Imagine you’re a college admission counselor and during the fall you read application essays for 8 hours a day. About 90% of those essays are written about the same topics: how I scored the winning goal for my team or how a mission trip changed my life. Then imagine you read an essay from a student who talks about holding down a 20 hour per week part-time job at a pizza joint, maintained an A/B average in school, and sacrificed his social life to do so. Who do you resonate with more?
The college essay is an opportunity to stand out in the admission process and show your personality. It causes a lot of students stress, but it doesn’t need to! Knowing what an admission counselor is looking for (and not looking for!) in the essay can make the process a whole lot less stressful. Here are 5 tips to help you nail the college essay:
1. Avoid the over-used topics of how you scored the winning goal or how the mission trip you went on changed your life.
These are not necessarily bad topics, but how they’re approached is usually uninspiring. If you went on a mission trip, and it completely changed your perspective and motivated you to take action, start a charity, or create a new club, you might have a great essay topic. If you talk about the experience and how amazing it was, you might want to dig deeper for another topic.
2. Don’t try to impress the admission counselors. Be honest and find your story.
Colleges are trying to learn who you are through your essay. What story can you tell that no one else can? It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering (you’ve only been on this earth for so long, and the colleges know that!). Do you come from a family of 9? Did you get promoted to assistant manager at your part time job? Do you have a unique talent? Don’t worry so much about what will sound good or be impressive. Colleges just want to get to know you better.
3. Make sure your essay sounds like you.
Does your essay sound like something you would say? If it doesn’t, consider drafting until it does. The goal is to make a connection with your reader. Avoid using your thesaurus and using bigger words than you would in a conversation. Mom and Dad may want to help you edit, but often times, they end up phrasing things in a way a teenager never would. Admission counselors will quickly pick up on this!
4. Don’t focus on hardships (including death and divorce).
In most cases, it’s not a good idea to focus on negative topics in your essay. Even if it’s the most significant or life-altering experience you’ve had, chances are it won’t help the admission counselors get to know you and learn about how you can contribute to the campus community.
5. Share something that’s not already on your application.
The essay is an opportunity for you to share something about yourself that’s not already represented on your application. Think about who you are and what’s missing from the big picture. What message do you want to send? If you’re the goalie on the soccer team, the colleges will know that from your activity list. Share something about yourself that they don’t already know, and make sure it’s a personal story by injecting lots of detail.