Tips for Writing Your College Admissions Essay

by Gregory Lloyd

You’re about to write one of the most important essays of your life. Don’t panic. The subject is one you know very well—yourself. You’re an interesting person and it’s time you show those

college admissions officers just how interesting and unique you are.

After all, that’s what they’re looking for. They want to know something about you that’s not indicated by your resume, your SAT score, your grade-point average, academic awards, or any other document you include elsewhere in your application package. They want a focused, well-organized essay that helps them get to know a bit about your character and personality, what drives you, and what excites you. Make them like you.

Of course, you have only a limited amount of words to do all this, which is good and bad. Good because you need to write only a few hundred words; bad because you’ve got to get your point across in just those few words.

It’s important to view the essay as an opportunity rather than a chore. It’s really not so hard once you know what’s expected of you. To make an impression, your essay must stand out from the crowd and elicit an emotional response from the reader. Here are some tips that will help you prepare a memorable essay that will get read.

Write as you speak.
The purpose of the essay is to show the admissions committee the real you, why you think and act the way you do, and what motivates you. So don’t write as if you are someone else, use stilted language, or gloss over how you really feel. Be authentic, not superficial. Use a relaxed, conversational style.

Be original.
Too many essays use the same tired themes. For example, instead of showing yourself as a victim, focus on how you overcame the situation. You’re not running for Miss America, so avoid presenting your solutions to world peace and hunger. Remember that what bores you pretty much bores others. As you’re writing and revising, continually ask yourself if you would be interested in reading your essay.

Show genuine enthusiasm.
Nothing draws a reader more than writing that’s invigorating. When choosing your topics, pick what genuinely excites you. Your enthusiasm will show through.

Create some mystery.
Begin with an introduction that surprises your readers and makes them want to read past the first paragraph. For example, if you’re an avid volunteer for the Appalachian Trail Club and you’ve chosen to talk about your latest trip, you could start with a description of the sights and sounds as you move about the forest clearing trails.

Rather than describing everything you’ve done with your life, give a full description of one or two items or events. The magic is in the details.

Use active verbs. Action verbs makes your essay much more lively than passive voice, which comes across as cold and detached. For example, “My Botany teacher recommended me for a semester of study at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania” is much better than “I was recommended for

a semester of study at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, by my Botany teacher.”

Use short sentences and simple words.
According to a recent study at Stanford University, individuals who use complicated language are viewed as less intelligent than individuals who use simpler, more concise language. You want your readers to understand your essay. If you use obscure terms needlessly, they won’t be impressed.

Vary sentence structure.
Don’t start every sentence with “The.” Intermingle long sentences with shorter sentences to keep the reader from getting bored.

Don’t brag.
No one wants to hear an endless description of how great you are. Let your actions speak for themselves.

Avoid acronyms and abbreviations.
Although our language is incorporating more and more acronyms and abbreviations, they have no place in your essay. For example, use “and others” instead of “et al.,” “Pennsylvania” instead of “PA.”

Avoid exclamation points and parentheses.
Using exclamation points—especially more than one in a sentence—is a big turnoff.

Avoid asking questions or setting off words and phrases with quotation marks.
These are generally considered inappropriate.

Be specific.
You need to include concrete details about your experiences. Elaborate on one or two of your activities or achievements, showing the reader why you made a particular decision or reacted a certain way. Remember, you’re including a list of your accomplishments elsewhere in your application package; for the essay, use specific dates, locations, feelings, etc., to describe your experiences in accomplishing those achievements.

Don’t tell them what they want to hear.
Colleges read plenty of essays about how wonderful their school is, the evils of war, and the drive and determination needed to become a lawyer. Tell them something new that they may not have heard before.

Avoid gimmicks.
Don’t use puns, definitions, famous quotations, flowery descriptions, or overdone wordplay to get your point across.

Avoid controversy.
Strong opinions about what’s wrong with the world, what kind of government we should have, or why your religion is the best are a no-no.

Be witty only if you can pull it off.
Don’t go overboard with humor. Although admissions officers love essays that make them laugh, using humor for humor’s sake or being silly or immature will get your essay thrown in the slush pile. It’s more important to tell an interesting story and let any humor be inherent.

Avoid offensive tone or language.
Don’t ever cuss or be confrontational when you write.

Don’t try to sound like a sage.
Never begin or end an essay with a quotation, proverb, or other wise saying. Also don’t try to be sophisticated by writing about the world’s greatest mysteries. Many students try to philosophize or use clichés to prove their point. This is a surefire path to disaster. No one wants to read about your position on the validity of totalitarianism or read sayings that are all too familiar.

Avoid jargon.
Avoid computer-related words like “input,” “interface,” parameter,” and “feedback.” Also avoid “actually,” “basically,” “arguably,” and “virtually,” and words commonly spoken by juveniles, such as “awesome” or “cool.”

Avoid sexist language.
Substitute asexual words for sexist words. For example, use “chairperson” instead of “chairman” and “pioneers” instead of “founding fathers.”

Write tight.
Choose nouns and verbs that are specific as possible. “I raced to the door” is much better than “I ran to the door quickly.” Similarly, “The Chihuahua” is much better than “the little, brown dog.”

Also, don’t use 20 words where a few will do. For example, instead of writing…

“Throughout my years of growth from childhood to adulthood, family members, teachers, and others have always commented on the fact that I am a very diligent worker. And I think I would have to agree with them.”

“I’m a workhorse.”

Don’t insult your reader.
Let the reader read between the lines to draw conclusions. Just tell the story. Let the reader figure out the moral.

Revise until it’s perfect.
You’ll need to rewrite and edit your essay several times before you consider it final. Keep in mind that the essay must be more than interesting—it must be captivating. Let your enthusiasm show through.

Adhere to the word limit.
If the school instructs you to write 500 words or less, don’t write 600. And, if your essay runs a little short, don’t feel obligated to fill the extra space.

Proofread your work.
Make sure you don’t have any typographical errors. Don’t rely on your computer’s spell check. Although some software programs make grammatical changes for you, chances are you’ll need to read your essay word for word to make sure you haven’t goofed, for example, by using “there” instead of “their” or “form” instead of “from.” Also make sure your intended meaning is coming across.

Show the essay to someone who can be objective.
To produce the best possible essay, you have to find good editors. Don’t give your essay to your husband, parents, or best friend for comments. Get someone who not only knows English well but can also give you constructive feedback on how your message is coming across. Remember: The college doesn’t know you.

Writing a successful college admissions essay is not a simple task. You should plan to spend a lot of time writing, reviewing, and polishing so that it’s just right. But, if you persevere, you’ll end up with an outstanding essay that will capture the reader’s attention, reach an emotional conclusion about you, and get you that letter of acceptance.

Gregory Lloyd is a financial writer who has completed three college degrees while working full-time.