What Makes A Great College Essay

A great college essay is more than a good story. Students should ask themselves some
questions before writing and while proofreading any rough drafts.

Which character attributes should shine through?
Ability to work with others? Adaptability? Independence? Maturity?
All of these work -- it's okay also to be less than perfect as we all are just that.

What topics give the student something good to write about?
Work or volunteer experiences? Academic achievement? Overseas travel? Family life? These are good but too general -- isolate an event or one experience. Don't repeat what is evident elsewhere on the application

What happens to those applicants who don't seem to have the experiences to draw from? Writing about small daily occurrences can produce excellent essays.

Here are tips for writing an excellent college admissions essay:

1) Make yourself shine within your own story: It's important that you don't repeat what has already been stated on your activity resume, but you should highlight your accomplishments in your essay -- weave them into your story. Reveal your personality and perhaps your future goals in your writing.

2) Be humble but don't be modest: Don't underestimate yourself in any way and be proud and secure in who you are. Sincerely describe your most impressive accomplishments but don't overdo it.

3) Be confident in your statements: It's important to write as though you deserve gaining acceptance. Present yourself as unique with specific skills and passion.

4) Use personal stories: You really own your essay in this way and no one else can tell your story; this is what makes you unique.

5) Write descriptively: Engage the reader and be specific about your experience. If writing a memorable story about a ride in the car and what you saw, have that reader sitting there with you. A good story is priceless and you will catch attention in this way. Use powerful imagery and personal anecdotes whenever you can. Leave readers with a lasting impression and it will serve you well come decision time!

DOS & DON'TS in college essay writing:

DO

  • Use personal detail: show, don't tell.
  • Be concise.
  • Vary sentence structure and use transitions.
  • Use active voice verbs.
  • Answer the question and follow directions.
  • Seek a few opinions.
  • Stay focused as you have a limited word count.
  • Revise, revise, revise and proofread.

DON'T

  • Write chronologically -- it can be boring.
  • Thesaurus-ize: don't write what you think admission officers want to hear or use language that is not your own.
  • State a point of view without backing it up with details and examples.
  • Repeat what is listed on your activity resume.
  • Use slang.

Your character is the hardest thing for admission officers to measure. The essay is your chance to reveal who you are -- your passions, values, authenticity and sincerity. Be yourself!

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Here’s a brutal truth about applying to college: On paper, most teenagers are not very unique. Some three million high school graduates send applications into universities every single year, and that’s just within the United States. Seasoned admissions officers—particularly at elite schools—know how to spot cookie-cutter applicants and toss them into the reject pile in seconds.

Luckily, you do get a modest chance to distinguish yourself. Universities in the US and across the world are increasingly looking away from test scores and grade point averages and toward one particularly unique component of students’ applications: the essay. If done exceptionally well, it’s a catapult to an acceptance offer. So what exactly is the best way to sell oneself to Harvard in a thousand words or fewer? Reporters and editors across Quartz’s newsroom have come together to offer some foolproof advice.

Forget “writing from the heart”

Parents and teachers will often tell students who are just starting out on their essays to “write sincerely,” “write about your feelings,” “write about what matters to you.” That advice, while well-intentioned, is not helpful. An essay can be completely heartfelt—and terrible.

Instead of starting from such a broad place, begin with the narrow strategy of researching the worst college-essay clichés; that way, even if you don’t have the faintest idea what to write about, you at least know what you have to avoid. Examples of hackneyed essay characteristics that immediately make admissions officers roll their eyes include:

  • Dictionary definitions (“Webster’s defines ‘courage’ as…”)
  • Epigraphs or references of famous writers (“It was the best of times…”)
  • Sound effects (“Whizz! Snap! Whew! went the rocket that I built…”)
  • Sentences that are just strings of SAT words (“The fortuitous phenomena that transpired on the fortnight of…”)
  • Overused metaphors
  • “Let me tell you a story”
  • Repeating information from other parts of your application, i.e. re-listing all your extracurriculars
  • Talking about the university instead of yourself
  • Over-using passive tense, instead of telling an engaging story
  • Sticking too close to the prompt (“A time I overcame an obstacle was when…”)

Don’t be interesting. Be interested

Now, what to write about? Essay prompts are intentionally open-ended, and there are several ways to go about choosing a topic. Here’s a nearly foolproof one: Write about a person, place, or idea that you genuinely—perhaps to the point of geeky, nervous-laughter embarrassment—love.

“Write about what you’re interested in, not what you think is interesting about you,” says Quartz lifestyle reporter Jenni Avins, who wrote about her part-time job in high school making crepes in a coffee shop: “I was really interested in the people who came into this creperie, and this little world. It was an observational piece about having this window on a community.”

But this doesn’t mean you should ramble on pointlessly for five paragraphs. Make sure your topic reveals something about yourself, or why you want to study and pursue the things you do. Jenni’s essay highlighted her curiosity toward others. Quartz science editor Elijah Wolfson wrote his essay about pizza joints in New York—but it was really a tale of moving across the country and coming to terms with loss.

Yale’s dean of admissions Jeremiah Quinlan told Quartz last year that the university is explicitly “looking for passion” in the kids it admits; you can bet that the admissions offices at Stanford, MIT, and other top-tier schools are hunting around for the exact same. Don’t worry about your topic sounding too boring or pretentious—the raw emotion underneath matters more.

Pull out unflattering memories

It can be instinctive to paint the best picture of yourself possible in your essay, but put aside vanity and pride for a moment. You’ve already spent the rest of your college application flourishing your immaculate GPA, club leadership, and volunteer work. Oftentimes, the most powerful essay topic is one that lets some of your imperfections seep through.

You can start by thinking of a time that you struggled, made a mistake, or were embarrassed. Quartz technology reporter Mike Murphy, for example, wrote his essay on being stranded at the bottom of the Grand Canyon as a kid. He begins by setting up the scene: “I’m sorry, but 3:30 a.m. is never the same as 4:00 a.m.” He goes on to explain how he and his relatives were accidentally separated on the trip, walking the reader through the challenges he faced on his way back to safety, and ending on a tone of humility and lesson-learning.

Good essays don’t all need to hype up an applicant’s superpowers: They can expose weaknesses, demonstrating subtlety and self-awareness.

Tell a story—however you want to

When it comes to the college essay, taking a risk—however small or big—is better than playing it safe. Try writing different versions of your essay, maybe in completely different formats, just to see if one of them resonates more than the others.

“Admissions officers have to read so many essays that physically look the same. An essay that stands out is simply more memorable,” says Quartz growth editor Jean-Luc Bouchard. “I wrote a series of thematically linked poems for my admissions essay, and even though the poems were probably pretty bad, I think I got points just for trying something different.”

You may recall the news this spring about Ziad Ahmed, a student who got into Stanford by writing “#BlackLivesMatter” a hundred times on one of his essay prompts. Such ventures may come off as gimmicky—and we certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone repeating this exact idea in a future year—but they’re effective at one thing: grabbing the reader’s attention. Ziad, who had interned for Hilary Clinton and was recognized by Barack Obama at a White House dinner in 2015, was already more than qualified. What his essay did was make admissions officers pause in their tracks for a moment, and peer a tad more closely at the rest of his application.

Tinker with your essay. Think of it not as an essay in the academic sense, but an unlined blank canvas you can use to present whatever you want. That said, no sound effects—please.

Proofread

Run your essay through spellcheck. Ask a teacher, friend, parent, or counselor to read it over—then ask five more people to do the same. Admissions officers barrel through dozens of essays a day, and the rote tedium of it can cause them to be hyper-critical of even the smallest of typos and grammatical errors. Show them this small respect, and you’ve already beat out many others kids for that coveted acceptance letter.


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