6 Steps To Drafting The Perfect College Admissions Essay
So, you’re stuck writing your college essay. I’m assuming that’s why you stumbled upon this blog post and decided to read it.
Now, if you’re anything like I was in high school, you’re freaking out. You’re breaking down because you think that everyone else in the world has it together and knows what they’re doing. Except for you.
Trust me, though–coming from someone who’s been in your exact shoes–you’re not the only one feeling this way. In fact, it’s completely normal to feel lost at this stage.
There really hasn’t ever been a time where you’ve been asked to write an essay that seems like it could dictate your future–that could dictate your college, your job, and maybe even your happiness later in life.
It’s only understandable that you feel this way. Popular culture has definitely exaggerated the role of the essay in the college admissions process.
You may have heard the phrase, “It’’s the most important part of the college application.” It’s where you show your voice, they tell you. It’s the only place to show your character, they say. It’s the only part that really matters, you might have heard.
Phrases like these are the exact reason that the essay may seem daunting at first: the reason you might be freaking out, breaking down, or a combination of the two.
The first step to writing your essay is to let go of this misconception! Remind yourself that the essay is not the only factor dictating your admission into college. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, because that might end up hurting you more than helping.
Studies have repeatedly shown that stressing out actually negatively impacts your performance. So let’s take a deep breath, tell ourselves that the essay, contrary to popular belief, isn’t the only factor dictating your admission, and move onto step one.
Step One: Choose Your Topic
One of the biggest mistakes you can make on your college essay is starting too early. Don’t feel rushed to “jump right in,” or “get started right away.” Arguably the most important part of the college essay is actually brainstorming beforehand.
A great writer can be bogged down by a difficult writing topic and a poor writer can write an amazing piece with a good one. Take your time to think of a good topic to write about; you’ll thank yourself later.
How do you choose ‘the right’ topic? We’ll, that’s the hard part. Ask the college admissions officers, who’ve seen essays about topics ranging from a major death in the family to Costco samples.
Luckily, though, there are some general tips that can guide you in the process of choosing a topic. Let’s go through them below.
1. Choose something substantial
This one’s crucial. You know the Costco sample essay that I mentioned earlier? The reason it worked is because the student who wrote it was able to tie the theme of the essay into a larger meaning: a bigger purpose statement about who they are and what they wanted out of the experience.
A good rule of thumb to go by is that your topic must be something that you have lots of experience with: something that you can talk about at lengths without boring the reader (or yourself).
2. Don’t choose something too depressing
This is a HUGE misconception: a misconception that I too had when I was writing my essay. A lot of students tend to think that sob stories are what get you accepted. The sadder the story, the higher the chances of acceptance, right?
Not really. As we can tell by the hundreds of essays about things like pizza, Costco, video games, and more; colleges like a playful, light topic just as much, and maybe even more, than they do an overly sad story.
Remember: the people reading your essays are real people with real emotion. The last thing they want to do is read stories all day about depressing topics. So use them sparingly, if at all.
3. Show your personality!
This is the last tip I’ll give you about choosing a topic since the idea should come from you. Let your strengths shine through in what you’re writing.
For example, if you’re naturally a funny person, consider a comedic topic that’ll get the admissions team laughing. If your friends would describe you as a naturally quirky person, write your essay about something quirky. Maybe there’s a food you really like or a place you’ve always enjoyed visiting.
Other than those general guidelines, the world of college essay topics is an endless one. Let’s stop here and think long and hard about the statement you want to make with our essay.
Step 2: Write the Introduction
Now that we’ve chosen a topic, we can move onto the fun part: writing! Let’s start with the introductory paragraph. This paragraph should be short but carry value.
The introductory paragraph is probably one of the most important ones in the whole essay. Why? It’s the first thing that the college admissions panel is going to read.
They’ve already seen your stellar grades, looked at your amazing standardized test scores, and gone through all your special extracurriculars. But this is the first thing that they read that shows them YOU.
This is their first impression of you beyond just numbers and lists. Make it count.
How do you do that? Write something that will immediately catch the panel’s attention: something that will make them want to keep reading.
One way to do this is by using a strategy called “en media res.” This phrase, which literally translates to “in mid-story,” refers to the writing technique of starting your piece in the middle of a story. Consider this example:
“Fred lay unconscious on the bed. Nurses called his name helplessly, waiting for him to wake up. His wife sobbed loudly in the corner, pleading the doctor to save him. The doctor shook his head in failure and looked down at the floor in disappointment.”
Pretty effective start to an essay, right? If you were the admissions officer reading this paragraph, chances are that you would want to keep reading.
We want to know who Fred is. We want to know what the narrator is doing in the room. We want to know what happened to Fred. Will he survive?
Here’s another example:
“The shapes in my surroundings slowly blend into smudges. My head feels dizzy. I grab the closest chair and sit down. I see eyes. People turn their heads to stare at me. I don’t like the attention. I want it to stop. Faint voices call my name I’m the background. They get quieter and quieter until I don’t hear them anymore. The world goes blank, and that’s the last thing I remember.”
This introductory paragraph also does a good job of drawing the reader in. After reading this introduction, we’re left with a lot of similar questions.
Who is the narrator of the story? Why is the world around them metamorphosing? Are they okay? What happened to them at the end?
These are all questions that we will hopefully get answers to if we keep reading.
That’s one way to get your reader’s attention. Start with a story that will have them on the edge of their seat. Remember, what’s the point of writing a whole essay that the reader doesn’t want to keep reading? There is none.
Let’s take a minute to stop here and draft an introduction. Remember to make sure that it has the reader questioning. An introduction that doesn’t leave the reader thirsty and seeking more answers probably isn’t the best one.
Step 3: Writing the Body
Now that you’ve written your introductory paragraph, it’s time to move onto the body of the essay. In these paragraphs, we want to explain what we spoke about in the introduction.
Perhaps for the first example we looked at above, the narrator is a medical assistant in the emergency department. They could lead off of the introduction with a statement like:
“This was my very first experience in the emergency department as a medical assistant. And it is one I’ll never forget. Fred passed away that day, but life in the emergency room continued. I continued to trail behind the physician; documenting notes, taking vitals, and most importantly, observing his work.”
See how we are given answers to our questions in this short body paragraph? The writer does a good job here of tying what they described in the introduction into what they’ll be talking about in the rest of the essay, which we can guess will be their experiences as a medical assistant.
That’s exactly what these body paragraphs should do. Take what you described in the introduction and tie it into your topic. Think of the introductory paragraph as a teaser of sorts.
All you’re doing here is drawing the reader in and capturing their attention. The body is where the real substance is.
Let’s look at an example of a body paragraph suitable for the second example we gave earlier.
“The next thing I remember is being in the nurse’s office. She let out a surprised gasp as my eyes barely opened. I swallowed. ‘What happened?’ I managed to groan. The nurse took a deep sigh. ‘It’s the football,’ she said. ‘It’s too much for you.’ This only made me want to keep playing. My mom, my dad, my friends, and many others tried to stop me after this incident. They told me I wasn’t built for it: that I wasn’t strong enough. But that didn’t stop me.”
In this example we can see that the author electively ties his introductory paragraph into the rest of his essay, which we can tell will be about his love for football.
Just like the authors of these two examples, it’s important that you don’t have an out of place introduction with no ties to your topic. Like any good essay, the topic should flow smoothly from one paragraph to the next.
Use the body paragraphs to tell the reader more about you, whether it’s about your dedication to the emergency department or your love for football.
This will probably be the most time-consuming part of actually writing your essay. Make sure you give yourself enough time to do this. Even if it’s just one paragraph every one or two days, give this section some thought.
Think, write, and then re-write. Ideally, you should have one or two paragraphs in the body with some solid content. Be descriptive, but don’t extend your essay TOO long. The worst impression you can make on your reader is one of boredom.
Step 4: Conclusion
Now comes the conclusion. What was the point of writing the essay or telling the story you just did? We can tell the reader here.
The concluding paragraph should really hone in on what you want the admissions committee to know about you. Here’s your chance to tell them why your story matters: how it has impacted who you are as a person and what you stand for today.
Let’s look at the emergency department student. Here’s an example of what they might say in their conclusion:
“Every day I met hundreds of patients like Fred. I got to know patients with terminal illnesses, I comforted patients who had no other family, and I held patients’ hands as they breathed their last breath. It was in that same room—the same room in which Fred passed—that I realized the emergency room is where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. After some reflection, I now realize I want to dedicate my life to helping those like Fred. I want to be the one to give patients advice, to give them hope, and to give them support when there’s nobody else available to do so. I see my future as an emergency physician: a future that I will someday pursue.”
The author of this essay is trying to communicate one main point to the admissions committee: their hopes to be a future physician. Through the concluding paragraph, they tie in both the introductory and body paragraphs to make a statement about themselves.
They do a pretty good job, in fact, of conveying themselves as a passionate, determined, and caring student. These are all qualities that an admissions committee would love to have at their school.
This general rule of using the concluding paragraph to communicate character and growth to the admissions committee can be applied to any topic, really!
Let’s look at what the second student (the football player) might write for a conclusion.
“Through the highs and lows of high school, football transformed itself into my best companion. I often look back on that one period, when everyone in my life was discouraging me from playing, and question what would have happened if I had given up. I wonder how my life would’ve been different. Whether it was early-morning drills on the field, late-night gatherings with the team, or just deep pep talks from my coach, football is something I can’t live without. I learned that only recently.”
This essay conclusion also does its job of driving home the point that the author was trying to make all along: his love for football. Through the thoughtful wording and language, he is able to sell himself to the admissions committee as a mature, driven, talented, and committed student. What college wouldn’t want such a student on their campus?
Now it’s time to write yours. Take a moment to really think about what qualities you want the admissions committee to notice in you.
If you’ve always been a super driven student, tell them that! If you are described by all your friends as compassionate and caring, make sure the admissions committee knows that! If you’ve been completely committed to one thing your entire four years of high school, make sure the admissions committee gets that.
Remember, this is the last real paragraph that you get to make a lasting impact on the admissions committee. Think from their perspective about why they would want YOU out of thousands of other applicants on their campus. Make sure you get that star quality across, because this might be your last chance to do so.
One final piece of advice about the concluding paragraph: it’s always best to stick by the general rule “show, not tell.” You might have heard this phrase thrown around and have maybe even been told to implement it in your writing before.
If you’re still a little confused as to what it means, here’s an example to help.
Telling the admissions committee that you are a dedicated student would look something like this:
“I am a dedicated student, who puts utmost effort into everything that I do. That is what got me on to the junior varsity basketball team.”
Pretty solid end to an essay, right? You’ve told the admissions committee that you’re a dedicated student. That’s what they’re looking for, right? A job well done?
Well, maybe. There’s a more effective way to conclude this essay that will still allow the author to SHOW the readers that they are a dedicated student. This way is much more effective than the first. Let’s take a look at an example:
“And that’s why, through the 365 days of the year, I never stopped trying. I woke up in the morning and practiced on the court. I spent my evenings at the gym, lifting weights. I lay in bed at night, reciting all the drills in my head. It was as if my life was a broken record, repeating itself day by day. But as the lore has it, all hard work pays off. As a student on the Varsity basketball team 4 years later, I won’t once say that I regret it. Not once do I wish I could choose a different–or easier–path. As they say, practice truly does make perfect. I am a living example of that.”
Wow! That made a huge difference, didn’t it? In both the above paragraphs, the author is communicating to us that he is a dedicated student. In both the paragraphs, the admissions committee will have the same exact takeaway: the writer is dedicated.
What’s the difference, then? Well, in the first, the student is TELLING us that he is a dedicated person. In the second he is SHOWING us. And it makes a world of difference, as you can see.
Step 5: Extensions
Alas, we come to the final paragraph of your college essay: the extension paragraph. If your high school English teachers taught you anything like mine, you were told that the concluding paragraph is the last: that it closes out the essay and leaves the reader with some final thoughts.
A good college essay is structured a little bit differently. How? Well, usually, in your college essay, you want to say something specific about the school you’re applying to: a few lines that show the admissions committee that you’ve done your research about their school and aren’t just applying for the name prestige or because your best friend told you to.
In other words, you should use the extension paragraph to tie everything you just talked about in the intro, body, and concluding paragraphs into why you want to go specifically to that school.
An important factor (that’s only becoming more important in the college decisions process) that dictates whether you get accepted into a school or not is fit. The admissions committee is not only looking to decide whether or not they want you at the school, but they’re also looking to figure out whether you want yourself there.
Realistically, college admissions officers know you’ve applied to other schools. They want students who see that school as their number one choice. They want students who will attend that school over any of the other schools they applied to.
The strategy here is simple. Show the college that you’ve done your research about the school and that you have a vision for yourself there.
Mention some student organizations, clubs, or events that you see yourself participating in at school X, and tie those organizations, clubs, or events into the content of the rest of your essay.
It may sound difficult at first, but it’s easy once you’ve done your preliminary research!
Let’s look at what the pre-med applicant may write in this section of the essay:
“College X is where I see myself starting this long, but rewarding pathway to medicine. Taking classes like class Z with Dr.Y will allow me to begin exploring my passion for micromedicine, and learning about the techniques that I too will someday use in my physician’s practice. I also would like to meet students with similar interests as me in organizations like X, which will allow me to be inspired by the ideas and innovations of others. As a world-class research facility, I also hope that college X will give me the scientific inquiry skills that I will someday use in my own practice. Through an intellectual, collaborative, and research-driven environment, I am sure that College X is the place for me to jump-start my career in medicine.”
See how this student put together everything they talked about in her essay and matched it to opportunities that they found on the campus? This shows the admissions committee that they have a solid reason for wanting to come there. They know what they’re talking about, and it shows in the essay.
A shorter but just as effective version of the extension paragraph written by the football player is given below:
“With a world class football team, I’ve had my eye set on college X since the day I stepped back into the locker room after my accident. From the supportive coaches to the amazing camaraderie between teammates to the general culture school X has built around sports, I see myself thriving at college X for the next four years.”
Once again, this student shows the college that he has a solid reason for wanting to attend the university he is applying to. More than the prestige or name brand, he’s attracted to the opportunities that the college will provide him with. And that’s what colleges want to see.
Step 6: Proofread, proofread, PROOFREAD!
Finally, we’ve arrived at the end of the essay. Hopefully, you now have a solid draft that you are proud of.
But, wait! We’re not done yet. Actually, not even close. It turns out one of the most important steps of the essay awaits us ahead.
Besides the brainstorming part, this is probably the most important part of the entire process of writing the college essay. As in any essay, you must proofread.
As a general rule of thumb, read over your own essay first, at least twenty times before showing it to other people. This first round of proofreading mainly acts as a general safety net to catch any grammar errors, spelling mistakes, or redundant phrases that seem to have slipped into your essay.
Each time you read through, make sure to read slowly and read as if you are a neutral third party audience who is reading the essay for the first time. This makes you much more likely to catch mistakes and/or errors in phrasing.
Also make sure that wherever you can, you’re showing, not telling. You would be surprised at how big of a difference that can make in the final results.
Now, we can move on to running the essay by other people. Have parents, teachers, other students, and even older alumni from the school you are applying to read over your essay. This is vital!
Often, since you’re the one who wrote the essay in its entirety, you become blind to the mistakes and errors in your writing. Reading over something so many times can make it harder to pick out specific sections that need improvement in your writing.
By showing it to people you trust, you’re getting multiple opinions on what can be changed, tweaked, or even completely omitted from your essay. The more opinions you can get, the better.
Once you’ve had at least 5 to 10 people read over your essay, congrats! You’re done with the most daunting part of the college application. Take a moment to pat yourself on the back, and turn your application in with confidence.
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