EducationUSA Mentorship Program

Wisdoms for Writing a College Application Essay

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Cathy Colglazier, EducationUSA contributor

  1. The application essay is important – but as many high school students are accepted into college because of their terrific essays as ones despite their poor essays.  It is best to do well on this part of the application, however, as it is the one time you can speak to your college personally, but don’t over stress.  You will be evaluated by many factors, and this is just one.
  2. The college essay is an informal, familiar piece and not a five-paragraph essay of analysis. It is not the way you have been writing in history class or IB/AP practice tests.  Your audience is a college admissions officer (often someone in her 20s or 30s). That person is not a professor with grey hair and pipe who teaches philosophy nor one who dresses like your maiden aunt and is the world’s expert on the mating habits of a rare Amazon insect.
  3. Write about a topic only you could write.  Don’t try to impress, just be honest.  Remember that admissions people often read the essay last, so they know your GPA, your clubs, your profile from your recommendations.  What they don’t yet know is you – so “talk” with words to this person so you become real to him/her and not just a batch of statistics.  Do not merely give your application information in paragraph form, and don’t use the essay to heap lavish praise on the college.  They know who they are, but they don’t know you…yet.
  4. There are no bad topics – just bad essays.  Don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t write about.  Be careful and maybe even political in your choices, but don’t dismiss a topic that is uniquely yours.  You can be strategic in your choice — how many kids will write about a mission trip or being captain of the basketball team?   Try to find that special topic that truly reveals you.   Remember, despite the prompt, every essay is asking only one question:  Who are you?
  5. Most colleges have strict limits, words or characters.  You should use them up as too short an essay will most likely be undeveloped or show lack of interest.  Going over or under by 25 words is usually permissible with a word limit.  If you have an open length, still don’t go over two pages.  A three-page essay is too long. Choose a topic that can be well written in your length.  You wouldn’t discuss all the causes of the Civil War in a two page essay, so don’t try to describe your entire life in a paper of that length.  Do a small focused topic – a flower, not your whole garden; a day, not your entire summer; a game, not the entire season.
  6. Introduction, introduction, and introduction – these are the first three important parts of your essay.  Grab the reader’s attention with solid, smooth writing, an exciting moment, a provocative word.  Make a good first impression.
  7. A conclusion should be like a gymnast’s dismount – “stick it” with your words like they do with their hands up in the air in triumph.  If you can compose an appropriate concluding line for your theme and your voice, you will leave an overall positive impression.  It also will make hazy any minor flaws in execution elsewhere in your essay.
  8. Persuade/Entertain/Prove points by making your essay specific at every turn.  You don’t want to write “I worked with an elementary kid after school once a week.”  Instead, you should add detail and write, “Each week I tutored Elena, a shy third grader who was given to me because she was failing math.  Walking tentatively over to my place in the local elementary school cafeteria that first day, her head was down and her hands clutched a math book with crumpled worksheets sticking out at all angles.  Before Thanksgiving break, though, she was skipping over to me, waving test papers with 80% or better on them.”
  9. Story telling is the best writing there is – bar none.  If you tell a story, readers think they know you, and, better yet, they enjoyed getting to know you.  Treat your essay like a film script — can the reader film your narrative or get a picture of what you are like? Have at least one good story in your essay.
  10.  Never ask what “they” want to hear in the essay – rather give them what you want them to know about you.  Look over your application, note your standardized test scores, and think about what your recommendation writers will be saying about you.  Now, what does this college need to know about you that they have yet to learn?  You might also use the essay to explain any part of the application that is less than stellar — a tough sophomore year when life didn’t let you concentrate on school work, or a challenge you had in a particular course and what you learned from the experience.  Again, tell the admissions people what you think they need to know about you.
  11. Get help in the editing of your paper – but don’t get too much help.  A school counselor or English teacher or some other adult can be helpful guiding you to write the best essay on the best topic for you.  Be sure just to allow them to guide, though, as an overly adult-edited paper just reads oddly to a savvy admissions officer, and most of them are savvy.  Parents are often good resources, but we wary of them as well.  They don’t always have the most objectivity regarding you — you are perfect! — or awareness of the college application essay — it is not a bureaucratic memo to the Secretary of State. A fresh, honestly written teenage essay, even one with some mistakes, is more impressive than a manufactured essay edited by too many adults.  Own your paper.
  12. Neatness and correctness count as well as following directions.  Be sure to answer the prompt!
  13. Write a good essay and modify it for other colleges.  Do not write a new essay for each institution – they don’t expect you to, and you’ll go crazy if you try to do that, or suffer with your senior semester grades.  Try for a topic that can suffice for many of your applications.  The essay is like the little black dress that is a staple of any woman’s closet – it can be dressed up or down by wearing jewelry or shoes.  Take one good essay and send it to Berkeley, but modify it and submit it to JMU as well.
  14. As you write, but especially before you seal up the envelope or push the submit button on your application, read your essay out loud.  This is the best editing tool, for it forces you to read slowly.  If you stumble over a long sentence, maybe you should rephrase.  Editing by reading orally will allow you to catch words you thought you had written in but didn’t, to find commas that were needed, or to remove those that were unnecessary.  Most importantly, ask yourself if the essay sounds like you.  Does it tell something important about how you think and react to the world?  If so, send it on.  Remember, if a college rejects you, you want them to reject the real you, not the one you manufactured for the application. Think of this admissions process as Match.com – if you portray yourself accurately, you could find true love.  If you fabricate or distort who you are, you could have a miserable date (or four years).
  15. Colleges are molding a class, so although there are many people they would like to invite, they won’t be able to invite everyone.  Think of the analogy as a party at your home – you have more friends that you can fit in your basement, but who will make a good party?  A college is not deciding your fate as a human being, just whether you fit with the other students on that college’s list one particular year.  The college admissions process is very personal on so many aspects, but the final decision should not be taken personally.

Wherever you go to college, you take one item that will guarantee your success — you.

June 2013

January 22, 2015

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