Most top-tier colleges and universities require you to include an application essay or personal statement when you submit your application. But how do Ivy League and other elite schools differ from your average state or private college when it comes to admissions essays? The answer lies in the details.
Writing a strong admissions essay is not the easiest task—it will almost certainly take a significant amount of time and dedication. Admissions committees weigh high school grades and test scores above almost everything else as determiners of potential for academic success. However, because selective colleges receive applications from many worthy students, and since major universities in the US have cut their acceptance rates almost in half due to factors such as increasing numbers of international applications, the application essay (along with letters of recommendation and extracurricular activities) may prove to be your best bet for standing out among the thousands of other talented and worthy candidates.
Setting Yourself Apart from the Field
Admissions officers read thousands of admissions essays each year. So if your essay tells a similar story to those of everyone else, it isn’t likely that your application will end up in the “Accepted” pile. So rather than trying to impress the admissions committee by recounting endless dry details about your subject or about their school in an attempt to sound more like a “model student,” think about how to actually distinguish yourself from others. Ask yourself: “What makes me unique? What am I passionate about or do I excel at, even if it isn’t what everyone else is doing? What do I care about most in the world? What factors and/or experiences in my life have shaped me into the person I have become at the time of writing this essay?” Many applicants will write about subjects that don’t truly interest them to try and impress the judges. Others simply tell a story from A to B to C, listing things they have done but including no narrative theme of development, growth, learning, or triumph over difficulties. Distinguish yourself by turning your story into THE STORY OF YOUR LIFE–and include a beginning, middle and end that sum up who you are and why you are not only intelligent enough but interesting enough to attend this school.
So how do you write a narrative in the form of a personal essay that both informative and captivating; both intimate and somewhat academic?
Luckily there are models you can use—many hundreds of thousands of college applicants have trod this road before you, and hundreds of sites publish successful admissions papers that you can (and should) read to see the common elements that make them effective. Think of the tips below as a kind of map to both plan out your route and then check to see if you are on the right path to writing a strong admissions essay that will make any admissions committee think to themselves, “Now THIS is a sincere and interesting person who belongs at our vaunted learning institution!”
Tips for Writing an Effective College Admissions Essay
1. Focus on what you care about most
Consider this a kind of brainstorming exercise. Close your eyes and imagine what drives you, motivates you, excites you, inspires you to pursue great things (or at least fantasize about doing them). This might include a hobby, a genre of music, an important person in your life, a pivotal memory or experience, a book—anything meaningful that you consider part of your identity or that defines you. Start by making a list of these things and creating a word web of other relevant or secondary aspects of this one idea, person, object, or experience. Write some brief sentences about exactly why it is important to you. Once you have your list and a few sentences written, it should be a bit easier to narrow your topic to just one or two things at most.
2. Use experiences that everyone can relate to but that make your story unique
Brainstorming exercise #2. Experiences are formative. Think about an experience in your life that changed you, changed your mind about something, or even set you off on a particular path that was unexpected. Perhaps you visited Berklee School of Music Summer Camp for a month when you were seventeen and it inspired you not to dedicate your life professionally to music, but to travel the world and seek your fortune in international relations. (Okay, that one might be a bit too autobiographical for this simple article…) You don’t need to recount a story of your precocious business success or have spent a year sailing the world with your family to have an interesting story to tell. Admissions officers want students who are thoughtful, motivated, even somewhat imaginative—students who will likely make a fantastic contribution to their school in their first year.
From a narrative perspective, consider using this experience as a jumping-off point for a bigger lesson about life or education, and then return to this experience towards the end of your essay. This narrative structure presents an excellent way to frame a story and is common in many successful admissions essays.
3. Provide a beginning, middle, and end in your story—and include some twists and turns
Speaking of narrative structure, when you include the basic plot elements of setting, introduction, conflict, and resolution, not only will your essay be more fun to read, it will be easier to write. And when writing is easier, you are usually having more fun and pouring more of yourself into your writing. You will find that this often translates into a more compelling story as well since passion and interest are hallmarks of any good story told to a friend or included on the page of an adventure or romance novel.
When structuring your narrative arc, include the lessons you have learned from these experiences: How did you change? What did you learn? What did/do you plan to do differently because of these experiences? Anyone can write about how they won first place in a competition or spent a fantastic vacation in Europe. The important stuff is not in the itinerary, but rather in the diary–what you learned from the experience and how it impacted you.
4. Recount a time when you overcame a difficulty, focusing on what you learned and how it impacted you
While we are on the subject of life lessons, let’s spend a little more time focusing on the “learning” part—the growth, development, life lessons, and changes in attitude and potential actions in the future. Writing about how great you were at chess growing up and recounting your consistent tournament successes might show that you are really good at chess. But real dedication is proven through failure and perseverance. Was there ever a time in your life where you thought you couldn’t go on doing something because it was too hard, but you somehow pulled through and accomplished what you needed or wanted to by some force of will or tenacity? Maybe you failed miserably in your first few chess tournaments, but despite your parents’ and friends’ desire for you to just give up, you dedicated yourself to practicing and studying chess moves two hours a night. And when you eventually won that first tournament (and then lost a few later but still didn’t give up), the sweetness of that experience was also mixed with the lessons you had gained about success, failure, and the necessity of the latter to understand the former.
If you choose to write this kind of story about overcoming failure or a profound difficulty (financial, emotional, physical, etc.), don’t forget to focus significantly on the “lesson” part. Demonstrating to the admissions officers that you are able to grasp these lessons and make sense of these relationships (which are always crucial in school as in life) will greatly develop the impression of you as a thoughtful and capable person, and therefore a good candidate for admission to a great college.
5. Don’t repeat yourself
As an editor who has read and proofread hundreds of admissions essays, I have seen my fair share of essays that simply repeat the same information in different terms. Cycling one experience or talent throughout your essay without adding relevant details or expounding on its importance makes your essay dry and boring and wastes a lot of precious space that could otherwise be spent sculpting your ideas into something more reflective about what you have learned and how you have developed. Here is an example of what I mean:
Opening paragraph: “I have always had a passion for ballet—it has been my life since I was six years old.”
Second paragraph: “I continued doing ballet into my junior year of high school because of this passion. But then I had an accident and had to stop for six months. However, ballet remained my passion before, during and after this tragic event.”
…Fifth paragraph: “Ballet has been my passion throughout my life, and although I have experienced difficulties, I never stopped loving it. It is this kind of passion for ballet that I intend to bring to my academic career as an undergraduate at your school.”
Sooooooo…do you think this person just might enjoy ballet? That much is clear from the start—but it could have been demonstrated by including details that show this passion rather than simply telling about it. And even if the author were to evidence this passion through actions and details, the repetition of one theme without expansion could still weaken the essay. Additionally, because the author spends so much time discussing ballet throughout the essay, once it comes time to connect this passion to something school- or life-related, they have run out of room to develop what could have been a really amazing idea or point about work, school, knowledge, passion, or life in general.
Instead of repeating your facts about your passion or giving more and more details about it, zoom out and show its impact on how you approach other important facets of life. Discuss what important personal characteristics were/are needed to achieve a high level of skill: dedication to craft, daily energy and tenacity, the ability to follow directions but also to grow and eventually “fly on your own when you hit the dance floor.” Some of this can be accomplished through fancy rhetoric. But because most college essays must be a thousand words or fewer, a better strategy would be to expand on your main interest or experience and show how it impacts other crucial areas in your life.
6. Write several drafts…then revise…then write it again
We get it—writing is difficult. For many it can seem like pure torture to sit for hours on end and put together a self-introduction that not only satisfies all of the basic requirements of a personal essay or “narrative resume,” but which will also supplement your grades and test scores and accomplish this monumental goal of getting you into your school of choice, especially if that school happens to have a fantastic reputation and a list of applicants a mile long.
Not everyone is a born writer—in fact, pretty much no one is. And this is why it is absolutely essential that you give yourself some time to not only finish the first draft of your essay but to edit and revise your work and even rewrite the essay again if necessary.
Why is it important to write a second or third draft of your personal essay? For the same reason that architects don’t decide that a house is ready to be built after only one sketch. On subsequent viewings, revisions that you missed the first time around will appear. While you are writing the first draft, you are almost still in the process of brainstorming, at least on the level of the word or phrase if not the general ideas or concepts. When you revisit the work, you will see what you have written and often easily determine what needs to be revised, deleted, or rewritten altogether. Luckily, this process is usually more fun because you can already see what you have accomplished and are now simply “reworking the clay” into a more sophisticated and precise shape.
Set the draft aside for a few days and then read it again. Imagine that you are an admissions officer and ask yourself as an objective reader: Is the essay interesting? Are the main points clear and do the ideas flow logically? If this person weren’t me, would I feel like I know them after reading this essay? Does it sound clinical and overly academic or does it have a more human and personal element? Answering these more general questions will help you see what parts need to be changed and in which ways. By the time you have written your third (and hopefully final?) draft, you can re-read the original draft and feel confident that you have made great improvements simply by re-reading the essay and making needed changes.
7. Let someone you trust read, proofread, and edit your essay
While revising and reworking the drafts is more of a “global” process, this step also includes changing phrases and fixing grammar, punctuation, and style errors in the work. However, the final task to complete before you submit your essay for scrutiny by your intended college or university is to receive editing and proofreading by someone who knows what they are doing—preferably someone whose ability and opinion you can trust.
Far too many students neglect the importance of editing and proofreading their admissions essays. You need to ensure that your writing is not only free of grammar and punctuation errors but that it also has natural and appropriate language, flows logically, and contains anecdotes and other content that is more likely impress admissions committees (but, as we mentioned, not in a way that is cliche or forced). And as good of a writer as you may be, even the best authors use editors to improve their work and give it that extra layer of polish or extra “oomph.” And in fact, an unedited essay is generally far less likely to get you into a great school—this is especially true if English is not your first language or if you have had limited experience writing essays.
One very accessible solution is to let a professional editing company revise your work—preferably a company that is reputable and employs highly qualified editors but is also affordable and can quickly deliver your edited essay. And according to an October 2019 article in Wired.com, the company that currently best meets these standards is Wordvice Editing Service. One Wired tech reviewer performed a blind study of four leading editing companies, evaluating them in terms of cost and quality of editing, and Wordvice came out on top. Now, how’s that for great word of mouth!
But don’t take our word for it. Check out our College Admissions Essay Editing Services to find out how professional editing can impact your ability to get into top schools.
Until you get to that point, follow the above tips and check out our Admissions Writing Resources for further writing assistance. Best of luck drafting your admissions essays!
Wordvice Admissions Resources
Additional Resources from Around the Web
Crafting an Unforgettable College Essay (Princeton Review)
Tips for writing a paper and the problem of fake essays (Good Morning America)
Ten Reasons Why Your College Application Essay Might Get Rejected (Trusted Essay Reviews)