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5 Things To Keep In Mind While Writing College Application Essays

A young man with brown skin sits at a desk. In front of him are tall stacks of books. He puts his face in his hands in frustration.

This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

Writing a college essay is a precarious balancing act. In approximately 650 to 1,000 words, you have to reveal who you are while tailoring your self-image to what you think a panel of administrators are looking for.

You have to manufacture genuineness without seeming manufactured. Often, you feel pressured to reveal your most intimate details and traumas to people who are only going to judge you. If you don’t, you worry, they won’t take you seriously, or offer you scholarships.

How do you walk the line between sharing too much or too little? You’re either placed in one box or another. How do you keep what makes you you at the center of your essay without feeling pressured to push yourself in ways that you’re uncomfortable with? 

You won’t find the answer to this anywhere except in your own life. Pick moments that best display your values and character.

A short biography is helpful, of course, but pick details and events from your life that show who you are. It can be the story of an item, or a day, or a moment in time where something changed–anything that provided you with a new perspective.

Showing that you’re someone who is receptive to the events in your life, be they large or small, is key.

The above is helpful to consider for the long essay especially, particularly the Common App essay that will go to all your colleges. The short questions, on the other hand, vary from school to school. These are usually more specific regarding the values of the school in question.

It’s helpful to check out the websites and brochures of each school and see what they list as their values, or if they have any particular programs you want to appeal to. That way, you can incorporate some of what they’re looking for in a more specific way instead of throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks. 

For both categories of essay, it’s important that they’re heartfelt. My best essay (with the prompt “How will you embody the college’s motto?”) made me tear up upon editing.

I didn’t overshare about my life or feel like I was a machine churning out a tailor-made response. I simply wrote what I felt and truly believed, and that honesty showed.

Colleges are going to evaluate these responses on a variety of factors. Uniqueness is helpful, of course. I know if I was an admissions judge, I wouldn’t be keen on reading “Little League Essay Number Five Thousand.”

They want to see a good command of language and an embodiment of the college’s values. Don’t stress listing your GPA or extracurriculars–that’s what the rest of the application is for.

The most important thing is to tell a story instead of arbitrarily listing qualities. It also doesn’t have to connect explicitly with school.

For instance, although I wrote about an experience I had at school with my friends, what mattered was the theme of the experience itself, not that it took place at school.

Of course, if you want to write about a time when, say, you stood up for another student (or yourself) at school, and school is a relevant setting, then go for it. My point here is to not limit yourself.

A lot of our most formative experiences happen outside of the classroom, although drawing comparisons between “school” and “life” may be helpful.

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It’s also helpful to connect experiences you have had with what you’re applying for at the university. If you’re applying as an environmental science major, centering your essay around nature makes sense.

If you’re applying to study literature or any other art, discussing your relationship to the form in question helps show that you have been consistently engaged with the subject in a meaningful way.

At my college, while you list what you are interested in studying on the application, you do not have to declare your major until your sophomore year is complete. In that case, it is helpful to write something tailored to the school’s values or something that’s correlated to an opportunity the school offers that’s specific to that school.

For example, if you’re applying with an undeclared major, and your school has a strong focus on its study abroad program or mentions “global citizenship” in its brochure or on its website, you can write about your experience (or desire for experience) with the international community. This is just an example of how you can incorporate what you’re interested in with what the school values.

Now that you’ve listed a few ideas in your head, choose the one that you feel most capable of writing a couple hundred words about without getting bored (essentially, the one you’re most passionate about).

Be careful to not get too crowded with ideas. Keep things clean and straightforward as you tell your story. Something that will help with that is having one or two people that you trust to proofread it for spelling and grammar.

If things still don’t feel exactly right, try speaking to your counselor or an English teacher. As you wrap things up, remember to breathe. Proofread one last time.

It helps to print out the essay and do your editing with a pen. That helps you spot errors you may have missed due to eye strain, and reading aloud helps with clarity and concision.

Editing is key here–concision is a more difficult skill to master than verbosity, and you have a limited time to stand out. Don’t overwrite in an essay where every character matters. No pressure!

These are all examples of things to keep in mind as you’re preparing to write your essays. At the end of the day, it is entirely up to you–what do you think represents you the best?

Above all, you have to be authentic and communicate a clear desire to learn. Your essays don’t have to reflect on you flawlessly. It’s okay to write about a time you were down, or made a mistake, or any other imperfect thing (so long as it’s something you’re comfortable with sharing).

Whatever you write about, it has to be something that proves that you’re able to think in new ways and are ready to learn more. That’s what this is all about: learning.

When you hit that submit button, make sure you do it with confidence. You worked hard, and those long and short essays are only the first of your writings in your college career. So take a break, relax, and feel proud! 

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Author: Rebecca Hanson

I'm currently a sophomore English major at Lewis & Clark College in sunny Portland, OR. Alongside my writing for Niche, I also contribute to LC's student newspaper and radio. I'm passionate about writing, playing bass, and taking care of my dog, Howie (not pictured).