Writing a College Admissions Essay: The Ultimate Guide
College application season is right around the corner, and there’s no such thing as starting too early on the most important several hundred words of your student life to date: your college admissions essay.
The admissions essay can be the bane of your high school senior existence, one more thing to do on a long list of transcripts and graduation checks and final assignments. However, it’s worth every minute of attention you can give it. A well-crafted essay will weave your resume and the rest of your application into a personal narrative that shows the admissions committee why you belong at their school, and a flawlessly polished final product will show that you’ve got the dedication and attention to detail to excel there.
Don’t gruel over your admissions essay without a clear idea of what you’re writing, who you’re writing it for, or why. Instead, make writing your admissions essay a successful one by thinking strategically about your essay and following this guide.
- 1 Admissions Essays: What Do They Even Want?
- 2 What’s being asked, and how do you answer it?
- 3 Wowing with Good Writing: How to Craft the Perfect Admissions Essay
- 4 Polishing up Your Final Product: Editing and Proofreading
- 5 Conclusion
Admissions Essays: What Do They Even Want?
A college admissions essay, also known as your personal statement or statement of purpose, is a university admissions committee’s way of handing you the mic.
High school transcripts and resumes are full of static details that all bleed together in admissions readers’ eyes after long days flicking through countless applications. Your essay is your chance to make your story dynamic, to go beyond being a data point or a line on a spreadsheet and tell your readers why you’re different from the other applicants.
Essentially, your admissions essay is the chance to answer the question, who are you?
To make sure you answer that question tactfully and creatively, you’ll need to think about some other questions as you’re planning and drafting your essay.
Who’s reading your admissions essay?
Admissions committees are generally made up of teams of administrators and academic faculty, all of whom have a dozen other roles on campus and will be reading your essays between meetings, emails, classes, and conferences. During admissions season, they’re reading hundreds of student essays that can easily start to blend together in their eyes.
Therein lies your first hidden-in-plain-sight secret to a good admissions essay: do your best to stand out.
That doesn’t mean you should shoot for slapstick or outrageous, but it does mean you shouldn’t waste your time on sentences that your readers are already hearing in their nightmares. “I am honored to apply to the State University School of Arts and Sciences” is a cue for your readers to let their eyes drift out of focus as they embark on, sigh, another one of those essays.
Just four hundred more to go…
What are they looking for?
Each university is different, and every admissions committee will search for something different in your essay.
That’s why researching the school you’re applying to is crucial: click around some about pages and try to gather some insight into their values and how you might reflect those values as an applicant. A small liberal arts school may have a soft spot for quirky essays full of personality, whereas a New England private school may prioritize your preparedness to succeed in the business world or the diversity you bring to their student body. If you’re lucky, they’ll even have a “what we look for” page or some advice for students on how to write your application essay to serve as inspiration.
Regardless of the school, here are a couple of concrete things your readers will focus on when reading your essay:
• Writing skills. Big surprise, right? You’ll need to show the gatekeepers that you’ve not only mastered the basic rules of grammar and spelling, but that you can connect sentences and paragraphs in ways that make sense and build arguments.
• Logical organization of thought. This is closely related to the first point: your essay readers won’t be so much hunting for misplaced apostrophes as evaluating your ability to think logically and get your point across persuasively.
• Analytical and critical thinking skills. Many essay topics will ask you to do things like “consider” a problem or “reflect” on a challenge you’ve faced. Your response should show that you’re able to engage with an idea in-depth, rather than just recycling a few words from the essay prompt in a formulaic five-paragraph response devoid of effort.
• Personality and originality. Ultimately, the essay is a chance for you to craft your own personal narrative and show why you belong at that university. Your readers will be looking for a human face to emerge from the words on the page, one that looks like it’s well equipped and excited to become a part of the campus community. Just be yourself.
Since colleges vary widely in what they look for in potential students, it can’t be overstated that you need to do your research and know the school you’re applying to. With a little research and planning, you’ll have a crystal clear idea of what kind of essay will earn you the acceptance letter you’re after.
Why does your essay matter?
Do you know how many other students are applying to the same school with the same GPA, same SAT scores, and eerily similar extracurriculars and community service activities?
The answer is a lot.
Without your essay, your application is a soulless stack of papers filled with numbers and metrics that, at the end of the day, tell a very incomplete story about your potential as a college student.
Your application essay is your chance to become the author of your own story. Instead of being another kid on the stack of applications within this or that GPA range, write your way to the top: be the gifted writer, the girl with the passion that jumps off the page, the guy with the unforgettable backstory. When the admissions committee meets, you want to be “that student with the insightful/clever/engaging essay”, not application number 55729.
What’s being asked, and how do you answer it?
All college admissions essays are not created equal, and you’ll need a different approach depending on the essay that lies ahead of you.
Some universities rely on generic questions – “Reflect on a time when you faced a difficult personal challenge. How did you overcome it, and what did you learn from it?”
Others take a more straightforward approach – “Tell us why you think you’re a good fit for State University College.”
Still others provide you with a list of three or four prompts to choose from, or leave it entirely open-ended.
Choosing the right essay topic
If you’re presented with multiple topics to choose from or are able to come up with your own topic, you’ll need to think strategically about which one will best allow you to show your stuff.
First of all, write about something you know. In other words, don’t get so wrapped up in trying to predict what your readers are looking for that you write an inauthentic essay about something that doesn’t really matter to you or that you know little about.
Secondly, make sure to flesh out your application by going beyond repeating information from your resume and transcripts and writing on a subject that’s not covered elsewhere. One of the easiest mistakes to make is allowing your essay to devolve into a laundry list of all the classes you got A’s in or how your 300 volunteer hours have made you a better person, or other essay topics to avoid. If you want to touch on a particular course, project, or extracurricular activity, do it by telling a story that demonstrates the skills or values you gained from it and why they make you a good fit for the university.
Lastly, think hard about choosing an original essay topic. The admissions committee has already spent countless hours on essays about students who learned to appreciate their many blessings after volunteering in the community. Remember, your goal is to avoid being just another application on the stack. If you’re at a loss for starting points, search around for some essays that worked at colleges you’re interested in, and use that as inspiration for what kinds of topics put smiles on admissions officers’ faces.
And if volunteering in the soup kitchen is most relevant to the essay topic, approach it thoughtfully and with originality. Avoid clichés about your eyes being suddenly opened and delve into how it impacted you personally, and why this matters to the people reading your admissions essay.
Analyzing and answering the question
When given an essay question to answer, the key to writing a successful essay is both simpler and more complicated than it seems: actually answering the question.
Here’s an example prompt from the 2016-2017 Common Application:
“Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.”
This question is looking for a thoughtful essay about something that facilitated your personal growth during your “transition from childhood to adulthood”. If you read the question and reflexively begin jotting down all the experiences that helped you become the level-headed young adult you are today, stop right there.
In this example, one of the easiest mistakes to make would be writing an essay that lists, for example, three different experiences that helped you grow. An intro paragraph followed by three example paragraphs, each one systematically introducing an experience in the first sentence and describing its impacts in the sentences that follow. Sounds like your standard high school essay, right?
But that’s not what the question is asking: the prompt asks you to “discuss an accomplishment or event”, not list a few of them. If this is your essay topic, your challenge is to reflect on what your essay readers are likely looking for, and write up a few hundred beautiful words that narrate one formative experience in your youth, tactfully connecting it to your ambitions at the school in question.
In answering your essay question, always be sure to stick to the point, remembering that you’re not writing for your own eyes but for your readers. If you’ve got a choice in the matter, choose a topic that plays to your strengths, and if you don’t have a choice, then approach the topic in a way that highlights personal qualities that will help you succeed in college.
And then, whatever the topic, comes the bulk of your work: convincing the admissions committee with great writing.
Wowing with Good Writing: How to Craft the Perfect Admissions Essay
Whether you’re heading off to study Creative Writing or Industrial Engineering, good writing is crucial for academic success.
Aside from educating you about a particular field, any college or university’s main mission is to produce broadly educated and communication capable young adults. Regardless of your major, after graduation day you’ll be writing resumes and cover letters, giving presentations, attending meetings and interviews, and all kinds of other professional activities that will require you to be an effective communicator.
Your application essay doesn’t have to mark you as the next Dickens, but it does need to show that the basic skills are there to be built upon and that you know how to get your point across. Here’s how you do that.
Writing a good introduction
The introduction is the secret weapon of any kind of persuasive writing. Especially when your application essay is destined for a towering stack of applications as soon as you hit send, writing a couple of gripping opening lines is the best way to set the tone and get admissions officers excited to read your essay.
First and foremost, avoid cliché openers like the essay-killers they are. There are hundreds of essays sitting in that pile that begin with “It is my honor to be applying to…” or “Ever since I was a child…”.
Instead, be original. That doesn’t mean your first sentence needs to be something off-beat or cutesy, but it does mean that you should strive to write an opening line that hasn’t been written before. That should be pretty easy to do, since you’re a unique person with different thoughts and experiences than all the other students in the essay pile.
One way to do that is by opening your essay with a personal anecdote. Here’s another sample question from the 2016-2017 Common Application:
“The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”
Don’t start this essay with a sentence like “The lessons I’ve learned from my failure have been fundamental to reaching later success.” Do consider starting it with one like “I was sure I’d be chosen for Editor in Chief of the school paper Junior year, but getting passed over for the job taught me more about journalism and hard work than getting the position ever could have.”
Your goal is not to be gimmicky, eccentric, or attention-grabby in your introductory paragraph, but instead to give your readers a literate wink that says “Hey, this one’s got some thought put into it”.
Tricks of the trade
We could go on and on about what makes good academic writing and how to improve your writing. It’s an art, not a science, and for every rule there are dozens of exceptions.
In writing your admissions essay, however, you’ll want to let yourself be guided by a few evergreen rules of good writing that will help showcase your communication skills as well as your personality. Here are some of the most pertinent rules to showing your admissions essay readers that you know your way around a keyboard:
• Be concise. Your college admissions essay will normally be in the 400-600 word range, which means you can’t waste time with long run-on sentences and filler words. Try following George Orwell’s rules for writing well and concisely, or at least a more reasonable version of them.
• Skip the SAT words. There’s probably nothing in your essay that needs to be described as “delitirious” or “ebullient”, and you don’t need to “capitulate”, “impugn”, or “obfuscate” anything. It’s not a vocabulary test, and trying to show off your verbal repertoire just makes your essay sound inauthentic.
• Vary your sentence structure and length. Your sentences should not all sound the same. They should vary in structure and length. Sometimes students write many sentences with the same structure. This can make your writing sound robotic and uninteresting. Real people do not sound like this. Your essay should also not sound like this.
• Avoid clichés like the plague. Phrases that we’ve all read and heard thousands of times lose their ability to evoke images and inspire thoughts and emotions. Telling your readers that you like to “think outside the box” demonstrates a pretty inside-the-box way of thinking.
• Show, don’t tell. Speaking of clichés, this particular one makes a timeless piece of good advice for writers. Rather than listing off descriptive claims about yourself – “I’m a dedicated hard worker” – use your essay to illustrate your character, like with a story about that time you didn’t give up in the face of an overwhelming challenge.
• Write a different essay for each application. Even if the topics are similar, the universities and their values may not be, and nothing will underwhelm your readers like an essay that’s been copied, pasted, and sent off to a dozen different schools.
An admissions essay may have a very specific focus, but at the end of the day it’s still a form of writing, and choosing your words and how you put them together carefully can make all the difference in your application. Brush up on the basics of good writing, and don’t be ashamed to endlessly draft and redraft until you’ve got it right.
Stick the landing: your conclusion
Admissions essays vary so drastically that it’s hard to give any catch-all advice for what to include in them.
If your essay is a straightforward explanation of why you want to attend the university, you might want to end with a few sentences that tie the experiences you’ve described into the university’s stated mission or values. Or if your essay takes a more narrative form, maybe it’ll wrap up with the assertion that this experience led you to apply to your dream school, or with thoughts on how you’d like to continue your story as a student there.
Whatever form your essay takes, hold to the same general rules of thinking practically about who you’re writing for and why. No human reader gains anything from a paragraph that reads “In conclusion, in this essay I have discussed points X, Y, and Z. Therefore I am enthusiastically applying for admission at your university”.
Leave your readers with a feeling of your essay as a bridge between you and the university: drive home the point you want to make about yourself or your ambitions, and draw an unmistakable connection between it and your admission to the university.
Polishing up Your Final Product: Editing and Proofreading
Especially when applying to the most competitive schools, it can be difficult to differentiate yourself from all the other well qualified applicants. The last way you want to stand out is with typos or the wrong form of there/their/they’re. And that’s where editing and proofreading come in.
Tidying up your essay is almost as important as writing it in the first place. Editing your own writing can be challenging, but breaking it up into manageable chunks is a good way to start. Don’t expect to produce a perfect product in one pass: important essays like this will require many drafts – the more the better – and it’s not at all a bad thing if you spend days on end in a loop of revising and rewriting.
Revising and Editing
Think of your first read-through of your finished draft in macro terms: we’re not worried about grammar mistakes just yet, but rather making sure the big picture paints a flattering self-portrait we’ll be proud to show the admissions committee.
When you start editing your essay, start by giving it a logical diagnostic: have you addressed the question? Do the paragraphs proceed in a logical order, or do they hop randomly from one idea to the next? Upon reaching your conclusion, do you have the feeling you’ve been taken along a rational thought process, or dragged in a zig-zag pattern across your disjointed stream of consciousness?
Zoom in to the sentence level and ensure that the individual sentences that comprise your paragraph and your essay proceed in a similarly logical fashion. Keep an eye out for ideas shoved in where they don’t belong (like a line or two about the high school English teacher who inspired you in the middle of an essay about an experience at summer camp), and ruthlessly cut them out.
To help visually diagnose your essay’s organizational gaps, try copying the text into a new document and breaking each individual sentence out onto its own line. Is each sentence strong enough to stand on its own? Does it logically follow the sentence before it and clearly lead to the sentence that follows it up?
Once you’ve ensured the structural integrity of your essay, it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty.
Proofreading your essay
When proofreading your own work, it’s important to remember that your eyes are your enemies.
In reading over a text that you’ve not only written but probably also reread multiple times, your eyes will play all kinds of tricks on you. They’ll skim over missing letters and even entire missing words, and will miss details of punctuation. In the worst case, you’ll reach the end of a paragraph or the entire essay only to realize that the whole time your eyes were poring over the page, your brain was otherwise occupied.
You can correct this. First of all, try waiting at least a day after finishing all your revisions before you start the final proofread: your mind is saturated and fed up with your essay by now, so give it a little break. Once you’ve had some mental rest, head to a café, public library, or the park for a change of scenery and a dose of novelty.
For an extra boost, click on the ‘format’ menu in your word processing program and increase the
s p a c i n g b e t w e e n l e t t e r s, and double-space the lines. Then print off your essay, and bring along a pen and a straightedge like a ruler for extra visual focus.
Four eyes are better than two
A second set of eyes will almost always catch something that yours missed. When it comes to something as important as your college admissions essay, it’s worth the time to get someone to proofread your essay before you send off your application.
Reach out to teachers, guidance counselors, or even friends who are also in the midst of college applications. Ask them not only to watch out not only for surface errors in spelling and grammar, but to share their thoughts on what kind of picture of you is painted by the essay you’ve written, and whether that lines up with the image you want to present to your readers.
Your college admissions essay is the last challenge you’ll have to face as a high school writer, the final boss guarding the gates to higher education and adulthood. But it’s not as intimidating as it looks, and every year millions of students, from aspiring poets and journalists-to-be to essay-phobic Chemistry and Statistics majors, make it over the threshhold and into their dream schools.
Understanding who you’re writing for and what they’ll be looking for in your essay is crucial to selling yourself to the college of your dreams. Logically arranged paragraphs composed of brief, descriptive, and varied sentences will help you lay out your case for why you deserve to be part of the campus community, and an expertly polished final product free of errors will help close the deal.
Even if you’re no aspiring writer, a little originality and a lot of attention to detail will go a long way towards writing an essay that helps you accomplish your collegiate dreams. And most importantly, learning to think about writing in these strategic terms will give you a jump start on all the other essays you’ll be writing over the next four years.