10 Do's and Don'ts for How To Write a Great College Essay
Writing your college essay isn’t easy, but it can be a whole lot less painful if you follow your bliss, your heart, and your true self. Create a memorable essay that will impress the admissions committee with its originality and depth, not one that they’ll throw into the recycling bin because it is like hundreds of others. Here are ten tips to get you started.
1. Write about your favorite coach: Every top student athlete can boast about the dedicated leader who led their team to the big win for the state championship, but save it for the yearbook or school newspaper. If you’re passionate about sports, dig deeper into how you made the varsity team against all odds as a freshman, what propelled you to get up at 5am for practice every day when all you wanted to do was hit the snooze button, or write about how you formed the best friendship of your life during those long bus rides to away games.
2. Quote famous people, real or imagined: Whether it’s Gandhi or Gandalf, the admissions committee wants to hear from you in your own words, not someone else’s, no matter how impressed you are by them. They won’t be swayed by you filling up precious space in that 650-word essay with trite clichés, tired quotes, or overused catchphrases from popular culture. Song lyrics, commercial taglines, and cringe-worthy celebrity quotes will earn you no points to get into your top college. Write an essay from the heart, not soundbites for Twitter.
3. Brag about your awards: If you’re brilliant at biology and have been invited to present at the Google Science Fair, that’s great news. But don’t make it the centerpiece of your essay. Write about where that passion for studying mitochondria began, and why? Did someone in your family suffer from a neurodegenerative disease and you were inspired to major in medicine to help them? Have you been collecting and cataloging plant specimens in notebooks since you were nine? Why are you fascinated with snowflakes? Inquiring minds want to know and only you can show them.
4. Center your essay on politics: You could be a blue state card-carrying liberal “Yes We Can” voter, or a red state die-hard conservative chanting “Make America Great Again,” but your rhetoric will not change the admissions committee’s vote. They have heard it all before, hundreds of times. They won’t be able to see the core of you from slogans or your SAT scores. Have you rallied friends and family to join a Habitat for Humanity build in your town because you plan to become an architect? Did your passion for forestry spearhead efforts to clear trailheads in your local park? Turn that fervor into positive, compelling words about yourself and what drives you.
5. Be vague: This is your chance to be read and heard by one of the most important audiences you’ll ever encounter. Do not bore them, or worse, put them to sleep. Is what you’re saying applicable to any one of your fellow students or teammates? Are you writing in generalities about yourself and/or your topic without focus? Are you skipping over critical details? This is not the time to present a long list of accomplishments, cribbed from your resume or team victories, as a substitute for who you are and what makes you special. That doesn’t tell the reader anything. Be specific, be generous with facts and figures, and most importantly, be yourself.
1. Embrace what makes you different: This is something no teenager wants to hear, but it’s true, and essential to a successful college admissions essay. Much of high school is about conformity, fitting in, and joining groups of like-minded people. It makes students feel comfortable and secure. But if you choose to present yourself this way in your essay, you have wasted a huge opportunity to really shine in a critical component of your application. How are you different from your friends? What are you passionate about? What have you observed about life that you secretively obsess about? Reveal something unique about yourself in your own words.
2. Be positive: Colleges look for applicants who will add value to their school community and classrooms. Present yourself as an active and engaged student, who is ready to take on the challenges of college life with verve and maturity. What makes you optimistic? Will you deal with the inevitable pressures and deadlines with resiliency and leadership? Show the genuine depth of your core strengths in your essay and you will engage the admissions committee.
3. Write from your discomfort: What have you failed at and what did you learn from it? How did it change you for the better? Were you a bully in middle school, who eventually embraced the value of compassion and empathy, by seeing your victim’s side of things? Your personal growth is a great source of material if it is written authentically in your voice. Don’t gloss over the uncomfortable bits. On the other hand, do not be vulgar or explicit. Taking ownership of the experience and the part you played in it makes for a much more compelling read.
4. Use humor: The key word here is selectively. Be clever, be funny, and be witty. Make the reader join you in laughing at yourself and at the ridiculous situations you’re describing in your essay. Be generous with the details of the story and why you’re choosing to tell it in the way that you speak. What does this humorous situation teach us about you that the rest of your application doesn’t? The reader will form an image of you in their head by how you write and they will remember you. However, never be glib, self-deprecating, or downright mean in your essay. That is an instant turnoff.
5. Cut, cut, cut: Write quickly at first, letting the words flow without judgment. Go wild with your thoughts and put them on paper, don’t concern yourself about grammar and spelling at this point. Free your mind and open yourself to the process. Let go of the fear of a blank page. Be vulnerable and reveal yourself with your words. Write as much as you possibly can. And then start editing. Simplify your language and delete any highbrow words that you think will impress the admissions committee. Keep your essay simple, clear, and direct. Cut again. And again. Then cut some more, until you have the essentials down. Good job—you just wrote a terrific essay!
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