Top 10 Tips for a Winning College Essay

We now take a break from standardized testing to turn to a subject that is of immediate concern to those who will be applying to college this year: the college essay.
You may be wondering why I am writing on college essays in July, when most students begin working on their applications in the fall. In fact, there is no better time to begin brainstorming essay topics and working on rough drafts than the summer. From my experience, when students are faced with a tough academic workload and time-consuming extracurricular commitments in the fall months, college essays are often the first things to fall by the wayside. This usually results in unnecessary stress for students and their parents, last minute writing over the Christmas holiday, and in many cases a less-than-ideal final product.

The tendency to procrastinate may be down to the dread many students feel when thinking about the essay. Some are not used to writing in the highly personal style of American college essays, while others are completely baffled by what constitutes a good essay topic. Whatever their worries, I urge students to look at the essay portion of their application as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. In a highly competitive admissions environment, it can be extremely difficult for admissions committees to differentiate candidates based on their transcripts and test scores alone. The essay is the only component of the entire application process over which the applicant has complete control and their only chance to share who they are in their own words. Every admissions officer I have spoken to has said that a great application essay can turn an applicant who was a “maybe” into a firm “yes.” That alone should be reason enough to give the essay the time and attention it deserves – and to start writing immediately.
To get off to the right start with your writing, read on for my tips and hints for a compelling college essay!

1. Tell them something they don’t already know

Try to think of all the information in your transcript, list of extracurricular activities, and, speculatively, your teacher recommendations. What can you say about yourself that hasn’t already been conveyed in these application materials?

2. Be authentic

Write about a topic that is personally significant to you, and make sure you truly believe in the ideas conveyed in your essay. Don’t worry about sounding impressive; it’s much more important to be true to yourself. If you’re funny, be funny and if you’re serious, be serious. But certainly don’t try to invent a whole new persona to be more appealing to admissions officers, because they will see right through it.

3. Be thoughtful

The ability to reflect deeply on the experiences or situations discussed in the essay is perhaps more important than the subject matter itself. Ask yourself how you grew, what you learned and how your outlook changed as a result of your experiences, and make sure to devote time to this introspection in your essay.

4. Be candid

Discussing one’s feelings, personal failures or controversial topics is considered taboo in many academic cultures. However, when it comes to American college admissions essays, intimacy and vulnerability are expected – and even desirable. Just avoid veering into confessional territory!

5. Make sure to have a central theme

Ask yourself at every step in the writing process what you would like readers to take away as the key message of your essay. This is your theme. Identify it, articulate it explicitly, and ensure that every sentence in your essay supports it.

6. Don’t take on too much

Share a single engaging story, as it is a far more effective way to captivate the reader and shed light on who you are than recounting your entire life history. Remember, it’s better to say something clearly and persuasively, than to try to say everything and fail to say anything at all.

7. Place your story in a wider context

Even if you are answering an essay prompt about your identity, background or personal experiences, try to situate your story within a broader context of themes and issues affecting your community or the world.

8. Answer every essay question individually

Except for the single essay that is sent to all of an applicant’s universities that accept the Common Application, every school’s essays should be written individually. Do not prepare a “one size fits all” piece that can be recycled at multiple schools – this is lazy and impersonal.

9. Start and finish with a bang

Capture the admissions committee’s attention with an anecdote, imagery or a powerful metaphor in the opening paragraph of your essay. Furthermore, a sophisticated writer will revisit the introduction in the conclusion, cleanly bringing the essay full circle while also driving home its central theme.

10. Edit, edit and edit some more

Read your essay aloud to yourself, listening for awkward word choice, run-on sentences, and overall flow. Once you have reviewed it, make sure to give a copy to a trusted friend, family member or teacher to read as well. Finally, remember to proofread. Nothing says sloppy and last minute like grammatical and spelling mistakes.

Still confused? Worried that your topic is too risky? That you sound like a braggart? Many colleges post “essays that worked” on their websites, and I highly encourage you to get a feel for the style and substance of successful essays by reading a selection from Connecticut College, Johns Hopkins University, and Tufts University.

If you are still in need of advice, get in touch and we can set up a time to workshop your essay, no matter what stage you are at in the writing process.