What Should You Include In Your 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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Few things intimidate high school seniors more than writing their college essays. Perhaps it's the thought of "summarizing" yourself in 650 words (an impossible task) or the vision of a grumpy, elbow-patched, pipe-smoking admissions officer reading it and wielding a big red REJECT stamp on your work (real life is not this dramatic). Whatever the reason, writing the college essay is a daunting task -- and one that requires time, care and thoughtful consideration. It pays to get started early; be willing to discard drafts that aren't working and to give yourself enough time to share your writing with people who can provide useful feedback. Remember: nothing you ever enjoyed reading was a first draft! So it makes sense that the summer before senior year is a good time to begin the process.

Here are five tips from my new book,B+ Grades, A+ College Application, to help you get your creative juices flowing, discover good ideas, and put them onto paper for a piece of writing that genuinely stands out in a sea of clichés.

1) The essay must add something to your application.

There are only so many things that an admission officer can learn about you from your high school transcript and your official test scores. While these are just numbers, you are most definitely not. The essay is your chance to show the admission committee what makes you a unique individual. While it may be tempting to write your life story, keep in mind you have already had the opportunity to detail your background and activities in your application. So what else can you write about? Some of the best essays are actually about personal observations and experiences that may have seemed insignificant at the time, but exhibit your true character. Still stumped? Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to help you reflect on what makes you a unique and interesting individual:

What single achievement are you most proud of?
Where do you think you will be and what will you be doing ten years from now?
What's the most difficult thing you've had to do in your life?

2) Don't bite off more than you can chew in 650 words.

Even the best's authors can't tell their whole life story in 650 words, so don't even try! The common application word limit may sound confining, but the key is to express an idea or story in a concise and compelling manner. Instead of overwhelming your reader with every detail of your high school experience, focus on something particular that is illustrative of a larger quality.

3) Show, don't tell.

This is an English class cliché for a reason -- good personal essays need details that make the reader feel that she is coming along on a journey with the writer. Anyone can call himself adventurous but only an individual student could describe the sounds, images, thoughts and emotions he experienced when jumping out of an airplane for the first time. These details show the reader that you are adventurous. They make the essay personal and authentic.

4) Grab your reader in your first paragraph.

Most admission officers read upwards of 1,000 applications each year, which is why it is imperative that your essay stands out among the sea of other qualified high school students. I suggest beginning your essay with active language, in the present tense that draws the reader into a specific time and place. Think of your opening paragraph as "setting the stage" for how you're going to tell the rest of your unique story. If you don't hook your reader in the first paragraph, your essay is likely to get skimmed or looked over.

5) Mark your territory.

Simply put: your essay is yours. It should contain unique and personal details that only you could know and describe. Though the importance of this rule may seem obvious, it is actually very difficult for most students who are new to writing essays about themselves. How do you know if you have successfully marked your territory? Ask yourself, "If I dropped this essay on the street and my good friend picked it up, would she be able to tell that I wrote it?" If the answer is yes, then the essay is truly written in your unique voice and there's nothing generic about it.

Follow Joie Jager-Hyman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/joiejagerhyman

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