by Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D.
Preparing to apply to colleges and universities? One small but significant part of your application is writing one or more short essays based on specific prompts from each college. Even those students who apply with the Common Application often have to submit a supplemental essay.
Having worked with many college admissions counselors, coached numerous high school students, and reviewed countless more essays, I have developed these 10 tips for helping you succeed in writing a strong application essay.
Every college and university that requires an essay gives multiple reasons for why they require the essay — and more importantly, how much weight is given the application…
But almost every admissions counselor agrees that a memorable essay does have an impact on the overall application.
Now that you know the importance of the college essay, here are my 10 tips for how to succeed with your college application essay.
Keep the essay’s role top of mind. Your essay is perhaps the ONLY chance for the admissions counselors to understand who you are beyond your stats — grades, class rank, standardized test scores, community service hours, activities, and the like. The goal of your essay should be to help separate your application from all the others that have similar qualifications — and to make you more memorable.
Answer the question; respond to the prompt. It’s amazing how many applicants either don’t directly relate their essay to the question or bury their response in the middle or end of their essay. For example, if the question is “Why Tufts?,” your essay should begin with your main and compelling reason why you wish to attend Tufts.
Be authentic. You may not believe this statement, but it’s true: most application readers can spot a canned and heavily edited essay a mile away. Your goal in crafting your essay is to write from the heart — and expose your soul, your core. Your essay is a window into who you are and the type of student you’ll be if accepted to that particular university.
Write with active voice. By choosing active voice, your essay will be inviting, crisp, vivid. Using active voice keeps the meaning of your sentences clear and easier to read and understand. Typically active voice will also keep your sentences shorter, more concise.
Take risks. One of the worst things you can do with your essay is to write something boring, bland, and unmemorable. Take a stand, admit a weakness, showcase how you overcame an adversity. It’s much better to be different than to blend into all the other applicants. One warning, though: don’t take the risk too far by going over into the dark side.
Tell a story. You may think responding to an essay prompt with a group of slightly connected sentences around a theme is okay, but doing so limits the power of your essay. Instead, tell a (short) story. Include a beginning, middle, and end — ideally with compelling action, theme, and conclusion.
Keep it simple. You are not going to gain any admissions points by writing as though you were producing a piece for an academic journal. You do not need complex sentence structures nor obscure words. Keep your writing concise, focused — and your vocabulary straightforward.
Avoid errors. Yes, of course proofread and spellcheck — but push yourself beyond the normal efforts. If you used references, check the spelling of authors, characters, and the like. Watch for words that sound the same but are spelled differently (e.g., passed, past; whether, weather). Do NOT use slang, emoticons, or any texting jargon; the essay is a piece of formal writing. Ask at least one other person to proofread your final draft.
Seek feedback. You do not — and should not — write your essay in a vacuum. Seek advice from knowledgeable adults about all aspects of your essay — from the topic to structure. Consider a favorite English teacher or guidance counselor, as well as a family member.
Embrace rewriting. Even the very best and experienced writers write multiple drafts of their work — constantly striving for the words and meaning to be perfect, precise. Because your essay can have an impact on whether you get accepted into a college or university, you too should be open to polishing your essay with multiple drafts until you (and others you respect) are completely satisfied.
Final Thoughts on Successfully Writing Your College Application Essay
Using the tips in this article should put you well on your way to creating an essay that will help your application be memorable among the hundreds of others each admissions counselor will read… but to utilize all these tips, you must start as early as possible — to give yourself enough time to develop your theme, write and rewrite your essay, ask and receive feedback, and conduct final proofreading.
See also our article, 10 Common College Admissions Essay Writing Mistakes — and How to Fix Them.
For more tips on writing your college application essay, please see our, Writing the Successful College Application Essay: Tips for Success.
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