College Application Essay Tips

1. Consider the Following before You Begin Writing

    • The essay is where the admissions committee can get to know you. If you could meet with them, what would you want them to know about you? What would you want to show them about yourself? 
    • What you write should reflect on the person you are now and the person who you will be at the school to which you are applying. 
    • Can you find a specific experience that shows who you are? Can you find the nugget of truth about yourself, about what makes you you in an experience? 
    • What are you passionate about? What’s something that you’ve felt deeply about? This is a potential subject.
    • What have you done that makes you particularly interesting? 
    • Focus on one aspect of yourself. This needs to be an in-depth look at one project or passion.
    • Consider writing about a small moment that conveys larger truths about you. 
    • Consider writing something about yourself that’s counter-intuitive: you’re the serious game-player who also loves poetry; you’re intrigued by current trends in the fashion world and you also love coding; you’re the hockey star who wants to be an elementary school teacher.  But: be truthful in this.
    • Consider the school to which you’re applying. What makes a good candidate for that school? How can your essay show that you are that type of candidate? E.g., UC’s are big, competitive schools; showing that you have succeeded and can succeed in a competitive environment will demonstrate your readiness for a UC.


2. Suggestions Once You Start Writing

    • Address the prompt. Make sure that you are doing what the prompt asks.
    • Write about yourself. You’re the focus of the story.
    • Let your unique voice and personality show through. It’s called the personal essay. Make it personal. 
    • Examine an event with detail that you can recall richly.
    • Don’t just tell us what you do. Show us why you do what you do and how those things you do have shaped you.
    • Write about something that has changed and shaped you. A good story isn’t enough if it doesn’t reveal who are now and who you will be at the college or university.
    • Present yourself as genuinely humble and modest.
    • Present yourself as mature, reflective, curious, and thoughtful.
    • Show that you have knowledge about the college and the program in which you might be interested. 


3. Some Cautionary Notes

    • Don’t treat the essay as a chore. Embrace the opportunity to showcase your personality. 
    • Don’t just write what you think the college wants to hear. 
    • Don’t just recycle your resume and tell us all that you have done.  Your resume tells us that; tell us what the resume misses about you that makes you interesting.
    • Don’t just tell a story without letting the significance come through. If telling of some past event, it ought to be in the relatively recent past.  And your reflection on that event should be the springboard to explaining how that changed you, how it made you think or see or act in different ways now—a person prepared to go to this college.
    • Careful with deep, personal confessions. This isn’t your journal. 
    • Careful with a political or controversial topic unless that topic defines you significantly, or you’ve done work in the subject you could share. 
    • Careful with clichéd essays: the summer trip that lead to an epiphany, the big game when you overcame your fear of leading, the struggle that you overcame, the election you won, the sports injury, etc.  These are often used and can be perceived as almost trite by admissions officers. BUT:  If the moment that changed your life really is that moment, you can and should still use it.  But two things:  (1) You should explain how the moment propelled you into a different future, i.e., that you will now do things differently or now think differently, etc.  And (2) You can reduce the impact of triteness by acknowledging its triteness, as follows:  “Sure, it’s trite—but still it’s true:  my gramma’s death awakened me to the need to slow down and to be concerned with the small things.”  Or another example: “Yes, I get the typicality of it—lots of us off to college went on immersion trips and discovered the magic of service.  Trite as it may be, it remains as it is:  my immersion trip changed my life—the single one I have.  And so its importance is, at once, commonplace and breathtaking in its impact on the core of my being.”
    • You can even get away with trite, overused phrases, such as “outside the box,” or carpe diem—so long as you acknowledge that you know they’re overused.  E.g., “I hope some of my thinking has been somewhat sideways—'outside the box,' if you will.”  Or: “I’ve learned a bit about carpe diem—to wear out that tired phrase just a bit more.” 
    • Avoid “That’s when I realized…”; “That’s when I learned…”; “The lesson for me of this was…”; and similar kinds of telling sentences at the end. Let your story do the telling. Let a final image or bit of dialogue convey the meaning. 
    • Avoid tribute essays that show more about another person than about you. Make sure the essay is ultimately about you. The college will be admitting you, not the person to whom you’re paying tribute. 
    • Avoid gimmicks and stunts.  Essays written in non-standard ways (e.g., paragraphs shaped like objects; using crayons, images, emojis, etc.) take the focus away from you and the content of your essay can be undermined by an essay that now comes off as a ploy. 
    • Do not exceed the established word count limit.


4. Some Correctness and Style Tips

    • Create a Strong Introduction. Admissions officers read many, many essays. That’s why it’s essential to attract their attention immediately. A lifeless opening may cause the reader to not pay close attention to the remainder of the essay. 
    • Let the essay sound like you. It’s a personal essay not an academic paper. Be conversational and relaxed.   Use contractions—“didn’t” instead of “did not” creates a more relaxed, confident, in-command tone to your essay.
    •  “Very” is a tired, worn-out adverb.  It actually sucks the life out of the adjective it modifies because it is so overused.  Use something else—“significantly,” “extremely,” “particularly,” “to a noteworthy degree,” etc.
    • Reduce/eliminate phrases such as “I believe,” “I feel,” “I think.”  Well, of course you do—you’re the one writing the essay.  Use the phrase “I think” only to indicate that you have some modicum of doubt, i.e., that you’re not certain.  Example that makes this point:  “I believe that we are called upon to compromise…”  is a less-confident, less powerful expression than is this: “We are called upon to compromise ...”
    • Exception to the above point:  When praising yourself and your accomplishments, you can use variations of the “I think” phrase to make the “bragging” (which is needed!) sound less pompous.  E.g.: “I like to think that the club flourished under my direction,” or “On my best days, I hope to be…”, or “I’ve been told and presume to take them at their word that I’ve made a difference…”, etc.
    • Establish your voice through sentence variation, short sentences for effect, strong punctuation to guide the reader (dashes or a colon used for emphasis), and other stylistic elements. Never overuse these sorts of techniques; but do use them to add power and voice to what you write.
    • Don’t fall in love with the thesaurus. Use caution when showing off your vocabulary. You risk using language improperly and may appear insecure or overly eager to impress. 
    • Proofread your essay--have someone else proofread it, too.