What All Top-Tier Colleges Look For: 5 Tips for Writing Your Admissions Essay

College Admissions

Can one size fit all?

It is mid-November and the application window for many top-tier schools is closing. Although you decided long ago which schools meet your “fantasy” criterion, you’ve decided to add a couple more to the list in the last few weeks just in case your wildest admissions dreams don’t come true. Some of these schools include Ivy League colleges like Dartmouth, Stanford, and Yale, while others, while slightly less exclusive, are still distinguished as top-tier schools.

As you begin to write your Common Application Essay, the problem becomes how to focus on what all of these superior schools are looking for in an individual essay. Ignoring for a moment that most top-tier schools offer applicants their own specific supplemental essay prompts, how do you write one admission essay that will satisfy the finicky individual demands of each school? Do you focus your essay on academic greatness (specific criteria at Yale) or do you go the route of showing your empathy and altruism (dear to the hearts of Harvard’s adcoms)? But whether you are applying to Yale or to Wellesley, Cornell or UC Berkeley, you need to write an essay that will satisfy the readers at all of these schools equally well. You need to forge “one essay to rule them all.” But how to accomplish this feat?

Here are some tips you can follow to confidently write an essay that checks off the important boxes of ANY top-tier college admissions committee

1. Make every global issue a local issue

They say that “all politics is local” since what affects a person directly will most compel them to emotion and action. Therefore, if you choose to write about a topic with far-reaching consequences—a natural disaster, national election, or economic event for instance—be prepared to zoom in the lens and show how this event affected you personally. This means it might be easier for a person living in the path of the hurricane to write about the effects of the hurricane. But if you live in a desert and still want to write about the hurricane a thousand miles away, you need to show how it reached you, how it affected you, and perhaps how the hurricane relates to other, more obvious parts of your everyday life. This applies to any large-scale event or activity.

2. Tell a simple story with a message

Since the beginning, humans have shared and learned via oral narratives. Stories contain elements that excite and interest us: heroes, villains, obstacles, scene details, action, etc. By exposing the message of your essay through a narrative (with YOU always positioned as the protagonist), you engage with admissions committee readers, evoking their empathy, capturing their attention, making sure they don’t forget about you among the thousands of mini-biographies. Stories have lots of action and detail—they reveal the important messages not by telling the reader what is important, but by showing them through exposition. Every single successful top-tier essay is written in some form of mini-story.

3. Give your story flesh and flaws

The cookie-cutter college admissions essay takes many varieties: the “Complete Autobiography” essay; the “Exotic Voyager Insight” essay; the “High School Epiphany Turning Point” essay; and a few dozen others. The difference between an essay that reads like a long-form cliché and the one that stands out as unique, believable, and compelling depends on how “real” the story feels. Ivy League schools are filled with students who have taken trips abroad—details about your expensive vacation will therefore not exactly fascinate admissions committees at these schools.

So if you choose to write about a six-week vacation in China, consider focusing on the more difficult elements. Write about a specific person or experience you had in one location. Relay painful, visceral details that will turn your story from a cookie-cutter cookie into a three-dimensional cinnamon roll. Don’t write a “my trip to China” story. Rather, make it a “my four days with Ms. Wei the Nanjing tea goddess” kind of story. In other words, bring in the lens and make it local. Give it flesh and flaws.

4. Show growth and change

You may have heard this adage before: “Every story we tell ourselves is either a story about a beloved person leaving a village or a stranger returning to the village.”

Of course, this is clearly an exaggeration, but the central thrust is CHANGE: a big character or event is introduced into the narrative world; the protagonist changes the world in some way; or he or she is profoundly affected by the world in which he or she enters. Simple and yet so effective. And guess who the protagonist (the “hero”) in your admissions essay should be… YOU, of course! All top-tier colleges want to admit students who are capable of growth and transformation—this is the goal of education. Therefore, show how you underwent a big change in how you think about the world, how you handle difficult situations, how your mind has been transformed.
For example, if you are writing the Common App essay and choose to respond to prompt #2 or #4 (both of which ask you to discuss a problem or challenge you have faced or might face), you need to focus most on how you responded to this situation and how you grew as a result. So while you can spend time and detail setting up the scene about your family’s financial difficulties or your personal struggle with dyslexia, save about two-thirds of the essay to show the reader how this experience made you more equipped to handle the difficult situations you will face in college and in adult life.

In order to show growth, you need to reveal the mechanism or thinking process behind this growth. If you write about your participation in the community gardening club (a background, interest, or talent that defines you), don’t just brag about how great you were at growing tomatoes. Show how you became a more civic-minded or organized person as a result by writing about other projects you have planned. While it may seem obvious to you how the gardening club impacted your work ethic, spell it out thought by thought. Top-tier adcoms are interested not only in what you’ve done, but how you approach problems in the real world. Reveal your brain to the reader.

5. Find wisdom in the mundane

Nobody wants to seem identical to a thousand other applicants. So the desire to write in a “singular” voice or about an extremely non-traditional or controversial issue may be strong for some of the more rebellious souls out there. While this can certainly work in your favor, you run the risk of not being taken seriously if you write about something too frivolous or silly, or even too gratuitously dark or serious.

One smart way to take risks in your admissions essay is to focus more on the philosophy of your actions and growth than on the excitement or novelty of your situation or experience. Think about your life experiences as a puzzle with many interesting pieces, all of which are vital and make you who you are. Some of the best personal essays focus on a topic that, while seemingly banal and boring from the outside, have a profound impact on readers because of the lessons the writer is able to pull from these experiences.

Essays that explore the impact that daily occurrences and relationships can have, with intriguing titles like “Supermarket Sundays with Grandma Myrna” or “My Favorite Medicine,” illustrate how the mundane can be turned into something profound. This ability to find the important lesson in regular life events demonstrates a curious and philosophical mind, and the “risk” here is that your life may not seem as exciting or purposeful as that of others.

 

Whether you are writing an essay for the Common Application or for a specific college, keep these guidelines in mind as you brainstorm and draft. For further information and suggestions regarding the Common Application Essay and other admissions essays, check out Wordvice’s Resources page.

 

 

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