How To Write A Great College Essay: 4 Important Tips

Applying to college is stressful. Somehow, you need to market yourself as better than your peers, even when you feel miles behind them. You have to create a story about yourself, weaving a cloth of hard-work, perseverance, and leadership into the work (but don’t ever mention these words themselves!) Sounds tricky? To be honest, it is. However, a great essay is the hallmark of a fantastic applicant, and college admissions officers know this.

The following tips have been created with the Common Application essay in mind, but can surely be applied to the college-specific short answers as well. Now, I do not know what exactly goes on behind the closed doors of college admissions offices. My acceptance to Yale, though, was accompanied by a little praising comment about the essay I wrote. I was not the perfect applicant — my test scores were not very high and my extra-curricular activities seemed very “small-town”. Therefore, I can only conclude that my essay pushed me over the edge.

Not to place more stress on college-applying students, but many colleges no longer require test scores; I can only imagine a greater emphasis will be placed on the essay. So let’s make yours stand out!

Write a Story

I mentioned this in the introduction, but I will give more context. To the best of your ability, you must convey exactly who you are. The essay is the story of you. Whether you are an actor or activist, put the spotlight on yourself. The extra-curricular list/description you assembled earlier in your application does not do your “life” justice. And that’s what your extra-curricular activities are — your life. So, give your application some background, some depth. Explain your passions and tell the story of your accomplishments, your habits, your daily life. If you spend your free-time babysitting your siblings, explain the duality of your growing imagination and growing responsibility. If you work in fast-food, elaborate on your zest for a fast-paced environment and endless stimulus. Your essay has to cut deep and highlight the unique qualities about yourself — everyone will write they are “hard-working” and “determined”. Your essay is the culmination of the package of you. What is the story of your life?

Find Your Voice

In an application, the essay is the only place where your personality can shine. This tip is similar to the one above; however, your voice is not your life story. Granted, your life has influenced your personality, but what is the result? Are you funny? Witty? Have the vocabulary of an Oxford Dictionary? Show this in your essay! Cultivate and curate your words so that your personality comes through.

Don’t be afraid to add some story-like dialogue or some meta-references. I encourage you to be yourself while taking some risks. College admissions officers are real people who want to accept real people. If this were an interview, would you be cracking jokes? Would you be name-dropping your big-league mentors? If the answer is yes, you should be doing this in your essay as well.

Look at it this way: if a friend were to pick up your essay off the floor, would they know it’s yours? Would they recognize your voice and know you wrote it?

Now, if that answer is no, try harder to put both your brain and heart into the piece. It will make all the difference!

Use a Thesaurus

This does not mean change every single word to the one you’ve never heard of! You should never be using a word you don’t already know. Instead, use a thesaurus as a tool that brings your writing to the next level — using words you know, but may not immediately think of.

Action verbs, action verbs, action verbs. If you’ve written a resumé before, you know what I’m talking about. If not, check out this list. Using powerful words will make your accomplishments and actions sound higher-caliber; this is not a pretentious pretending act — finding synonyms can just preclude you from unintentionally diminishing or “dumbing-down” your work.

Ask For Help

Write your essay. Edit it thoroughly. Wait a day, maybe two. Then, edit it once again, until you think it’s perfect. Now, have your parents read it. This, here, is key. Outside eyes often find mistakes that you can’t find. This insight will help give your essay clarity. You know what you want to say, you have it all swirling around in your brain — others are not privy to the same connections and ideas. This is why you have to make everything in your essay abundantly clear, and utilize every word with intention.

Okay, the essay has made it through your household; time to take it into the outside world! I asked three of my English teachers to read my essay, taking different tips from all of them. I would finish one set of edits, then ask another teacher for theirs. I included every edit I liked — and ignored the ones I didn’t.

This may sound weird and controversial, but it’s how I preserved my voice. While the edits helped me add clarity, proper grammar, and insightful phrases into my work, my personality remained. I wholeheartedly recommend the same to any other student. Ask as many teachers as you can, getting every bit of advice you can — there is no shame in asking for help!

Let me just say this;  you are in charge of this essay. Take every piece of advice with a grain of salt. You have 600 words to reveal yourself to strangers — that’s 400 words less than this article. The essay ideation, writing, and presentation are all yours. Good luck!