College Admission Essay Help: 48 Tips For Getting It Right
Summer is on the horizon, and with it comes sleeping in, more availability at your job, late nights, and if you’re about to be a senior, the time to start your college application essay. While you’re the best person to write your essay, we’d like to help. With “College Admission Essay Help: 48 Tips For Getting It Right,” we hope to give you the last resource you’ll ever need to do the job right.
1. Realize this is an opportunity and not a requirement.
If you’re in high school, odds are you’ve learned the fine art of procrastination. Mainly, this skill develops from feeling pressured to do everything. It’s a nice way of saying, “I will do this in my own time.” Unfortunately, those summers don’t last long enough, especially your last summer as a high school student. But rather than looking at your college application essay as a chore or a requirement, try to view it as an opportunity to talk about yourself and the best of who you are. That’s essentially what a great personal essay does, and that’s exactly what this is. There’s more to it, though.
2. Choose a great topic.
Finding out what keeps you up at night, discussing the obstacles you’ve overcome, and sharing the things that excite or intimidate or drive you to action, are all great sources of discovering the conflict and resolution your essay needs to grab admissions officers and keep them reading to the final word. Smith.edu also has an interesting list of what not to do.
3. Insert conflict and resolution.
You’re not Superman. You’re something far greater. Someone with limitations who must overcome challenges based on something other than energies derived from the yellow sun of earth. Kryptonite doesn’t affect you, but a lot of other things do. Still, you’re able to overcome them without any special advantages like the Man of Steel. Show them how you’ve done so.
The toughest thing about writing a good essay is giving yourself permission to start. A good brainstorming session can get you over the writing jitters and on to the second and third sentence, and from there, you move closer and closer to the finish line. Find a method that works best for you in this regard, whether that means diagrams, lists, or a timed freewrite.
5. Give yourself permission to write crap.
That’s right. Crap is good. Not as a finished product, but it sure gets the chaos out of your head and onto the page. Even the great author Ernest Hemingway believed “the first draft of anything is s***.” If that was true for him, then think about how much more true it is for a college application essay! Let it free you to write away those early inhibitions and get to the best possible essay hiding inside of you. One thing we’ve found is effective: set a timer for 20 minutes and do not allow the words to stop while that timer is running. You’ll likely throw out 95 to 99 percent of it. You may even write about random, unrelated things. But do this exercise with the objective of your essay in mind, and your brain will steer you toward some great ideas or starting points.
6. Avoid the BACs.
Things that admissions officers hate about reading your college application essay: bragging, apologizing, and complaining. No one likes it in the workforce, and it’s not any better in higher education. You can show your qualities as a person without arrogance. You can show humility without looking down on yourself. And you can demonstrate challenges or obstacles without feeling sorry for yourself. So why do you need the BACs? Easy. You don’t.
7. Get to the point.
Admissions officers have seen it all. Millions of essays each year, in fact. They’re not going to be fooled by you beating around the bush. They’re looking for what sets you apart from the others. What makes you special or unique. You have very little space to show them so don’t waste a word on things that don’t show it.
8. Don’t try to fool anyone.
The same goes for big words that you wouldn’t normally use in conversation. Don’t thesaurus your college application essay to death. Instead use words and phrases that come naturally and demonstrate the quality of your education. The harder one tries to sound smart, the more stilted and miserable their essay usually is. That doesn’t mean you should dumb down your essay, though. It means you should do what comes naturally. If a good vocabulary does come naturally, then you will know how much is too much almost by instinct.
9. Show your individuality.
Everyone has a friend. And by that, we mean a true friend. Someone who knows your secrets and accepts you for who you are. It may be only one person, but that’s enough. Write your essay showing the qualities that that person sees in you because that’s who you are. Forget the person who tried making others happy. Let down some of that guard and allow the admissions officer to see the real you. It doesn’t matter that you might be flawed. What matters is that you’re genuine, interesting, and unique, and that the essay shows it.
10. Make every word count.
You may think 500 or 750 words is a lot, but start trying to condense your essence into that amount of space, and you’ll find out that 500 to 750 pages may not be enough to say what you want to say. Of course, it’s okay to ramble on in a rough draft. If you end up with 1,500 or 2,000 words, don’t stop yourself. Just keep going until you’ve said everything you needed to say at the time. Great essays are made in the revision stages — more on that later — but you’ll need to stay within the individual university’s guidelines for the finished product, and when it comes time to cut, don’t shy away from taking a chainsaw to what you’ve written.
11. Strive for great grammar and syntax.
Great ideas are what make great essays. They’re also the hard part. So don let something easy like grammar and syntax trip you up. There are plenty of programs out there that can catch mistakes which go well beyond spell-checking. Put it to use, but don’t let anything replace an actual read through. One program we highly recommend is the web-based AutoCrit.com.
12. Use vivid details.
Which of the following better paints an image in your mind: “My grandfather’s death made me sad,” or “The phone didn’t sound any different than it usually did. So why was I so scared to pick it up? I contemplated the answer to that question and allowed it to chirp at me two or three more times before answering. ‘Hello?’ I asked. The quiver in my grandma’s voice on the other end of the phone told me all I needed to know. At once, I collapsed onto the floor and felt the dams break in my eyes”? The second example paints the scene with vivid details. This technique can suck the reviewer into the world of your essay and give them a trip they won’t forget. Remember, standing out is important. (This is also called showing rather than telling.)
13. Make them like you for you.
In other words, don’t be someone you’re not. An admissions officer may not see through it, but you’ll find the essay much easier to complete if it’s actually you writing it and not a person you think sounds good to the reviewer. Have confidence and be proud of who you are. If that isn’t good enough, then you’ve got to wonder whether the school is worth it anyway.
14. Tread carefully with humor, funny-man.
Humor can leave an impression, and more often than not, it isn’t a good one. Have you ever heard someone trying to be funny and you wanted to run and hide from them because they seemed to be the only one in the world that was actually laughing? Failed attempts at humor are cringe-inducing, and when they’re in your essay, they can be a disaster. If humor comes easy for you, use it sparingly, and bounce it off a proofreader to make sure it doesn’t go overboard.
15. Stand for something, but don’t act like you’ve got the final word.
It’s okay to have strong opinions about something, but when you close off the opposing side, it makes you sound less convincing. When sharing your views, acknowledge that you may not have all the answers. Admissions officers have a more colored view of the world through experience, and to hear someone 10 or 15 years younger play expert can be perceived as condescending and a turn-off.
Guys can be particularly hung up on their sports, but this pertains to everyone. In high school, extracurricular activities like sports can seem like the most important thing around. But when you start looking at the amount of people who play NBA, NFL, or MLB, versus the amount trying to break in every year, odds are not in your favor. You need passions beyond the glory of the sports arena, and whether you pursue a sports career or something else, you need a passion that feeds the mind. Then you need to channel that passion into your essay.
17. Avoid language that you wouldn’t ordinarily use.
If you feel your language is too simplistic and it needs to be “smarter,” be very careful. You can try so hard to sound intelligent that you end up using words, the meanings of which you don’t know. Language is nuanced and intricate. Even if you use a word that is similar to the words you should be using, there may be some minor difference that alters the meaning of the sentence. Stick with what you know and leave it at that.
18. Be who you are, not who you’re not.
There is a danger in trying to sound the part of what you think the admissions officers want to hear. Unless you’re psychic, don’t even try. Just like you are a varied and unique person, no admissions officer is the same. Different qualities will attract them to you, or repel. You can’t guess, so why make things harder by trying?
19. Make suitable comparisons.
If you’re trying to show the powers that be that you’re good at overcoming adversity, don’t use an example of how you were able to find something neat to watch on Netflix after scrolling through hundreds of horrible options. The two don’t compute. Make sure the supporting details are equal in weight to the claims you’re making, or you’ll risk sounding silly.
20. Show your personality, not your accomplishments.
The essay is not a resume. It is a showcase of your personality, not all the things that you’ve done. Many students make the mistake of cramming in everything they can think of under the false assumption it makes them sound better. Narrative. Conflict. Resolution. Focus more on these things and less on the rest.
21. Realize that great essays were made with more than one draft.
Revisions are vital to the solidity of your essay. No one has ever slapped together a first draft without stumbling, and usually the problems go well beyond misspellings and run-on sentences. Until your essay finds its voice, or that unique way of presenting who you are through words, the essay isn’t finished, and it can take three to four drafts before that ever surfaces.
22. Structure the essay.
With college application essays, you need to be creative, bold, and even unafraid to take risks, but none of that excuses you from using a coherent structure. You’ve heard it said that an essay needs an introduction, body, and conclusion. That’s true. But it doesn’t have to follow — nor should it — a rigid structure that strains your voice and ideas. Forget everything you’ve been told about how an essay must be three to five paragraphs with three to five sentences in each paragraph. As a teacher, I heard many students reveal this disturbing interpretation of what they believed an essay to be, and if you’re one of them that thinks this way, get it out of your head right now. Intro. Body. Conclusion. Be aware of them, but forget any “rules” that force you into making each one exactly alike.
23. Dig for the angle.
If you apply to 50 schools that each require a unique college application essay, then be prepared to write 50 unique essays. We’re exaggerating on the number to get across the point. It’ll be closer to five or ten, but this bit of advice is no less true. Each essay needs an angle, and one of the best places to start is with the school itself. Each college or university has something they’re proud of — perhaps they boast one of few robotics programs in the country or they’ve graduated several big-name actors. Tap in to that university’s wow factor, and find a way to connect with it as you share what makes you unique and a special fit to the school.
24. Give them what they want.
To give them what they want, you must know what they want. usually that means talking about your best quality, an experience that shaped your life / philosophy, and the reason you want to attend their school. Deliver the goods and pay attention to word counts. More isn’t necessarily better and is usually indicative of an inability to focus on the heart of the essay.
25. Determine what you think your “final draft” will be, then set it aside for a week or so.
Keep plowing away at your essay making it the best you can be. Write and revise several drafts asking what works and what doesn’t. Cut. Add. Proof. Repeat. And when you finally feel it is as good as you can make it, set it aside for a week or two before coming back to it. When you’re absolutely convinced you’ve done all you can, that’s generally a good time to hand it off to a teacher or honest friend.
26. Get feedback.
Feedback shouldn’t come from just anyone. We’re not telling you to avoid friends and family on this because you very well could have someone in the family, who is good at writing and isn’t afraid to say what works and what doesn’t. Be careful, though. Those closest to us are often guilty of telling us what it is they think we want to hear, and whatever they determine that to be may not do anything to improve your essay. If possible, go to a teacher or professional person, who understands the qualities of constructive criticism — someone unafraid of your feelings.
27. Make adjustments as necessary.
No one writes a perfect essay. We can’t emphasize that enough. Our essays needed just as much work (or more) than yours probably does, but it can always be tough to hear what we did wrong, especially when we’ve put so much of ourselves into something, and now it seems it’s being torn apart. Give yourself however much time you need — within the deadline, of course — to soak in the criticism. Get over any sense of offended emotional attachment you may have and see if the comments have merit. You may find there are some criticisms with which you don’t agree. That’s fine, and you may be right. But it doesn’t invalidate those that are justified. Work through the criticisms and make adjustments as necessary. We promise you a stronger essay will take shape.
28. Check for errors one last time before you send.
When someone gives feedback, it usually pertains to the structure, pacing, and ideas. Some may point out grammar and syntax errors, but if they’re recommending you rewrite a section for clarity, they’re probably not going to tell you to fix something they want you to throw out anyway. Once the structure holds up, the ideas are sound, and the pacing flows well, turn one last eye to grammar and syntax. Use a program like AutoCrit to help you spot the issues if you’re not good at this sort of thing. Don’t send until you can read your essay aloud and not stumble or get confused.
29. Brag without bragging.
When writing an essay that exemplifies your best qualities, it can be uncomfortable especially when you’re not the bragging type. And if you are the bragging type, it can be equally challenging to scale it back and not sound like an a-dash-dash. Creating a world for the essay through visualization techniques is a careful way to avoid this and, more importantly, to detach yourself from what you accomplished. Storytelling, in other words. Once detachment occurs, you’re just letting the facts speak for themselves.
30. Focus on the core of who you are and why you’re a good fit. Don’t try to do too much.
Think about who the audience is for your essay. Admissions officers know many of the college application essays they receive will be from 17- and 18-year old students. While you may feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, admissions officers know better. They don’t expect you to be a superhero. They just want to know what makes you tick, and how that fits in with their college or university.
31. Don’t shoot for the Hollywood blockbuster.
Summer months at the movies are considered “Blockbuster Season.” Studios expect most of their profits to come from films like The Avengers, Iron Man 3, or Star Trek Into Darkness. While these are all great fun, they’re a lot of work to pull off, and many of them aren’t any good because they lose sight of the story. Instead of focusing on giving us characters we can love, they become hung up on special effects bonanzas that top previous blockbusters. Don’t be a Hollywood blockbuster when all you have to do is tell a simple story in the best way that you can. That often means focusing on the simple details of your life instead of the grandiose. Don’t worry if you’ve failed to save a person’s life or travel to all 50 states. Colleges and universities aren’t looking for that. They’re looking for interesting and competent people. Show them how you are.
There is a lot of reading material — books, articles on websites like this one, videos on YouTube — that will attempt explaining exactly how to write a college application essay. There is nothing wrong with reading every word and seriously considering and questioning how it all applies to you. In fact, you should. But when you get to the end, the best thing you can do is forget everything you just read. The pertinent details for structuring and forming your essay will stick with you without getting in the way of the free flow of ideas. So, yes, listen to us and anyone else with your best interests at heart. Then, forget us and focus on what makes the essay unique — what YOU have to say.
33. Know what the really divisive topics are and how to avoid them.
The way you feel about abortion, same-sex marriage, religion, family, and the economy, are all important, but you may want to withhold the potentially controversial in your essay. It’s okay to be opinionated, but when you don’t know the person who you’re dealing with, it’s a risk not worth the trouble, especially after all the time you’ve given to the essay.
34. Be a storyteller.
Do you have any authors, whose styles you love? Try to emulate them. If you’re reading this straight through, you should know by now that your college application essay can and should play with conflict and resolution as it pertains to who you are, what you’ve accomplished, and why you’d make a good [insert university here] student. Be yourself, but don’t be shy about livening up the essay’s narrative.
35. Remember that it’s an essay, not an application.
These documents are separate for a reason. Universities use applications to see what you’ve done, where your strengths / weaknesses appear to be, and how well you perform at following instructions. They don’t ask for any personal insight into who you are because that’s the job of the essay. Again, don’t cram in details that are just regurgitations from the application.
36. Treat supplement questions — when present — with the same care that you would the essay.
Many colleges and universities will ask supplemental questions in addition to the college application essay. There is a temptation to dash off your answers in an effort to get the package in the mail and be done with it. Don’t give in to the temptation. Take each aspect of the process seriously. Be thoughtful and coherent in responding and presenting.
37. Give yourself plenty of time.
The summer is a great time to tackle the college application essay, but if you feel comfortable with where your grades and activities are, the spring is even better. This isn’t something you want to tackle in a couple of hours. Remember, there are millions of other students like you who are trying to get in with many aiming for the very schools you’ve chosen. The only way to stand out from the pack is to give it the time and thought it deserves and to look closer at yourself.
38. Don’t ramble.
We’re big supporters of being visual with your writing and learning from some of the great storytellers down through history. But this isn’t a novel, and the length requirements are very small by comparison. Don’t get carried away, even with quality.
39. Don’t overpressure your essay writing efforts.
According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, schools aren’t rolling the dice entirely on your essay. Do a good job because you are proud of who you are and want to share that with a school that’s important to you. But don’t torture yourself. Schools will also be looking at your academics, extracurricular activities, standardized tests, and other factors.
40. Start with a killer opening.
CBS News shared these two openings in a recent piece on writing college application essays, and we found them particularly appealing:
1. “I change my name each time I place an order at Starbucks.”
2. “I have old hands.”
If you’re expecting an explanation like we are, then these two openings did their job. That’s also the approach you should take for your essay. Say something relevant that will make the reader want to know more.
A hint: Great openings usually don’t start with the first words you put down on the page. Start writing as soon as possible. Even if you’re somewhat satisfied with the way the words flow, consider lopping off the first sentence or two, and you’ll likely find that a “killer opening” is more about what you cut out than what you keep. It’s important to start at the most intriguing point of the essay. If your third sentence is better than your first two, then cut those first two and let the third be your opening.
41. Avoid slang.
The curse words are obvious, but slang goes well beyond that to bits and pieces of everyday conversation that you may take for granted. In the days of texting, it can be very hard to avoid dropping an IMHO when you’re giving your opinion (humbly) on something. Likewise, you may say, “coulda, shoulda, woulda,” but in a college application essay, those “words” are actually “could have, should have, and would have.”
42. Vary your sentences.
We’ve banged the drum for editing programs in the past — specifically AutoCrit, which we’ve already mentioned (and no, we’ve got nothing to do with them, they just really rock at helping you find mistakes). Another thing they can help you find are extra long sentences. Believe us, we’ve been there. You get on a roll, and you’re so excited the writer’s block has gone away that you just can’t seem to find room for a period. AutoCrit can help you find sentences with more than 30 words using a simple tabbed report. Just find all the places where you get a little word happy, and try breaking them in two. Some long sentences are fine. For the most part, however, you should keep it simple.
43. Smooth out those transitions.
To write a good transition, ask yourself two questions: how does it relate to the main point of the essay, and how does the current supporting detail relate to the last supporting detail? Let’s say you’re writing an essay on your favorite parts of high school. Your main point may be something like, “High school is the training ground for adult life, and it was able to show me what I could expect through academics, athletics, and finding my passion.” Now write a transition for moving from academics to athletics, keeping in mind that you must show how those two are related AND tie both back to the main idea sentence. That’s what your transition must accomplish. Here’s our attempt. See if you can do better.
A hint: with a little thought, you can.
“NEAR END OF PARAGRAPH ON THE IMPORTANCE OF ACADEMICS TO HIGH SCHOOL: My academic coursework helped me to expand my capabilities and understand complex philosophies. TRANSITION BEGINS: By the time I got to my athletics period, learning plays came easy.
While the demands of classes like chemistry and physics may have made football seem trivial, though, the reality is my time spent playing sports was just as valuable to me as the rest of the high school experience. TRANSITION ENDS.
44. Be active, not passive.
What sounds better to you? “‘The Hunger Games’ book was given to the boy by Sheila,” or “Sheila gave the boy her copy of ‘The Hunger Games'”? Don’t lie. It’s the second one unless you enjoy reading textbooks and training manuals. Always make the one doing the verb of the sentence the SUBJECT of the sentence.
45. Weed out cliches.
“The whole ball of yarn,” “The fact of the matter is,” “The whole nine yards” — sayings like these or any that you hear / say 50 times per day have no place in your writing. Cut, cut, cut!
46. Read it out loud.
Make note of where your reading stumbles. Determine what caused your reading to stumble. Fix it. Additionally, you’ll want to be honest with yourself about the parts that bore you. You’re writing about yourself here. If you’re bored, chances are the reader will be as well. Also, seek input on where the most / least exciting parts were for those who proofread you.
47. Reflect on what the essay reveals about you.
As you read over your essay, read it with different intent each time. Once you may read for spelling and usage errors. Another you may read for structure and ideas. When you get to the end, make one of those reads about what the essay reveals about you personally. Take each word, each sentence, with the sole objective of learning the aspects of your personality you revealed about yourself. Do the supporting examples agree with it?
48. Be ruthless when editing.
If there is a single word that doesn’t advance the point of your essay, remove it. Same goes with sentences and whole passages. One thing that helps us: doing spot-checks for words that end in -ly or the word “that.” For words that end in -ly, remove the word altogether and see if you can’t convey the same activity through subjects and their actions. Don’t say, “He tread carefully around the house”; say “He tiptoed around the house.” As for “that,” most of the time you can just cut it out altogether and add nothing. Most of the time, it adds zero value to a sentence.
Sample Essays: These Students Got It Right
Following the advice and tips we’ve given here should help you to write a much more effective college application essay, but it never hurts to have examples of what others are doing. You can find a ton of great examples online at sites like SparkNotes, and if you’ve got any examples of your own to share, then let us know. We’d love to feature you as a future case study for how to write a college application essay the right way. Good luck, and have a great summer!