Many students I talk to worry about writing their college application essays. They know the essay is important, but they aren’t sure how to find the right topic or even what colleges are looking for. As more students apply for a limited number of spaces, colleges are placing increased emphasis on the essay. Here’s the good news: It’s worth the effort. A well-written college essay can help a student rise above the competition, and might even be the deciding factor for admission.
Here are five keys to writing a successful college application essay:
1. Tell an interesting story
Would you want to read a book that was boring? Probably not. So don’t bore your college reader. Find an interesting way to begin your essay and then engage the reader with well-chosen imagery and word choice.
Here are three ways to draw a reader in to an essay: 1. Start in the middle of the story, where your action or conflict begins. 2. Ask a question. 3. Create suspense by not revealing everything right away; let the story unfold as you go.
2. Make yourself shine
Are you compassionate? Do you have a business mind? Are you a good leader? Your essay should say positive things about you. Write down your five best qualities, and then think of an example that illustrates each one. Try to include at least one of your good qualities in your essay.
3. What have you learned?
Colleges want to know how you’ve grown as a person or what you’ve learned from the experience you’re writing about. This is an essential part of your essay. Why? Because schools want to learn about you: how you think, what’s shaped you, who you are, and what you might become. Your viewpoint is important, so tell them; write not only about what’s been important to you, but why.
4. Be unique
Can 100 other students write your essay? If the answer is Yes, then your essay’s not personal enough. Use this checklist: Try to be more specific by adding detail to your story. Don’t just say what happened, show it. Remove generalizations, such as, “it was so amazing.” And dig deeper, to find the reason your topic has meaning for you.
Proofreading is essential; too many mistakes will give the impression that you’re sloppy or can’t write. Commas and periods need to be in the right place, and words must be spelled correctly. Don’t rely exclusively on Spell Check, because it can miss mistakes (“their” vs. “there”). This is a great time to ask a teacher or other adult who’s good with grammar to look over your essay.
If you walked up to your friends and said, “What’s shakin’, bacon?” instead of “Hi,” would they laugh? Would they wonder what alien abducted their friend, or whose voice you borrowed?
There are lots of ways to say hello: “Hi, How are you, How ‘ya doin’, Yo, Peace, Hey, What’s up…” the list is almost endless. Whatever way you say hello, it’s your own, because you’re speaking in your own voice.
The ability to write in your own voice is one of the basics of a good college application essay. You shouldn’t try to sound like a college professor. You also shouldn’t sound like you’re having an intimate chat with your best friend.
How do you know if you’re writing in your own voice? Here are four ways to tell:
1. Read your essay out loud: If it reads easily, you probably have a good handle on your voice. Take note of places you stumble and work on those.
2. Is your writing style too formal? If your essay has a lot of formal language, like “thus” and “however,” take another look and make sure those words are necessary. If not, choose less formal words. If some of your sentences feel stiff when you read them out loud, try changing the sentence structure and then read them again.
3. Is your writing style too casual? It is possible to be too casual. Remember, you’re writing this essay for a college admissions officer to read. This isn’t a text to your bff.
4. If you’re having trouble finding your own voice: Try writing a mock letter to a friend who doesn’t know you very well. It can be about anything: school, your friends, what you do for fun, even what the dog did yesterday. Be the narrator and explain what that part of your life is like. As you write, you’ll find you start using more of your authentic voice.
Your college admissions essay needs to reflect you, and who you are. One important way to do that is to write in your own voice.
And hold the bacon.
Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting in Redding, Connecticut, specializing in college essay application writing and interview skills. She is a two-time Emmy nominee for writing and the recipient of a Writers Guild Award. She can be found at www.firstimpressionscollegeconsulting.com. Her blog is www.applyingtocollege.org.