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Your Guide to Acing the College Admissions Essay

This article discusses the Common Application personal essay. We’ll be posting another article about how to write college-specific supplemental essays soon!

As you prepare to write your college application essay, you’re bound to hear the same advice over and over again: Be unique! Show, don’t tell! Write authentically—admissions officers want to hear your voice!

These are all great tips—and we’ll reference them again later. But you might find yourself wondering: how do I even start? How am I supposed to “show, don’t tell” when I haven’t even figured out what I’m supposed to be showing?

And that’s what we’re here for. Here’s Niche’s step-by-step guide to acing your admissions essay.

Find a topic…or a few.

Uniqueness for uniqueness’ sake will only come off as contrived or inauthentic. Remember this: it’s not about what you write, it’s about how you write it, and what it tells about you.

You might start the application process knowing exactly what you want to write about, but don’t limit yourself—it’s always good to have multiple options, and different topics will reveal different things about the writer. For instance, an essay about a hardship you overcame will speak to your resilience, while an essay about a treasured friend or role model can highlight your kindness and ability to communicate well with others. With that in mind, don’t focus your topic brainstorm session around the topics themselves; choose based on what they’ll show.

You also want to choose the topic that will come the easiest to you. An essay will feel forced if you don’t actually understand your subject. So do not feel obligated to write about a sport in which you have no interest or even a traumatic experience that you don’t feel ready to discuss.

In the same vein, do not feel obligated to write about a unique quality of yours simply because it is unique. You may hear that you should pick something strange or even pitiful for a topic, but in pools of thousands of applicants, it’s nearly impossible to have an entirely unique essay. Uniqueness for uniqueness’ sake will only come off as contrived or inauthentic. Remember this: it’s not about what you write, it’s about how you write it, and what it tells about you.

The first draft of my own college admissions essay was about the racism I’d experienced as an Asian-American. I remember thinking to myself, There are literally millions of other people who have experienced this. I’m not going to stand out or look special. So I changed my topic and wrote an essay about sunglasses because I thought it would be different. Shocker: it was awful. I ended up turning in the first essay. Because even if it’s not a unique experience, it’s something I can write about with my heart—and that passion shows.

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Get messy and write.

Don’t start writing by trying to hammer out neat paragraphs. Instead, let all of your thoughts flow freely onto the page (or the Google doc).

One of the hardest parts about writing the essay is figuring out how to structure it. Should this be five paragraphs, school standard? Should it begin with an anecdote, or end with one? Good news: there are no real rules. While your essay should certainly be clearly formatted, it does not have to follow many other guidelines. This is a personal piece, not a research paper.

So work accordingly. Don’t start writing by trying to hammer out neat paragraphs. Instead, let all of your thoughts flow freely onto the page (or the Google doc). The things you write in this stage don’t even have to be complete sentences—just say anything that comes to mind when you think of your subject.

Focus on your senses: what did you feel when this happened? What did you see? What did you hear? For example, if you’d like to discuss the dance competition that got you hooked on performing, you might write “feeling hot spotlight on my back, wood of stage beneath my feet, seeing faces in the crowd, loud applause”.

We recommend interweaving your growth narrative into your story. Don’t dedicate two paragraphs at the end to describing how you changed as a person—attach little parts of that to the rest of the piece.

Once you’ve come up with a decent amount of material—even a quarter of a page is fine—a story will have started to develop naturally. Now, start expanding on it. Add more details; add articles in to fill out sentences.

Describing personal growth subtly can be difficult. You don’t want to outright say, “Here’s what I learned from X event or X person!” For that reason, we recommend interweaving your growth narrative into your story. Don’t dedicate two paragraphs at the end to describing how you changed as a person—attach little parts of that to the rest of the piece. To use our dance example again: if you were trying to convey that dance performances have made you more confident, you could describe how stepping onto the stage caused your nerves to melt away.

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Edit.

The key is to have it read by just the right amount of people. You don’t want too many people to revise it, or else they’ll change your original voice.

I know, I know—having someone else read your writing is the worst. But it’s so necessary. Getting another pair of eyes on the essay will help expose any flaws that you might have missed due to overfamiliarity with your own voice.

The key is to have it read by just the right amount of people. You don’t want too many people to revise it, or else they’ll change your original voice. As for who—really, it can be anyone who understands your personality and can provide valuable commentary on a piece of writing. We recommend a trusted English teacher, a school guidance counselor, or a close friend in college who successfully went through the process.

Ask for pointers on grammar and word choice, as well as suggestions on flow. Make sure that the point you’re trying to convey is clear to an outside reader—you can do this by asking your editor, “Reading this essay, what does it tell you about me?” If their answer isn’t what you’re expecting…

Revise as needed.

Just keep making the changes, but take breaks from the essay when you need to. When it starts to blur together, distance can help you return to it with clear eyes.

It won’t be great on the first try. It might not even be ready after multiple rounds of edits from different people. And that’s okay. (This is why you start early!) Just keep making the changes, but take breaks from the essay when you need to. When it starts to blur together, distance can help you return to it with clear eyes.

At some point, your English teacher or friend will tell you that, really, it’s good—and they’ll mean it. The third time I gave a draft to my teacher was when she told me that she was no longer finding any major flaws. That’s when I felt it, too—it just felt right. And you’ll soon know it, too, the feeling of finally reading your work over and realizing that it’s ready to be sent.

After all, this is your story.

For more direction, listen in as Niche ambassador Emade

delves into her approach to the Common App essay.

Author: Julianna Chen

Julianna Chen is currently in her second year at Emory University, where she studies creative writing and Chinese. She is the managing editor of Lithium Magazine and a contributing writer for Adolescent.net. When not writing, she is watching a movie or eating a stroopwafel, sometimes both at the same time.