You’ve identified your key schools, sent away for the applications, filled out the FAFSA. Now, all you have to tackle is the dreaded college essay.
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What do the admissions staff really look for in an essay? Here’s a few tips to ace your way into college:
1. Research your college or university. Why do you want to attend that particular school? Do they have an outstanding department in your area of interest? If you’re an athlete, do they have a solid program in your field? What is the school philosophy? Take your time to really get to know how you would fit in to that environment. This will help you tailor your essay to the institution of your choice.
2. Create an outline. You have to be focused. Take the time to outline what you want to say and how you will support those points.
3. Don’t regurgitate your application. The admissions staff have already read your application. Here’s your opportunity to give them insight into something that they don’t already know.
4. Show, not tell. Your essay needs to be very detailed and descriptive. Saying “I like music” is generic; explaining how you’ve been influenced since age 7 and are proficient in a range of instruments, are influenced by specific musicians (and why), and that you now create your own beats, gives an insight into your passions. This applies to any interest that you have.
5. Don’t hold back on your accomplishments. Without a doubt, for most people, it’s difficult to talk about themselves. And depending on your family or cultural background, highlighting your accomplishments may be seen as bragging. When it comes to your college essay, you’ve got one chance to shine. So make the best of it.
6. Try to avoid controversial subjects. It’s okay to have strong opinions. We all have them. And if you’ve experienced a life event that may shed light on how you’ve handled an issue, then it may be an appropriate essay topic. However, it’s also important to know that different people from varied backgrounds will be reading your essay, so try to appeal to the broadest audience possible.
7. No matter how strange the question, is your essay authentic? “How do you feel about Wednesday?” is an essay question from the University of Chicago; “You have just completed your 300-page autobiography. Please submit page 217” comes courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania; and “Write a haiku, limerick, or short poem that best represents you” is a standard New York University question.
These are all ways to get you to get you to open up about the real person behind the grades, the SAT scores, the school committees, the community service, and the rote things that you’re “supposed” to do to appeal to an admissions committee.
So for “How do you feel about Wednesday?” perhaps you look forward to a specific class on that day; you like helping to make a weekly family dinner with your grandmother; or that it’s simply Wednesday and you enjoy that middle-of-the-week vibe.
Tap into your authentic experience and you can’t go wrong.
8. Write tight. What is being asked of you in the essay? Don’t veer off that track. The writer, William Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill all of your darlings,” which means take a second look at the things you’ve written and then brutally edit to meet the needs of the assignment.
9. Proofread, proofread, proofread. Did we mention double-checking your work? Admissions counselors have literally thousands of essays to wade through in each admissions period. They will make immediate assumptions about your essay if there are typos, grammatical and punctuation mistakes, or if it doesn’t conform to their guidelines.
Finally, ask a friend, your parent, a teacher or someone close to you to read through your essay to let you know if your true voice is shining through.
With a little planning, the college essay can be a terrific opportunity to let your personality and accomplishments shine. Good luck!