What Makes An Effective College Essay

Unlike every other aspect of the application, you control your essay. Make sure that the glimpse you give the admission committee into your character, background, and writing ability is the very best possible. Here are seven tips to help you focus and make the most of your application essay.

In our experience, the main worry that applicants have is that their essay won’t stand out. This is a legitimate concern as you will likely compete with numerous applicants who have backgrounds similar to yours. Therefore, follow these tips to ensure that your essay shines in the competitive admissions process.

1. Analyze the prompt thoroughly

Take three minutes to think about the prompt. If needed, divide the prompt into phrases and look at each aspect. Why would the admissions officers ask this prompt? What do you think they want to know? How does that information relate to your ability to excel in college? Next, leave the prompt for a while and then return to it. Do you see something new? 

With so many other things in your schedule, this process can initially seem like a waste of time. However, it will save you a lot of time in the long run. If you later realize that you misread the prompt, you might need to start the writing process from scratch. 

2. Organize your writing

Like the first item, this isn’t something that should take a lot of time. This is another step that can initially seem completely skippable, but organizing your writing can save you considerable stress and frustration. A good writing plan can streamline or even eliminate the need to do any significant rewrites.

Brainstorm your anecdotes. Create a rough outline, including approximately how long each paragraph needs to be in order to complete the essay within the word count limits. Finally, figure out when you’re going to write. A paragraph a day? The whole thing next weekend? Creating a schedule, even if you need to modify it later, gets your brain in motion. 

3. Show instead of telling

When selecting anecdotes for your essay, pick vivid ones that you can tell succinctly. If a story would require 450 words of a 600 word essay, then you’re not going to have a lot of space to express self-reflection and analysis of the situation. Remember that the admissions officers are more interested in your perspective of what happened than the events themselves.

In addition, keep in mind that the admissions officers don’t know you personally, and that’s why they’re reading your essay. They want to get to know you, and the essay is your first introduction. Because of this, don’t tell them that you’re passionate about public service. Show them through strong examples. Help the admissions officers envision each example as if they’re experiencing the situation alongside you. 

4. Know your vocab

Your admissions essay should reflect command of college-level vocabulary. One of the most common mistakes that we see in essays is using advanced vocabulary almost correctly. Even among synonyms, there are shades of meaning. If you’re using a thesaurus, look online for examples of that word in action. Will it still fit into your sentence?

Avoid overdoing it. Advanced vocabulary should be the spice of the essay to give it flavor, so you’ll use plain language most of the time. Essays that are riddled with advanced vocabulary can seem pompous or even inadvertently comical to the reader. 

5. Write succinctly

Can you say what you need to say in fewer words? Can you substitute an advanced vocabulary word for a phrase? Writing concisely expresses to the admissions officers that can organize your thoughts and that you respect their time. 

6. Combine like ideas into more sophisticated sentence structures

The vast majority of the sentences in your essay should be compound, complex, or a combination of both (compound-complex sentences). Save simple sentences for instances when you need to create impact.

7. Seek qualified second opinions

You should absolutely ask others to take a look at your essay before you submit it. As we work on things, we become blind to mistakes that will be glaringly apparent to others. However, limit the number of people you ask to two or three. Asking too many people for feedback will only confuse you and result in a lower quality essay as you revise the essay according to each person’s advice. Therefore, look to individuals who have background and expertise in the college admissions process.

 

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A great college essay is more than a good story. Students should ask themselves some
questions before writing and while proofreading any rough drafts.

Which character attributes should shine through?
Ability to work with others? Adaptability? Independence? Maturity?
All of these work -- it's okay also to be less than perfect as we all are just that.

What topics give the student something good to write about?
Work or volunteer experiences? Academic achievement? Overseas travel? Family life? These are good but too general -- isolate an event or one experience. Don't repeat what is evident elsewhere on the application

What happens to those applicants who don't seem to have the experiences to draw from? Writing about small daily occurrences can produce excellent essays.

Here are tips for writing an excellent college admissions essay:

1) Make yourself shine within your own story: It's important that you don't repeat what has already been stated on your activity resume, but you should highlight your accomplishments in your essay -- weave them into your story. Reveal your personality and perhaps your future goals in your writing.

2) Be humble but don't be modest: Don't underestimate yourself in any way and be proud and secure in who you are. Sincerely describe your most impressive accomplishments but don't overdo it.

3) Be confident in your statements: It's important to write as though you deserve gaining acceptance. Present yourself as unique with specific skills and passion.

4) Use personal stories: You really own your essay in this way and no one else can tell your story; this is what makes you unique.

5) Write descriptively: Engage the reader and be specific about your experience. If writing a memorable story about a ride in the car and what you saw, have that reader sitting there with you. A good story is priceless and you will catch attention in this way. Use powerful imagery and personal anecdotes whenever you can. Leave readers with a lasting impression and it will serve you well come decision time!

DOS & DON'TS in college essay writing:

DO

  • Use personal detail: show, don't tell.
  • Be concise.
  • Vary sentence structure and use transitions.
  • Use active voice verbs.
  • Answer the question and follow directions.
  • Seek a few opinions.
  • Stay focused as you have a limited word count.
  • Revise, revise, revise and proofread.

DON'T

  • Write chronologically -- it can be boring.
  • Thesaurus-ize: don't write what you think admission officers want to hear or use language that is not your own.
  • State a point of view without backing it up with details and examples.
  • Repeat what is listed on your activity resume.
  • Use slang.

Your character is the hardest thing for admission officers to measure. The essay is your chance to reveal who you are -- your passions, values, authenticity and sincerity. Be yourself!

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