We’re not going to lie to you. College essays are scary. For most of our clients, writing their college essay is the most intimidating part of the application process. We get it, and we’ve been there, but we’re here to tell you that, while they might be scary, they’re also an amazing opportunity. So much of the college process is about covering everything in gold leaf and making yourself look as perfect as possible. Contrary to what so many (incorrectly) say, the college essay isn’t about pitching yourself as a perfect person; it’s about being yourself.
Last year, a student of ours wrote about messing up doing the dishes and got into Penn.
She is a really big people pleaser, almost to a fault, and is always looking for a way to go above and beyond. It’s helped her a lot in life and she came to us with great grades, strong scores, and a vision for her future. But it also made her super cookie cutter. Like you could take her name off of the application and switch in one of any of the other thousands of students with her academic profile and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
The challenge was to show something about her through her essay that gave colleges a peek into what makes her unique – her character, her sense of humor, and her willingness to be the punchline if it’s a good enough joke.
It took a while to tease out a story for the essay, but the one we landed on is a doozy. One day, she was babysitting her brother and decided to go above and beyond by making him dinner. After that went fairly smoothly, she wanted to see the job through by doing all of the dishes. She loaded up the dishwasher, made sure everything was organized and fit right, reached up to the sink, and proceeded to pour dish soap into the detergent dispenser. The result, as you may have already guessed, was a complete and utter disaster. A fun bubble war from the overflowing dishwasher ended in an expensive renovation after soapy water found its way under the hardwood floors.
Penn didn’t love the essay because doing the dishes in inherently interesting or triggering a renovation is an exemplary illustration of collegiate brilliance. Quite the opposite. They loved the essay because the experience of doing the dishes is nearly universal and her mistake was honest and human, so the moment when she puts dish soap where the detergent is supposed to go is easy to visualize and guaranteed to make you cringe. The student was able to take something mundane and normal, and use it as a tool of humanizing herself, giving the admissions officers an opportunity to see behind the stellar grades and scores to the earnest, people pleasing, do-anything-for-family young woman underneath.
We love her as an example of a great essay because she pushed herself to be vulnerable and to be imperfect. She also did an amazing job of following our guidelines for writing an interesting, funny, and unique college essay, which automatically makes her one of our favorites.
Pick a Character Trait
The first step is to pick an aspect of yourself that you want the essay to highlight. For our dishwasher debacle student, the trait was her desire to not just do the job, but to go beyond what’s expected of her. That’s one option, but there are countless options to pick from. Now, it might seem like a fun challenge to try to sell yourself on pessimism and impatience, but this is not the time to try to make greed seem like a good thing. You could highlight kindness, sincerity, determination, persistence, or your passion for cooperative thinking.
If you’re stumped, try texting a few close friends. Ask them what three words they’d use to describe you and start from there. Sometimes what they say will surprise you and it might even give you insight into yourself that triggers an essay-worthy idea.
Don’t Try to Stand Out for the Wrong Reasons
You might think that this is the place to take an outlandish political stance or to try to differentiate yourself from the pack with an essay on how Kylie Jenner is a nuanced example of postmodern modern marketing (also, seriously though, what does that even mean?). We’re here to tell you that it’s not.
The reality is that trying to force depth into a vapid topic that is unrelated to who you are as a person doesn’t show colleges anything about yourself beyond an overestimation of your skills of persuasion. You don’t have a lot of space, so choose something that’s actually worth talking about, that’s personal to you, and that gives them insight into who you.
Play with the Format
On the subject of space, you have 250-650 words. The only requirement you have to meet is that your essay fits into that space. Other than that you can do almost anything. You can write 40 haikus. You can write a screenplay, a lyric essay, or a poem. You can write a monologue or a comedy scene or a recipe. You can be playful, serious, funny, introspective, or all of the above. You can be like the kid who wrote “Black Lives Matter” over and over (but don’t actually copy that because it was only cool the first time).
No matter the format, your essay needs a beginning, middle, and an end that tells the reader something about yourself that they aren’t getting somewhere else in your application – but part of that ‘telling them about yourself’ can be in the way the essay looks. So have fun with it and give yourself permission to try things that are out of the ordinary, because part of standing out in a positive way is doing something different.
Don’t Use Words You Don’t Use in Real Life
While you’re playing with the format, please please please don’t open up a thesaurus. Seriously, we’re begging you. If you’re trying to say table, say table, and if you want to say “a lot,” say “a lot.” Please don’t pull out plethora, glut, surfeit, or profusion as if you throw them around at lunch.
One reason is that big words that are not in a normal vocabulary are a red flag for essay reviewers. They’re on the lookout for students who are trying too hard and not being their most authentic selves, and dropping ‘superfluity’ like it’s normal is like waving your arm around in class yelling “Me me me! Pick me!” Does that work in class? Probably not. Will it work with your college essay? Same answer.
The second reason is that just because a word comes up as a synonym doesn’t mean that it is perfectly analogous. A good example is the word ‘enigma’ – a current favorite of overachieving college applicants everywhere. As word nerds, we’re the first to admit that it’s a pretty cool word, but it’s also a really complicated word with a nuanced definition that goes beyond ‘confusing’ or ‘puzzling’, the two words we most often see it being substituted in for. Basically, calling yourself, someone else, or something an enigma isn’t going to make you seem fancy in a good way. Keep it simple, clear and use words that you might actually say in a normal conversation.
Want more examples of words you should never use?
Be Who You Are
Even when you’re pushing yourself out of the expected essay format, it’s important to stay true to who you are. We know, we know, taking off the mask is terrifying. You’re never going to get into college if you are honest because who you are is boring and they’re going to see that and everything is going to go wrong and this is a crisis and the world is ending and you should just go hide in a bunker underground. We’ve been there and we’ve gone on that downward spiral, so we’re serious when we say that you’ve got this.
Sometimes, it can take a little practice to get your voice to come out on the page. If you want to show your sense of humor, read some David Sedaris, Mindy Kaling, or Aziz Ansari and see how they land punch lines on paper. If you are more interested in being introspective, re-read your favorite memoir. But even if you look to outside sources for a little inspiration, remember that everything that you need to write a stellar, funny, impressive, and interesting college essay is in you right now. Whether you’re an Ivy League legacy or a first-generation college student, you have it in you tell a powerful, captivating, and admission-winning essay.
Don’t Put Yourself Down Before You Even Start
Blank pages are scary, but the best way to make them less scary is to fill them with words. Writing is about iteration and patience, and you need to give yourself room and time to explore. Don’t stick yourself in a corner with a simple topic before you’ve even started, and give yourself time to write until you find a subject that clicks. Obviously, this means not waiting until the last minute (we see you procrastinators), but it also means giving yourself permission to not be perfect the first, second, or third time around.
When you make art, not every piece is a masterpiece. The Blue Room is one of Picasso’s most famous pieces, but did you know that it’s actually a painting over a painting? Using fancy modern technology, we know that he actually started off by painting an image of a man in a bowtie. When he decided he didn’t like where it was headed, he let himself start over. What he ended up making is one of his greatest works, and it’s on top of the piece he’d labeled a failure.
Most of us will never be as good at anything as Picasso was at painting, but we can use him as inspiration when it comes to writing. It’s possible that Picasso would never have gotten to The Blue Room if he hadn’t started with that ghostly man, and you’re never going to write a stellar essay if you don’t let yourself start somewhere.
If you haven’t noticed, there’s a trend to all these tips. The biggest piece of advice that we can give you is that you need to let yourself take risks. You need to be ok with being a little uncomfortable at the beginning and you have to give yourself permission to struggle at first. Writing good essays isn’t easy. It is was, everyone would write one. Writing good essays about yourself is even harder. But you’ve got this; all you have to do is to let yourself get started.
Still stumped? Give us a call, we’re good at this, trust us. 80% of our kids get into their #1 school. We sort of know what we’re doing.
Choosing Your Topic
Once you have a pool of essay topic ideas, it’s time to narrow them down and pick the topic about which you’re going to write — but if you have several promising topic ideas, how do you choose among them? Again, you shouldn’t pick one candidate simply because it seems to be the most exciting or unique option. Rather, you should choose your topic based primarily on what subject will allow you to write the best essay.
In this case, the “best” essay is the one that showcases your strong writing skills, demonstrates the personal qualities (thoughtfulness, curiosity, dedication, passion, and so on) that you want colleges to see in you, and allows colleges to get to know you better on a different level from the rest of your application.
The topic you initially like the most may not be the one that allows you to write the best possible essay. Of course, you’re likely to write a better essay on a topic in which you have a strong interest, but there is some strategy involved in choosing a topic as well.
A thoughtful and well-written essay on a topic that might initially seem more mundane will benefit you far more than a dull or poorly-written essay on a more exciting-sounding topic. Choosing an unusual experience you’ve had as your essay subject may even tempt you to let the experience itself do the legwork, rather than using that subject as a vehicle to tell colleges more about who you are as a person.
If you can find meaning and significance in a small incident, that can be incredibly compelling for your readers. Drawing from your ordinary experiences to illustrate a larger point will make your essay all the more personal and revealing. Remember, the value of your essay is much more in how you write about your experiences than what experiences you write about.
A final note on choosing your essay topic: You don’t necessarily need to be absolutely committed to a topic right away. If it becomes clear after you start outlining or writing that your chosen topic isn’t going to work as well as you would like, there’s nothing wrong with starting over with a new topic.
Feel free to go back to your brainstormed pool of topics, or even to come up with something new entirely. Just make sure that you have enough time left to develop and edit your new essay appropriately. This is all the more reason to start the essay writing process early — if your topic ends up not working out, you’ll still have time to try a different approach.
Making Your Topic Shine
Once you’ve selected a topic, you need to figure out how to develop an essay from it that is technically skillful, compelling to the reader, and true to the vision of yourself that you’re working to portray in your application.
If you’re worried that your essay topic is not interesting or exciting enough on its own, you may be extra concerned about how to build a strong essay upon that topic. In reality, however, everyone — no matter how interesting or exciting their choice of topic might seem — should take great care in planning how they’re going to develop their basic topic statement into a full-fledged essay.
To write a truly effective college essay, you’ll need to focus not on depicting and describing an event or issue in your life, but on expressing your personal experience or perspective in an interesting manner. The value of the experience and the point in writing about it lies not necessarily in what happened, but how it affected you, and in how you analyze and consider that effect.
Details are quite important here, as they’ll bring life and context to your story. Vivid and evocative details can turn an essay on a seemingly mundane topic into something truly fascinating. The details you choose to leave out are equally important; you’ll be working with a word-count limit, and it’s important that your essay be concise and readable rather than wordy and overwrought.
You’ll also need to make sure that your essay clearly develops the themes that you intend for it to develop. Relating an experience, ordinary or extraordinary, isn’t enough on its own; you have to be thoughtful about the experience and show why this experience is important enough to you to be worth inspiring your college essay.
The key to writing a strong college application essay is in your delivery. With skillful writing, powerful word choice, and a good sense of how to develop a fragment of an idea into a longer piece of writing, you can make any topic, no matter how “uninteresting” it may seem, into an exploration of issues important to you and a showcase of your skills as a communicator.
Will your essay make or break your college application?
It depends. You can take a look at our CollegeVine blog post How Important is the College Essay? for a more detailed discussion of the importance of the essay as compared to other parts of your application.
Briefly, however, a brilliant essay can’t make up for severe deficiencies in your academic qualifications, but it may have an impact otherwise, particularly at a smaller or more competitive school. If you’re on the borderline, a great essay may tip the balance toward admission. An essay that’s clearly carelessly written, inappropriate, or full of technical errors can hurt your chances of admission even if you do have great qualifications.
The bottom line is that, just as with every other part of your college application, colleges will need to see that you’ve taken the task seriously and put in your best effort. Managing your time properly is important, and you can’t work on one essay forever, but if you get started early, you should be able to put enough time into developing, writing, and editing your essay to make it a piece of writing of which you’re truly proud.
For more information about choosing and developing a college application essay topic, you can check out the CollegeVine blog for tips and tricks. Our Essay Breakdown posts about how to write the school-specific essays for various top schools contain a wealth of good ideas.
If you’re applying to colleges using the Common Application and need to complete one of its essay questions, CollegeVine has your back. Our admissions experts have analyzed each of the five Common Application essay prompts in the posts below, where you can find detailed advice on how to respond to each prompt.
If you’re applying using the Coalition Application (CAAS), we have you covered as well with our post How to Write the Coalition Application Essays 2016-2017.
CollegeVine’s admissions advisors can help you with all aspects of the application process, including developing and editing your college essay. With a fee structure that’s more affordable than those of most companies that offer college application assistance, we’re committed to helping a broader range of high school students access the resources they need to navigate the increasingly competitive world of college admissions.
Still have questions about filling out the Common Application? Check out our blog post How to Write the Common Application Essays 2017-2018.