In 2020, more than ever before, your college essay matters. The college essay is 4th on the list of the things colleges look for in applicants, in order of importance. True, it comes after the rigor of your curriculum, your GPA and standardized test scores (if you’re submitting them). It ranks higher on the list than your extracurricular activities! It’s a great way for college admissions officers to get to know you. In the event that students are not submitting ACT or SAT scores, the essay is even more important. It conveys the type of person you are and what you’ll contribute to that school, if admitted.
We have an entire course devoted to college applications and essays. It’s called the College Applications & Essays Bootcamp, and it could help seniors still wrestling with the overwhelming task of writing killer essays and completing the Common App.
The college admissions office uses your college essay(s) to better understand who you truly are, what makes you tick, what your passions are and what you’d bring to their campus. They’re reviewing your essay in context with the rest of your college application, so tell them something they CAN’T learn from the other materials you’re submitting. Yes, you can write about an activity that’s already included on your list of activities, but make sure you say something new and deeper than what you’ve already told them throughout the rest of your college application.
Here are some college essay tips, if you want to do this thing right. There are 7 of them, plus a .5 bonus tip to make your essay truly one-of-a-kind.
7 College Essay Tips to Tell Your Story Well
Tip 1: Consider “optional” college essays to be required for you.
Assume “optional” = required. You’ll write essays for the Common App, for particular institutions and also for scholarships, both institutional and private. The Common App essays are more general, while the supplemental essays required by some colleges tend to be more specific, e.g. “Why Duke?” Any essay listed as optional should be considered required. You want to show you’re the type of person who’ll go above and beyond, not that you are simply willing to meet minimum requirements. Get used to it. That’s how most things go in life.
Tip 2: Don’t try to cram your entire life story into a 650-word college essay.
Pick your moment, and go deep rather than broad. 650 words is not a lot of space, essentially one full page, single-spaced. One of the biggest mistakes we see students make is trying to cover too much ground. Pick a moment, experience or situation that enables you to reveal who you are at your core. The moment doesn’t have to be earth-shattering or monumental. It can actually be something very simple. Some of the best essays we’ve seen take a moment that’s actually pretty ordinary and MAKE it something unique, something that says something about the author. One student wrote about building a bird house with her grandfather. Another wrote about noticing that the corn field near her house had been turned into suburbs, and it made her think differently about time passing.
Tip 3: Focus on the story you want to tell, not what you think they want to hear.
It’s going to be difficult to be anyone but you, and why would you want to be? The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response.
Tip 4: Pay attention to college essay word counts before you start.
Nothing’s more heartbreaking than drafting a 500-word college essay and then learning you’re only allowed 300 words. In most cases you are asked to respond to a “prompt” within a specific word limit (650 or less for Common App and usually 300-500 for others). Do not go beyond the stated limits, and avoid unusually brief essays. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don’t feel obligated to do so. (The application won’t accept a response shorter than 250 words.)
Tip 5: In your college essay, convey not just events, but also your outlook on them.
Getting to know you is as much about learning how you view the world and why, as it is what you’ve done. Give some thought to who you are, how you think, why you think the way you do. Start by making a list of your best qualities: persistent, funny, empathetic, creative, observant, others-focused, adventurous. Think about WHO YOU ARE. THEN consider a moment, experience or scene that enables you to SHOW ME, versus TELL ME, that this is who you are. Learning that you ran your first 10K last year is less important than learning how accomplishing this goal changed you, shaped you, what it taught you about yourself.
Tip 6: Remember that your college essay is an essay, not an expose.
Honesty is good. Brutal and unabashed honesty in the form of a true confession makes admissions officers squeamish, and with good reason. This is not the time to confess to anything illegal or immoral. Sharing serious challenges you’ve faced is great, but remember that you’re talking to people who’ve never met you, not your best friend. Above all, admissions officers are looking for a personal expression of who you are, what you believe and what makes you tick – in the form of a well-crafted and thoughtful essay. Be yourself and write from your own point of view, but don’t be different just to be different or to shock.
Tip 7: Give your college essay the time and attention it deserves.
Writing your college essay doesn’t have to consume you for a month straight, but don’t wing it, either. Assume that this will take time, thought and work, as well as rework. Think of any great high school paper you ever wrote. Was that done hastily and in one draft? Probably not, if it was done well. This college essay is of greater importance, so give it its due. Your college essays, if done well, enable you to get to know yourself better, as well as learning how to succinctly present yourself to a brand new audience. This is something you’ll have to do throughout your life, for internships, job interviews, even dating and friendships. Embrace the challenge, enjoy it and create space for yourself to do your best.
And for the bonus point (or 1/2 point…)
BONUS COLLEGE ESSAY TIP
Challenge yourself to write an essay that couldn’t possibly have anyone else’s name at the top.
Once you get a rough draft down, ask yourself, could this essay have been written by anyone else? Is it uniquely me? Does it convey my own unique outlook and perspective? If not, take another pass through it and inject more YOU. Make your college essay a unique expression of who you really are. That is the goal of the college essay(s), to get to know YOU. So be YOU.
We offer a College Applications & Essays Bootcamp, as well as other college applications services to help you navigate college essays and applications. We’d love to help you tell your story.