Imagine you are a part of the admissions team.
Let us assume your team has a 1000 applications to review every session (that’s far below the average). Assuming the review process lasts a month, it effectively boils down to you reviewing 50 applications per day, examining around 6-7 applications in an hour. This means you have around 7-8 minutes to review an entire application and roughly 3-4 mins to go through your college application essay.
Sounds hectic doesn’t it? Sadly, it really is.
So what does this mean for you as an applicant? The attention of admission officers is of premium value and you have lesser time than you may have imagined. You probably spent numerous days carving that essay, burning the midnight oil, polishing every single phrase. If you are eager to make a memorable impact with your essay, it will need approaches that are a mix of the tried-and-tested and out-of-the-box.
To help you go that extra mile, check these top tips to write a college application essay.
(the type of essay and the length varies from college-to-college. Look out for such details in the college application form)
Give shape to your thoughts
The first step towards writing a perfect essay is to be able to organize your thoughts around the essay prompt.
There is a 3-step approach that can help you organize and give structure to the clutter.
Define the essay objective.
Even before you put on your writer’s hat, it is essential to define what you are trying to accomplish.
Try and break the prompt. Take a look at the sample prompt below:
“Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, which marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.”
Breaking the prompt will simplify the question and help you in defining your essay objective.
Next, determine the approach. Is the essay prompt asking you to analyse, describe, support or defend? This will help you in defining the voice and style for your essay.
Get your creative juices flowing by brainstorming all possible ideas in addressing the objective of your essay. Moreover, set a time limit for this brainstorming – it will help you focus and keep you from feeling overwhelmed with all the information overflow. The time constraint will also bolster creative thinking and help generate ideas quickly without letting your critical side take over.
Ask yourself questions. How is this helping me address the question? How do I support my statements? How would the reader feel about this? What did I learn from this incident? When you think you are done, re-read a couple of times more to add or edit wherever required.
Draw your ideas.
Now that the brain dumping exercise is over, you know what you want to say, but you must decide how you’re going to say it. For some of you, creating a visual outline of the major points at the start of the writing process will help you concentrate on conveying your main idea effectively within a well-organized framework.
Time to draw!
(Tools to assist: Pen and paper or blank work document, whatever suits you)
Write your objective on the top of the page. Follow a top-down approach to create a hierarchy to see how the objective relates to your main idea(s). Connect your main idea(s) to ideas/arguments that relate/support the main idea(s).
Remember there is no one way to do it. Be as creative as you can be to map your ideas which can then serve as the foundation for your essay.
Spin the yarn.
Storytelling is a great way to connect to the readers and help them see what you see. Pulling in the readers through a compelling story is an effective way to form a personal connect.
Consider another sample prompt: ‘Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act?’
Now take a trip down memory lane and remember a time when you faced a problem. The aim is to take a problem (real life incidents involving challenges, mistakes, fears, etc.) from your past and show what (value or quality) motivated you to get through it or how you have been living despite those problems.
You can make your story more engaging and captivating by:
Making them care. The aim is to make the reader empathize with you, which will help them understand you better.
Imprinting a picture. Include specific details (e.g. my bestie Cathy, my red t-shirt). That will help you become memorable in the reader’s mind.
Reflecting, rather than recounting. Describe what you learned from the experience and how that learning drives the main idea of your essay.
Turning your entire essay into a completely personal narrative may not always an option. What you need to bear in mind is that supporting your argument with the help of anecdotes (mini-stories from real life) can also make the narrative interesting.
The essay is a part of the application wherein you have absolute control to speak your mind. So it’s important to showcase how you think, what you care about and what you value, through your real-life experiences.
Being honest makes you care and connect deeply with what you are weaving, which ultimately results in better writing.
Hobbies and interests – Reflect a bit of your personality
‘Why do you want to attend XYZ college?’ is a common essay prompt. Universities prefer applicants who can contribute and connect well with their academic community.
Find connections between your interests and what the college community has to offer. Showcase your enthusiasm to be a part of the community and the intent to be an active contributor to that community.
While working their way through so many applications, the admissions team has little time to truly remember you.
Think of the books or movies you love, and the characters you remember. There is something about those characters that is quintessentially theirs – a quality, mannerism, style, or viewpoints that stand out. The same holds true for most of us; we all have our eccentricities that make us unique.
The idea is to link your unique qualities (strong or weak) with real life experiences in a way that helps the reader remember you better. Give them a cause to remember you.
Real skill lies in your ability to write your most effective idea in a crisp and succinct way. Keep your focus narrow. Try to emphasise on one aspect of yourself so that the reader can learn more about what uniquely defines you.
For example, if you say you core value is “honesty,” then try to think what honesty means to you.
“Ironically, in a changing world, playing it safe is one of the riskiest things you can do.”
– Reid Hoffman, co-founder LinkedIn.
We get it – a lot rides on this essay. You want it to be flawless. But in the quest to get it perfect and impress reviewers, applicants can tend to feed to their need to impress the readers with ideas that are otherwise clichéd and overdone.
Discussing failures may seem risky. But when done well, this risky approach could give you an edge over other applicants.
Revealing imperfections does not make you weak. It only makes you more human and makes readers connect better with you at a personal level. Highlight you work on those flaws. The aim is to embrace those vulnerabilities and move ahead with a growth mindset.
Well, there is no magic trick for measuring such risk, but with proper planning (design phase) and an honest voice, you can create an authentic and memorable essay.
Voice and Style.
Voice is your unique way of thinking that makes your writing sound like you. The reader can visualize your personality through the use of language and your choice of words.
Style is the manner in which your essay is written. For example, some applicants could be dramatic in articulating their thoughts while some others could be more conservative while employing flair. What is key here is consistency.
Using uncommon vocabulary and difficult phrasing may not fetch you any extra brownie points – it will only take you as far as you make good sense. Eliminating wordiness is important. Although with the proper use of qualifiers, you can showcase your abilities wherever required.
What do you do next? Proofreading. Lots of it. Till you are sick and tired of reading your essay for the umpteenth time.