Tips on Writing the Admissions Essay
It may be only 500 words, but the admissions essay portion of a college application can mean the difference between acceptance and rejection. How you write your personal essay shows the admissions committee why you are different from everybody else. It provides information about you that test scores, grades, and extracurricular pursuits just cannot. You can use the essay to describe a favorite activity, to tell a story about yourself, or even a story about your dog, but make sure to really use it — in a way that captures the readers attention and shows that you are exceptional.
Step One: Brainstorming
You should expect to devote about one to two weeks simply thinking up possible essay subjects. From this process of brainstorming, you may find a topic you had not thought of at first. Here are some questions to consider:
What Are You Like?
- What is your strongest personality trait? Does any attribute, quality, or skill distinguish you from everyone else? How did you develop this attribute?
- How would your friends characterize you? What would they write about if they were writing your admissions essay for you?
- Consider your favorite books, movies, works of art, etc. Have these influenced your life in a meaningful way? Why are they your favorites?
- Have you experienced a moment of epiphany, as if your eyes were opened to something to which you were previously blind?
What Have You Done?
- What are your major accomplishments, and why do you consider them accomplishments?
- What have you done outside of the classroom that demonstrates qualities sought after by universities? Of these, which means the most to you?
- Have you ever struggled mightily for something and succeeded? What made you successful? Have you ever struggled mightily for something and failed? How did you respond?
- What was the most difficult time in your life, and why? How did your perspective on life change as a result of the difficulty?
Where Do You Want to Go?
- Of everything in the world, what would you most like to be doing right now? Where would you most like to be? Who, of everyone living and dead, would you most like to be with?
- What are your dreams of the future? When you look back on your life in thirty years, what would it take for you to consider your life successful?
- How does this particular university fit into your plans for the future? Why do you want to spend two to six years of your life at a particular school?
Step Two: Selecting an Essay Topic
As these thoughts start to solidify into an essay topic, think about execution. What sounded like a good idea might prove impossible in the writing. Most importantly, think of how you can make the subject matter original. Even seemingly boring essay topics can sound interesting if creatively approached. With an essay question in mind, think over the following questions:
- Will your topic only repeat information listed elsewhere on your application? If so, pick a new topic. Dont mention GPAs or standardized test scores in your essay.
- Can you offer vivid supporting paragraphs to your essay topic? If you cannot easily think of supporting paragraphs with concrete examples, you should probably choose a different essay topic.
- Will an admissions officer remember your topic after a day of reading hundreds of essays? What will the officer remember about your topic? What will the officer remember about you? What will your lasting impression be?
Choose a Story
The best essays tell a story about the applicant. The essay does not have to be the story of your whole life, but rather a small glimpse of it, one that is rich with meaning and alive with imagery. It often helps to think about the impact that past events have had on you. In one admissions essay written by a student who was accepted to Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, and Stanford, an ordinary story is told in a unique and captivating way. In this narrative about hiking up a mountain, the student also conveys a deep appreciation for science, as well as a dedication to the hard work required to fully understand the universe:
Although the first few miles of the hike up Mt. Madison did not offer fantastic views, the vistas became spectacular once I climbed above tree line. Immediately, I sensed that understanding the natural world parallels climbing a mountain. Much like every step while hiking leads the hiker nearer the mountain peak, all knowledge leads the scientist nearer total understanding.
Entitled “Hiking to Understanding,” this essay tells the story of one hike, but at the same time, gives a complete idea of the authors values, interests, and philosophy. Thus, the essay presents run-of-the-mill subject matter in an out-of-the-ordinary way.
Step Three: Writing the Essay
You must bear in mind your two goals: to persuade the admissions officer that you are extremely worthy of admission and to make the admissions officer aware that you are more than a GPA and a standardized score, that you are a real-life, intriguing personality. But before you can convince an admissions officer of this, you must first grab his or her attention.
Most admissions officers spend at most 2 minutes reading your essay. With this reality in mind, spend the most time on your introduction. One technique is to create mystery or intrigue in this first paragraph. At the very least, you should not give away the whole story right at the beginning. Give the admissions officer a reason to keep reading. As an example, the first sentence of the “Hiking” essay reads as follows:
Surrounded by thousands of stars, complete silence, and spectacular mountains, I stood atop New Hampshire’s Presidential Range awestruck by nature’s beauty.
This first sentence sets the mood for the essay, it draws the reader into the scene, but it does not state the authors argument or even the plot of the story to follow. The reader has to continue reading in order to learn what happens next.
After the first paragraph has been perfected, you must ensure that the body paragraphs relate to the introduction. It helps to have a theme or phrase that runs throughout the entire essay. In “Hiking to Understanding,” the author uses the mountain as a unifying image:
Some people during their lives climb many small hills. However, to have the most accurate view of the world, I must be dedicated to climbing the biggest mountains I can find. Too often people simply hike across a flat valley without ascending because they content themselves with the scenery. The mountain showed me that I cannot content myself with the scenery.
Also notice that the author uses simple language. Many students think that big words make good essays, but powerful ideas are often best expressed in simple and elegant prose.
Another way to impress an admissions officer is by using specific examples and evocative touches of imagery that stay clear of cliché. The application essay lends itself to imagery, since the entire essay requires your experiences as supporting details. Successful essays stick to the mantra, “show, dont tell.” Heres one example from the “Hiking” essay:
When night fell upon the summit, I stared at the slowly appearing stars until they completely filled the night sky. Despite the windy conditions and below freezing temperatures, I could not tear myself away.
This passage shows how description of the stars and cold can make us both imagine the scenery and understand the authors point of view. It tells us what the author feels and thinks, more so than if the author had spelled it out for us.
The conclusion is your last chance to persuade the reader or impress upon them your qualifications. Expand upon the broader implications of your discussion. The “Hiking” essay does this successfully, both expanding on the description of the scene as well as on the scenes meaning for the author:
When observing Saturn’s rising, the Milky Way Cloud, and the Perseid meteor shower, I simultaneously felt a great sense of insignificance and purpose. Obviously, earthly concerns are insignificant to the rest of the universe. However, I experienced the overriding need to understand the origins and causes of these phenomena.
Dont be surprised if the writing process takes many days. Few writers can dash out a quality essay in just a few sittings. It takes awhile to find the perfect structure, wording, and imagery. If you have the time, spend a week away from your draft; when you return to it, you will read it with fresh eyes. Ask friends and family for help. Other readers will find small mistakes that your brain has ceased to recognize, and they will answer the essential question, “what makes this essay memorable?”