College Admission Essays For Dummies
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Whether youre trying to write a college admission essay for the Common Application, Coalition, or even a supplemental essay for an individual school, the process of writing about yourself might feel unfamiliar and intimidating. However, the college admission essay is a pivotal opportunity to distinguish yourself from others with very similar credentials and encourage a school to admit you. Communicate clearly and convey not only who you are, but how you came to be that person.

Tips for writing a good college admission essay

You may have heard (correctly!) that college admission essays don’t have the same rules as those five-paragraph analytical essays you were assigned throughout high school. That doesn’t mean you can’t tap into some vital strategies to help you create the most memorable content you can and get admitted to the colleges you want.  

Here are some of those guidelines: 

  • Include details. Also known as “show, not tell,” this tip means that you must write your essay in a way that paints a clear and specific picture of your topic and avoids sweeping generalizations.
  • Focus the essay on one main idea. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have, for example, several experiences included in order to illustrate one main point — such as a character trait you’ve developed — but it does mean that you should avoid writing a complete autobiography. Find a key idea that feels meaningful and important to you and then zoom in. 
  • Don’t repeat yourself. Your longest essay — your personal statement — can’t be any longer than 650 words, or about three quarters of a page. Many other responses will be shorter. Every word and sentence should therefore contribute to the progression of your essay or be cut — you have no room for redundancy.
  • Use vocabulary and sentence structure that come naturally to you. Because your essay should feel like a conversation with a real person, the last thing you need is something convoluted or overly flowery. With a bit of practice writing naturally, you can discover your writing voice.

    If you struggle to read your own words aloud, that’s a good clue that you’ve probably overdone it with your language.

  • Be growth-oriented. Even if you’re writing about an adversity or hardship, your essay (especially your personal statement) should ultimately showcase learning and growth — not simply that you’re a wallower. As you write and revise, consider what your reader will take away about your resiliency. 


The process for writing college admission essays (in brief)

Some students mistakenly assume that the best way to map out their own personal statement essay is to read countless college essays by other people. Even though reading sample essays can give you a good sense of what a final structure can look like, this step can only take you so far as a beginner. In fact, comparing your own initial ideas to someone else’s finished product can actually be counterproductive. Instead, you should focus on identifying the personal experiences, memories, and characteristics (specific to you!) that will most reveal who you are to your admissions readers.  

Here are some ways to get ideas churning: 

  • Brainstorm important memories. Consider the moments in your life where your character was tested or revealed, or even the stories that stand out in the minds of those who know you best. Mining your life for material is your best starting point.
  • Talk to people who know you well. Ask them how they would describe you, what stories or anecdotes they might recall, or whether a theme you’re considering writing about feels consistent with who they know you to be.
  • Choose a central topic or theme. Remember that you aren’t able or obligated to tell the complete story of your life – instead, focus on a key idea that reveals an important aspect of who you are.
  • Gather details. In order to paint a vivid picture for an audience who doesn’t already know you, be as specific as you can. Write as if your reader is a blank slate when it comes to you and your topic —because they are!
  • Select a structure. After you brainstorm, you can begin to anticipate how you want the final version of your essay to look — in chronological order, for example, or interrupted chronological order?
  • Write a rough draft. And as you do, try to be patient with yourself. Your real essay will likely emerge out of the revision process (that is, the editing and rearranging that comes after you’ve made your first attempt to lay out your ideas).
  • Revise. Once . . . twice . . . then put your essay away for a week for good measure, and then revise again. Revising your essay is the key to not only catching grammatical errors and objective writing flaws, but also in improving your clarity and the overall framework of your essay.
  • Seek feedback from a trusted mentor, friend or family member. A second pair of eyes on your writing will help ensure you’re being clear with your essay’s aim and purpose — just make sure that you’re in full control of any edits or changes to your work.  


Most commonly selected topics for college admission essays

Even though the best topic for your college essay is typically the one that feels the most meaningful or interesting to you, the writer (Hint: Can you brainstorm details and insights without a ton of strenuous effort?), you can choose from several categories of topics that can guide your personal reflection. These overlap with the Common Application personal statement prompts and are worth considering:   

  • A significant experience: Notice that significant may mean either a positive or negative experience; with an essay as in life, it’s your reaction and perspective that matters.
  • A person who influenced you: When you write about an important relationship, you’re revealing your perspective, what you admire, and your takeaway from the individual (and where you differ). Such an essay can (and should) say a great deal about you.  
  • Your perspective on a current issue: If you’ve been moved — in particular, into action — by a cause you’ve observed or even changed your mind about something you once assumed to be true, you have an important perspective to be shared.
  • A challenge you’ve faced: In relation to showing growth (one of the “musts” for college essays), you should consider where it is you’ve been challenged or stretched beyond your perceived limits. Often you’ll find that your challenges have impacted you far more than your successes.
  • An important passion: When do you lose track of time or feel most like yourself? Your interests and how you spend the time that is entirely yours reveal a great deal about your values and character traits.  

No matter what topic you choose, remember one important point: The essay should be about you.  


Deciding whether the optional college admission essay is really optional

Some universities include a supplemental prompt in the Common Application that’s labeled as optional. Even though it’s labeled optional, should you skip it? Heck, no, not unless you want to come across as someone who either a) didn’t plan ahead or b) doesn’t care that much about the school.  

Spoiler: The optional supplemental essay isn’t really optional, with very few exceptions (such as the deadline is tomorrow). Otherwise, you should take the time to write a good, additional essay whenever an application allows you to do so, because leaving an optional supplement blank generally suggests a lack of interest or initiative on your part. The more your reader gets to know you, the more they’ll love you, right? And the essay is the prime spot to introduce yourself in all your complex glory.  

In the Writing section of the Common Application (just below your personal statement), you’ll notice that there is yet another place for an optional essay — it’s labelled as “Additional Information.” The purpose of this section is to give you an opportunity to answer the following question: “Is there anything else about your academic record or circumstances that we should know when we read your application?” Unlike supplemental responses for specific colleges, this essay actually is optional. If you’ve exhausted yourself for any possible special circumstances worth explaining and are coming up empty, you don’t have to worry about posting an essay here.  

One rather large pitfall sits in front of the optional essay: repetition. If you’ve already written your personal statement about the time you were appointed team captain of your lacrosse team, don’t write a supplemental essay telling the same story in slightly different words. Your audience is too busy to deal with duplicates. You can, however, write about two different aspects of the same experience. Essay number one may deal with the growing pains of your early leadership, for example, and essay number two with a particular game where you had to make an executive decision.


The basic requirements of a college admission essay

At least half the time, when something feels off about your writing, all you need is to take a good look at your structure. The following are the only real requirements for a finished college admission essay:  

  • Self-knowledge: Your writing should demonstrate that you’re self-aware of your strengths and weaknesses and should indicate your growth (or a desire for growth).
  • Substance: Include only the important details. That means no fluff.  Cut all excess information so that every sentence of your finished admission essay counts, in the sense that it moves the essay forward. (If your piece reads just fine without a given sentence or two, that’s a good indication that you’re looking at content that isn’t important and needs to be cut.) 
  • A strong lead that grips the reader from the first few lines: Your readers’ (the admission committee members’) attention spans are somewhat limited. (After all, your essay is one of thousands they’ll read.) Without going the route of an over-the-top gimmick, use details and possibly an important moment in your life to start your essay. Doing so cultivates some curiosity about what you’ll say next.
  • Consistent tone of voice: You want your readers to feel as if they just had a conversation with you and have gotten to know a real candidate by reading your essay.  

Beyond these items, your essay might have nothing in common with your best friend’s, though both could be submission-ready. 

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Jessica Brenner has more than twelve years of experience working with teens and families as a college counselor. She has a master’s degree in Counseling Psychology. Her freelance writing has appeared in a variety of publications online and in print.

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