If you’re a student sitting down to write your college application essay, I have one piece of advice for you: forget everything thing you know about writing. Okay, maybe not everything. You still need to have a basic foundation of the English language (spelling, grammar, syntax, and all that jazz). But forget the formula that has been drilled into your head time and time again of introduction with a thesis, three paragraphs to support said thesis, and a conclusion restating the thesis.
Now, I know what you’re probably thinking, “but that’s what every single teacher has told me, it’s obviously the magic formula to getting into my dream school.” I hate to break it to you – it’s not and here’s why: it’s cliché, it’s boring, and it won’t make you stand out even in the slightest. Think about it, if every teacher has taught you to follow the same generic formula, don’t you think every other student has been taught the exact same guidelines to follow?
The worst thing a college applicant can do is be generic; your application with undoubtedly get lost in the crowd. The entire reason why colleges require essays is to learn more about your personality, passions, and experiences. But if your essay is bland, boring, and cliché, it won’t matter if you’ve traveled to every country, climbed Mount Everest, and solved world hunger. College admission officers read thousands of essays every year; you need to hook them and sell yourself.
1. Choose Wisely When Picking a Topic
A lot of colleges have a few prompts that you can choose from. Typically, they’re pretty overused and nonspecific themselves. This is a trap. Be aware, just because a prompt appears generic does not mean that the admission board is looking for a generic answer. The first mistake students make when it comes to college application essays is not really thinking about their prompt choice.
Too often students grab for the prompt that appears the easiest. But just because an essay is easy to write doesn’t mean it’s the essay that you should write. A good question to ask is, “Which of these essays allows for me to talk about myself in a way that the admission counselor hasn’t read before?” or better yet, “Which one of these prompts would all of my friends choose to write on?” – Never write on the prompt that every one of your friends would write on, you can be sure that 80% of other applicants will also chose to write on that topic.
2. Brainstorming Is an Activity You Should Be Doing
College essays are going to take some time and here’s the reality: you cannot sit down at your computer and in three hours churn out your best work. Maybe that’s fine for your English class, but this is your college application essay. It is going to require an investment on your end – plain and simple.
Once you’ve chosen a prompt, don’t just write an essay on the first idea that pops into your head. Sit down and brainstorm everything. I know the word everything seems overwhelming, but I mean it. If you have an idea of writing an essay about unicorns living the world of Oz, write it down. Just because you write it down doesn’t mean it needs to be the topic you choose. This may be a tedious process; after all, you have years of experiences from which to choose. But it’s essential to writing a really engaging story and flushing out all of your ideas. Put on some music, and let the ideas flow.
Once you’ve gone through this process you should have a long list of ideas. It’s time to narrow down your options (first things first, scratch that unicorn topic; you want to be unique, not weird). The question to ask yourself is: which of these ideas helps show off my personality and will be interesting to an admission counselor? Almost always, the more specific you are, the more engaging your story will be. If you are having a really hard time deciding, pick your top three ideas and write outlines for all three.
3. Create a Successful Outline
An outline is an item essential to writing a great essay. If you’re anything like I was in high school, you’re probably rolling your eyes at this statement. I know I did. I remember every single English teacher stressing the importance of outlines and brainstorms. Without fail I would roll my eyes and ignore their advice. I would then dive into writing an essay without a clue of what my point was and I would spend hours figuring out how to wrap it up (conclusions have always been the trickiest part of an essay for me).
But once I got to college and had multiple essays (some short, some long) due weekly, I realized that the idea wasn’t as much of a complete waste as I had once believed it was. Think about it this way, architects use blue prints and computer programmers use code; a good outline is like having a roadmap for your essay. Once you get it down, writing the essay is like driving with the GPS on; it guides you the whole way.
Your essay should ultimately be telling a story. So you should write your outline with a beginning, middle, and end in mind. When drafting your outline, it is also a time to begin thinking about some of the most important parts of the essay. In my opinion, a hook is the most important part of the entire college admission essay. By the time the admission counselor gets to the end of the second line, he has likely decided if he is invested or if he will passively read this essay because it’s a part of his job. You want something that will make him choose the first option.
Personally, I like to have an essay that takes a circle format, meaning that where you start is where you end. This can be achieved by opening with a quote that comes in later, or by telling the ending before you get to it and backing up. For a lot of students the circle format is the easiest to avoid lose ends.
4. Write the Essay
If you’ve really invested in the time necessary for the first three steps, then writing the actual essay should be the easiest part of the whole process. Use your outline to guide you. The most important thing you can do during the actual writing process is pull at the reader’s imagination. Do so by writing specific descriptions that allow the reader to paint a picture.
As you write, avoid grammatical and spelling mistakes, but don’t fret too much over them: you’ve still got one final step.
5. Proof-read Your Essay, and Then Proof-read It Some More
The only thing I hated more than writing an outline in high school was proof-reading my work. Once I was done, I just wanted to be done. But when I wrote my college application essays, I made one of the dumbest mistakes you can make: I sent an essay to a school with another school’s name in it. Yeah. That’s what happens when you don’t proof read. So learn from my mistake and proof-read your paper. After all, you’ve put this much work into it, don’t you want to make sure it’s just right?
If you are like me and find proof-reading to be a difficult task, try reading the essay out loud. A lot of times you’ll catch common mistakes that you may have missed by reading it silently. Then, give it to people whose opinion you trust. This may be a parent (but it doesn’t have to be), a friend, a teacher, a guidance counselor, a tutor. It never hurts to give it to someone who is really familiar with college admissions, but the most important thing is that the reader will give you honest feedback. Important questions to ask include: Does this interest you? Did you think it accurately reflected my personality? Was there anything you would change? Do you think the essay answers the original question? Did the introduction interest you? Did the ending give you closure?
Once you get this feedback, go back to your essay and make any changes necessary. Repeat this step until you are completely happy with it.
The last thing you need to do is have someone check your essay for grammar and spelling. As someone who is a horrible speller, I have been embarrassed by skipping over this step way too many times. The person you choose should not read your essay for content but solely to provide feedback on the basics. Once you get any changes, make them and review one last time.
6. Click Submit
After you’ve gone through the first five steps you are done and should have an essay that is interesting to read and also talks about how amazing you are! Make sure you save this essay if you are applying to colleges or even internships. Since there are so many generic prompts, you can often use the same essay more than once.
If writing is an area that you struggle with, I would recommend getting a tutor for a few sessions of writing help. This tutor can help you brainstorm, create an outline, and review your essay.