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Five Essential Tips for a Perfect College Essay


Writing about ourselves is one of the most difficult tasks we are called upon to do.  Ask any adult who has written their own résumé.  It can be hard to crow about your accomplishments, in part because we know that it’s not nice to brag.

Essays aren’t about bragging.  They are an opportunity to bring your personality to light.  So consider these tips to help you spotlight yourself in the perfect college essay.

1.  Consider your audience.

Think about what it must be like to be a college admissions officer.  Stacks and stacks of applications.  Hundreds and hundreds of essays.  A few short weeks to read them all.  At some selective colleges and universities, an admissions officer may have only a few minutes to read through your entire file, including your essays.  So do what you can to grab their attention from the opening line.

College admissions officers are humans.  They want to be entertained.  They want to be moved.  They want to care about the person on the application.  They want to learn something new.  So make sure that you consider your audience as you write.  You don’t want your reader to drop off to sleep after the first paragraph.

2.  Put yourself at the center.

The prompts colleges offer to serve as the lynchpin of the college essay focus on things other than you.  They ask you to write about another person in your life, or a historical character, or an issue you care about. They ask you to write about your conception of diversity.  Or maybe they want to know about an activity you enjoy.

The problem with the prompts is that most students launch into a lengthy exegesis about that other person, or that issue, or that activity, without saying much of anything interesting about the real focus of a college essay:  the applicant.  If you write about Grandpa Joe, don’t recount his life story:  show how his life has affected yours.  If you write about a social or political issue, don’t waste words telling us about how to solve the issue:  illustrate how that issue makes you feel or has prompted you to act.  If you write about an activity, don’t restate facts that we can read about places on your application:  show how that activity reflects your personality, your life’s priorities, or something special about you.

3.  Tell a story.

Everyone likes a good story, including admissions officers.  No matter what topic you choose, try to incorporate a good yarn at the center of it (with you as the principal character, of course).  Consider the beginning, middle, and end of that story.  Think about what you learned in your English classes about the construction of a good story—whether fiction or non-fiction.  Is there a conflict that needs to be resolved in the narrative?  What is the climax of the story?  How do you construct the arc of the story, from the initial build-up to the denouement?  You are telling your story, so make sure it has all the literary elements of a good one.

4.  Go deep.

College applications are very superficial.  The blanks and the spaces in the application require you to fill in basic data about yourself:  parents’ names, grades in school, extracurricular involvements.  It’s all a bunch of facts.  Information devoid of spirit or humanity.

The essay, then, is your chance to show off your humanity, to display some emotion, some soul.  The objective is to communicate—to a perfect stranger—what it is you care about most deeply, to plumb the depths of your sentiments, your passions.  So get philosophical.  Help your reader to understand what makes you different from that stack of other soulless applications she is reading.  Give her something to think about, something that makes her say, “Wow, this kid is mature—deep, even.”  If you stay on the surface, you miss your opportunity to demonstrate that you are unique.  So go deep.

5.  Show some vulnerability.

In my brainstorming sessions with my clients, I’m always on the lookout for those stories in which the student was uncomfortable.  Was there a difficult situation that you had a hard time navigating?  Did a situation make you uneasy, frustrated, or confused?  If you had to relive that situation, would you have handled it differently?

Many students hesitate to write about such experiences, believing that they need to demonstrate strengths, rather than weaknesses.  They fear that they will be passed over if they do not appear superhuman:  “I faced the unbeatable foe, and slayed him!”

Yet admissions officers are not looking for superheroes to populate their campuses.  They are looking for living and breathing humans who are capable of reflection, who understand their fallibility, and who will contribute their strengths and an ability to reflect upon weakness to the betterment of the campus community.

So don’t be afraid to show some vulnerability, to acknowledge frailty, or to even admit defeat.  We’re all human, and that humanity should be at the heart of your college essay.

Mark Montgomery
College Essay Consultant

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