Focus on the College Admission Essay

The college admission essay can be one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of the college application process. But what does it take to write a standout admission essay? What are admissions officers looking for in a good candidate? And how should you approach your college essay if you typically struggle with your writing? Read on for tips, tricks, and some expert advice from our friends over at the Common Application to improve your chances of impressing admissions officers with an awesome personal essay…

Focus on the College Admission Essay

Many colleges require an admission essay. For many students, the admission essay will be among the most challenging parts of the application process. For others, this presents a great chance to stand apart from other applicants with a unique personal story.

Whether you’re a strong writer, you could use a little help, or the very thought of writing gives you nightmares, the key to writing a successful admission essay is to approach the task in an organized fashion. Writing is a multi-step process. Don’t rush it. A great essay will require preparing, planning, proofing, multiple drafts, and even a little outside help.

Speaking of outside help, we wanted to learn a little more about the admission essay process so we consulted with Meredith Lombardi, Associate Director of Outreach and Education at the Common App. The college admissions expert engages with students and the counseling community to ensure Common App resources are relevant and that these resources support college access initiatives.

Lombardi provides a number of valuable insights on how to wow admissions officers with your college essay. But before getting to Lombardi’s contributions, we think it best to start with the wisdom of great author and occasional painter Henry Miller. In his oft-quoted 11 Commandments of Writing, Miller advises “Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.”

This is a great way to approach your college admission essay. This positive outlook can help you connect with the task at hand, which is to reveal something about yourself that might capture the interest, attention, or even the imagination of an admissions officer. Free your mind and your pen will follow.

What is the college admission essay?

Before we examine what the college admission essay is, let’s be clear on what it isn’t. The college admission essay is not a place to simply restate your academic resume. That’s what your transcripts are for. Nor is it a place to brag about your greatest achievements in life. More than anything, the college essay is a chance to introduce yourself on a more personal level, to share your thoughts using your own voice, and to set yourself apart from the many other excellent applicants who also have excellent grades, stellar test scores, and rich extracurricular schedules.

Before you even begin taking notes for your essay, spend some time reflecting on what makes you unique, what special qualities you bring to an educational community, and why you think these qualities make you a great fit for the college in question.

Though college admission essays come in all shapes and sizes, they all share the common goal of providing a platform for your truest self to come through. You are presenting a side of yourself that is at once pertinent to your educational, professional, and personal goals, and which is not likely to be demonstrated in your application or transcript.

Some essay prompts will be direct and straightforward (e.g. Why do you feel that this is the right university for you? What will you contribute to this campus if admitted?); whereas others may be more abstract (e.g. If you could have any superpower, what would it be and why? What do you feel is the biggest crisis facing the world today and how would you fix it?)

Do your best to reflect the tone of the prompt in your essay. Try to take a queue from this prompt as you decide whether to approach your subject in a serious and formal way, or in a more playful and abstract manner.

How important is the college admission essay?

How much will your admission essay factor into your likelihood of being admitted to the college of your choice? That depends on a wide array of circumstances. The importance of your college admission essay will vary based on factors related to your schools as well as personal factors.

First and foremost, be aware that different schools place different weight on the college essay. Some colleges may consider the admission essay a key part of the evaluation process whereas others may consider it entirely optional. Some colleges may not even include an essay question as part of the application process.

For colleges which make the admission essay optional, or which do not require an essay at all, you may choose to submit an essay or personal statement. This decision is entirely up to you, but it may be a good idea if you feel that your overall admission portfolio could use strengthening. If your GPA, class rank, or standardized test scores are slightly less competitive, adding a compelling personal statement to the mix could help improve your standing.

If, by contrast, the admission essay is required, you can assume that the school in question considers it an important component of your application. Excellent and influential schools receive applications from many qualified students with perfect grades and stellar test scores. Your essay could become a very critical part of distinguishing you from the countless other highly qualified applicants. In this regard, it may be extremely important.

In fact, according to College Board, “The National Association for College Admission Counseling’s 2011 State of College Admission report found that while grades, strength of curriculum, and admission test scores are the top factors in the college admission decision, a majority of colleges and universities believe the essay to be of considerable or moderate importance in determining which academically qualified students they would choose.”

No effort should be spared in doing your best work and applying maximum effort to the essay portion of your application. Depending on the school and your circumstances, it could be the determining factor in winning you admission to a desirable school.

How Can I Write a Standout Essay?

So what does it mean to write a standout essay? Contrary to popular misconception, it doesn’t mean you have to be an author worthy of publication. It simply means that you should do your very best to distinguish yourself from others while casting yourself in a positive light.

See Also: Expert College Admissions Consultant, Dr. Nguyen’s recommendations for impressing the admissions selection committees.

Standing out is essential. It’s the name of the game when it comes to admission essays. Admission officers will read an enormous number of admission essays every single year. A forgettable essay will quickly be lost in the shuffle. Think about experiences, ideas, achievements, or a unique perspective that can help distinguish you. Stand out from the crowd in positive ways. And remember that a unique life experience is not the same as a conventional academic achievement.

Think about your family history, travel experiences, ethnic background, or even a difficult circumstance that you emerged from with new strengths and insights. The more personal your story is, the likelier it is to be unique and memorable.

Meredith Lombardi advises that “When it comes to the college application essay, the ball is fully in your court. What you write is entirely up to you. Instead of writing about what you think colleges want to hear, write about yourself–about what you love, where you come from, what you aspire to, how you spend your time, what bugs you, what inspires you, who is important in your life.”

Lombardi continues, “this quote from the admissions office at our member Ursinus College is important for students to consider: ‘To expect students to come to us as fully formed human beings is antithetical to the mission of higher education. Often, the best writing sections showcase a student’s willingness to be challenged to become a more engaged learner and citizen.’”

Think about challenges you’ve faced—those which you’ve overcome and even those which you’ve struggled to overcome. How have you managed these challenges, what did you learn from them, and how have they shaped you into the person you are today? Use this as the basis for selecting a topic that really means something to you, and one which shows admissions officers how effectively you manage and learn from challenges.

Start your writing process off with a brainstorming session. Make a list of possible topics. As you narrow this list, hone in on topics that truly inspire you. Be sure you feel a genuine connection with your topic before you begin writing. It makes it a lot easier to follow this next piece of essential advice…

Be Yourself

Meredith Lombardi warns that “the biggest mistake a student can make with the essay is not using their authentic voice. This can result from writing their essay in a way they think schools want to hear or using words that are not in their everyday vocabulary.”

This mirrors the popular advice you’ve probably heard from an English teacher at some point in your life—find your voice. You’re telling your own story. Be sure that it actually sounds like you.

And as you search for that voice, let your writing flow. You’ll have time to proof and edit later. Your first goal is to put words on the page, and to do it in a way that feels natural to you. Write what you know, and write it the way you are most likely to say it when speaking.

Lombardi advises, “it’s a good idea for students to read their essays out loud. Do the words coming out sound like their own?”

Follow the Directions

This is extremely important. While you should come off as a unique individual, there are still rules that you must follow. These rules may differ from one school to the next. The amount of creative flexibility you have may also vary from one school to another.

Perhaps most importantly, be sure that you respect word count limits. Admissions officers read a lot of essays. They won’t be impressed that you responded to a 500-word essay prompt with a 10-chapter novel. They’ll just be annoyed, and they’ll most likely trash your application for demonstrating resistance to instructions.

Once you’ve found your voice, make sure you fit that voice into the framework established by the school in question. Also, this is probably not stated in the instructions but we feel it’s worth mentioning anyway. Avoid profanity, inflammatory language, overt political statements, or language which is insensitive to others. Offending admissions officers is not the way to stand out!

Avoid Repetition, Redundancy, and Repetition

See what we did there? How annoying is that? Now think how an admissions officer must feel when reading the same information over and over again. As you choose your essay topic, remember that you’ve already submitted transcripts, an extracurricular resume, and test scores.

Unless the essay prompt specifically asks for these academic highlights, do not use this writing space to repeat information. Admissions officers already have the facts and figures. Here, they’re looking for character, color, and nuance. Don’t waste this important opportunity to showcase a different side of yourself, one that adds depth to the hard numbers.

Give Yourself Plenty of Time

The essay is the one part of your college application that requires more than just information. This section requires real thought, insight, and creativity. These things take time.

As Lombardi notes, “writing is a process. Students who give it the time it deserves will have more time to write, step away, rewrite, and ultimately submit an essay that truly reflects who they are.”

Be prepared to create multiple drafts of your work. Then, after you’ve arrived at a draft that you like, proof, edit, then proof again, and again, and again.

Triple-check your grammar, spelling, and organization. The more time you spend reviewing your completed essay, the more likely that you’ll spot mistakes, and identify opportunities for improvement.

Ask for Essay Help!

Another reason to give yourself plenty of time is to tap smart people around you for support.

According to Lombardi, “When students do begin the writing process, it’s okay to ask for help. Whether it’s a parent, teacher, counselor, advisor, mentor, or even a college student who has recently gone through the application process, students can use their personal relationships to brainstorm ideas, review drafts, and proofread.”

Seek feedback from trusted sources. Run your essay by a teacher, parent, or friend. Get multiple opinions as you go through your revisions. Lombardi does warn, though, that there is a limit to how much input you should allow from others. She explains that “A student’s original voice can also get lost from having too many edits from external readers.”

You don’t have to take every single piece of advice you receive, but it can be extremely helpful to get other perspectives on your work. Once you’ve done that, you can make some well-informed decisions about the final work.

What about the Common Application Admission Essay?

More than 900 colleges and universities accept the Common Application. This portal allows you to apply to as many as 20 colleges at once. It also provides unique flexibility when it comes to essay writing. If you are applying to a number of schools using the Common Application, you’ll be able to choose from 7 distinct essay prompts.

According to Lombardi, “The Common App essay prompts have one purpose: to help you introduce yourself to your colleges. The essay gives students the opportunity to express their background, interests, and talents in a creative and insightful manner. Through their writing, admissions committees get to know an applicant beyond their academic record, test scores, or list of activities. Oftentimes, there’s a part of a student’s story that doesn’t fit into a box within the application; the essay gives students the space to share this part of themselves. With schools reviewing thousands of applications, it can be the essay that helps a student stand out from other applicants.”

To learn more about the Common App, including a look at this year’s seven essay options, check out our Focus on the Common App.

But I’m Terrified of Writing…

For some students, the admission essay is the most intimidating part of the application process. Writing doesn’t come easily to all students. If this describes you, the best advice we can offer is to remember that colleges don’t expect you to be perfect. This is not a writing test. This is a chance to show them who you are.

Focus on this aspect of your work first and foremost. There are plenty of helpful resources out there that can improve your writing once you’ve honed in on a meaningful topic and established a strong personal voice.

Lombardi says “There are tons of tools out there to help students with the writing process, from books to online resources. But students don’t have to look far from their own schools. Their schoolwork and teachers are preparing them to make the transition to college, and their teachers and counselors are there to help guide them through the process. Students can take advantage of writing centers, classes, or workshops that are being offered for free at their schools or in their communities.”

Students also have access to plenty of online resources for students, which is especially compelling to students who are simultaneously navigating the college application process and the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Lombardi notes, “A lot of organizations are meeting students where they are - online - hosting webinars and live twitter chats to share writing tips and advice. We are proud to work with the American College Application Campaign and others committed to helping students access higher education. Students can check out #WhyApply for great resources.”

Admission Essay Submission Checklist

Once you’ve completed your admission essay, you’ve proofed repeatedly, and you’ve consulted others for feedback, it’s almost time for submission.

But don’t click submit (or seal that envelope) just yet! For old time’s sake, let’s go over that essay one more time. As you do, double-check to make sure your essay:

  • Answers the initial prompt
  • Follows all instructions, including word count
  • Showcases a unique side of you
  • Demonstrates how you would contribute to the campus
  • Demonstrates why you’re a good fit for the school
  • Shows that you’re willing to be challenged, and learn from challenges
  • Is free from spelling, grammar, or informational errors
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For more on applying to multiple colleges at once, check out our Focus on the Common Application.

For a comprehensive look at the college admissions process, check out our Guide to Applying for College.