Admissions officers read a lot of essays…a lot. What are some tips to make mine stand out in the crowd? What if I feel like I haven’t done anything really unique or astonishing that makes for a great topic to write about? Where do I start?
Some of the very best college essays are about a small moment in time and not about some big event. One of my favorite essays this year told the story of a student’s summer on bed rest and how she spent her time–she taught herself how to play the piano via the internet and watched nearly every film Brad Pitt ever made, It was written with warmth and humor and gave much insight into her personality and her ability to cope with a setback.
A strong essay should have three essential elements. First, it should help the admissions committee understand who you are beyond your grades and standardized test scores. They want to know who you are as a person—your insights, your values, your sense of humor, and a glimpse into your heart and soul. So if you love to draw, bring the reader into the drawing class with you and show them how hard you work as this student did in her short activity essay:
“Every Wednesday night I carried my pencils, my paper, and most importantly, my eraser to my class at the Museum of Fine Arts. Slowly, I began to understand the concepts of depth and lighting. One cannot simply draw two eyes, a nose, and a mouth and call it a face. The mouth, for instance, has a tiny shadow under the lower lip as well as faint vertical creases.”
From this short passage, we learn that the reader likes to draw and is willing to work hard at something—even if she is not a natural talent. We also see her sense of humor when she points out the importance of bringing her eraser to class. The admissions officer learns a lot in just a few sentences!
Second, it should be interesting. Any essay that leads with a sentence such as, “ I spent the last four years running cross country and I really enjoyed it” will not grab anyone’s attention. Here is the lead of an essay that a dancer wrote about practicing an important audition routine:
“Beads of sweat slowly move down my full-body tights as I extend my right leg back, up, and to the side, all from the push- up position. This is just the beginning of a long night in the dance studio.”
She could have simply said, “One night I worked really hard on my dance routine for an important audition.” Notice instead she helps the reader visualize her motion because she is showing the process through her writing. It is almost as if we, the readers, are in the dance studio with her.
Third, the essay is a writing sample so it should present your thoughts in an organized way and be grammatically correct with no spelling errors or typos. The essay should be your own work, however, it is permissible to ask someone to review it for grammar and spelling. It would be a mistake for another person to make the corrections for you. You must understand why something you have written is not correct and be able to grasp the concept behind the corrections.
To get started, make a list of important people, memories and experiences in your life. When did you have a setback and what did you learn from it? What is something you have done of which you are proud? Look at old family photos to remind yourself of moments and stories about your life. Interview your parents and relatives for anecdotes about you which you may have forgotten.
Remember, simple is often better. Your everyday life can be quite interesting if you tell the story in a way that brings the reader into the moment with you.
Joan C., M.Ed helps students and their families define the culture, learning environment and other attributes of the desired college experience including financial considerations.