scope and think of personal experiences or interests that will give the reader an insight into who you are. What motivates you? What are your dreams or future hopes? What interesting or even mundane, everyday event gives the admissions advisor a peek behind the curtain at the real you? This is your goal. Feel free to ask friends or family what they think – sometimes a third party can really see something about you that you don’t realize.

Here is a good example:  “Every time I walk to school I notice an elderly lady trying to cross the road, but cars don’t stop for her. She waits and eventually someone does. It got me thinking about rules and obligations vs intuitive kindness.  I started taking notes and watching the cars and their drivers more carefully. Here is what I learned……..”

Once you’ve come up with a list of ideas, try writing a catchy topic sentence for each. As you go through this process, you’ll find several ideas that inspire you more than others. Jot down a few bullet points and a conclusion for each of these 3-4 ideas. Which one excites you the most and says the most about you? That’s the winner.

Don’t think this brainstorming process is a waste of time to find just one essay. Not only will this be your best essay choice, but the other ideas may be helpful for other essay prompts colleges may require.

  1. Leave Them Wanting to Know More

This essay is your personal statement. The goal is to tell them more about you than your academic records do. So don’t just repeat content that they can read elsewhere in your application. Give some new information, or give more background and detail about something they might read in your records. Use your best grammar and avoid slang. The tone should be personal, not too formal.

Open with a hook. Yes, clickbait pre-dates the internet. A powerful opening sentence is a trusted literary technique. You want the reader to read the first sentence and say, “I want to learn more about this kid!” Example:  “Eight out of ten cars didn’t stop for the old lady trying to cross the street.”

Be concise. The Common App essay has a limit of 650 words. That’s not much. Consider using a literary technique or two to pack the most punch: analogy or metaphor, anecdotes, visualization, dialogue, question, emotion… but only use one or two. You want to help the readers remember your essay so that it stands out in the midst of the other essays they read. Then close with a strong conclusion that sums up what you want the college to remember about you. Make them feel as if they want you on their campus.

  1. Your First Draft Is Never Your Best – Rewrite and Proofread

Always rewrite. Always. Your first draft was a brain dump. Now go back and fine-tune. Then read it out loud and fine-tune some more. Then hand it to a friend to read. And a parent. Don’t let them change your tone or your essay idea, because you’ve gone through a long process to come up with this great topic. But they may find some typos or suggest a better way of wording something.

Sometimes it’s helpful to reach out to a professional who is an excellent writer and who knows what colleges look for. This step will give you confidence that you’ve nailed the college application essay.

You’ve done your best. You’ve shared who you are with the college. Now submit it. Use this method for any other required or optional essays and your college application process should be pain-free, stress-free, and enjoyable.