Write Your Best College Application Essay

9 Tips for Conquering the Dreaded Prompt

‘Tis the season for college applications, and whether you’re confidently typing up your last paragraph, or you’re sitting in a fetal position trying to think of an accomplishment that “marked your transition from childhood to adulthood,” we’ve got you covered. Below are nine tips for writing a standout college essay.

1. Start with a Story

Admissions counselors only spend a few minutes reading each essay, so it’s vital that you engage us from the beginning. The best way to do that? Share an interesting moment or anecdote from your life. It’s deceptively simple, but short stories naturally grab the reader.

2. Be Honest

One of the biggest mistakes students make is trying too hard to impress. Admissions folks have seen it all; don’t feel like you need to exaggerate your achievements. It’s okay if you were the National Honor Society treasurer rather than the president. And it’s okay if you didn’t hold an NHS position at all. Were you part of Anime Club instead? Tell us! Information that seems less-than-genuine stands out in a negative way. You’ll feel better if you don’t inflate yourself. Just be you.

3. Be Yourself

Write about what matters to you, not what you think we want to hear. Successful essays come from the heart—they aren’t Pulitzer-winning novels. Once you choose a topic you like, take some time and jot down your thoughts. It shouldn’t take long. What are you passionate about? How does your personality reflect what you want to study? When you write from the heart, words come more easily.

Note: If a college doesn’t accept you for who you are, then maybe that school wasn’t the right place for you, after all.

4. Take a Risk

Be controversial. Colleges are tired of reading about the time you had a come-from-behind win at the championship game or the time you went on a service trip to a foreign country. Show your creativity! If you must write about those topics, be sure to let your personality shine through. Many people write vanilla college essays, because they’re worried about showing their voice. It’s fine to write about politics, religion, or serious issues, just remember to be balanced and thoughtful. Give reasons for your views and consider other perspectives. College is a place to discuss ideas, and we as admissions officers look for diverse perspectives.

5. Be Vivid

Remember what we said about starting with a story? In your essay, give details to help the reader see and enjoy the setting. For example, try to use the names of the people mentioned in your essay, rather than simply saying “my brother” or “my coach.” This humanizes the essay and helps you form a connection with your reader. Those specific, everyday snapshots are often more interesting to read about than a vague list of accomplishments.

6. Say What Your Transcript Can’t

During the reading season, most colleges don’t have the time to research each individual applicant. We’ll only know what we’re told. Did you move to a new school? Did a rough first year set you back academically? Also, consider whether this info would be better left for the conveniently-named “Additional Information” section. If so, reserve your personal essay for a different topic.

Think: what do they really need to know about me? And where should I include these details?

7. Don’t Dwell on the Prompt

The actual prompt you choose does not matter. Prompts are meant to guide and inspire, and with the Common App’s 650-word maximum, the prompts are there to keep you focused. Anything can be the perfect topic as long as you demonstrate how well you think and hold the reader’s attention. When choosing a prompt, be sure to read the question carefully and answer it accurately. If your essay about “overcoming failure” has nothing to do with actually overcoming failure, we’ll begin to question your application.

8. Ditch the Thesaurus

Your communication can be effective without being overly formal. So feel free to write casually, just avoid highly informal language like slang, incorrect capitalization, or uncommon abbreviations. The personal essay is not a research paper, but it’s also not a text message. You are applying to a college, not asking us to hang out at the mall. Remember, the purpose of the essay isn’t to impress us with sophisticated SAT words, it’s to show your vitality.

9. Proofread

This last one is obvious, but seriously, check your essay for small errors. Run spell check. Then read it out loud. Then get someone else to read it. You can even try reading it backwards, the last sentence to the first sentence. Are you really excited to attend Chaplain? Really? The funny thing about writing is that sometimes you become so familiar with your written voice, that you start seeing what should be there rather than what is there. As a wise man once said, “Your eyes can deceive you; don’t trust them.”

Bonus: The Essay Isn’t Everything

The application essay is important, but it’s not the only thing we consider. In Admissions, we look at everything: transcripts, recommendations, extracurricular activities, class rank,—optionally, SATs / ACTs—the whole package. Think of it this way: a strong essay helps, especially if your grades and test scores aren’t the best, and if you want to stand out among the competition. But a mediocre essay won’t hurt you. So be daring, write from the heart, and most importantly, relax.

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