For students interested in applying for admission to a college or university in the United States, writing a strong application essay is a critical piece of the process. The college application essay is a feat that frequently causes anxiety and stress for students and families alike, because of the pressure to present something seemingly perfect to the admission staff. Not only can this pressure stunt the process of writing and cause writer’s block, but also it frequently clouds a student’s ability to be authentic. As a previous international admission counsellor, I read countless student essays. These are my top five tips for perfecting the admission essay to be used by counsellors as they advise their students on navigating the process of brainstorming, writing, and editing their admission essays.
Start Early – Don’t Procrastinate
Most higher education institutions will post their essay prompt(s) at least 6-months before their admission deadline, allowing for plenty of time for students to write a strong essay. Keep in mind that the essay is the chance for students to show a piece of themselves that their test scores and GPA cannot – their personality.
A vital part of writing a strong essay is for students to start early and allow themselves enough time to create several drafts of their writing. Procrastinating the writing process prevents those drafts from happening, and forces quick and unedited writing. There’s no such thing as starting too early with preparing the college essay. The longer time students allow to mull over their thoughts, the more likely the students’ finished product will be clear and well developed.
Create a Strong Thesis
When writing an admission essay, it’s important to consider several things. First, is there a strong essay thesis? Within the first few sentences, the essay topic and/or direction should be clear to the reader. What is the student trying to say? That should be clear to the reader early in the essay’s first paragraph.
Controversial Issues and Humor
It’s important to be cautious with controversial issues (politics, religion, etc.) making sure not to offend the reader, since you won’t know their background. Utilizing humor is fine, but certainly be sensitive with its use. Something that may seem funny to the writer may not be funny to the reader, and may actually come across as the quite the opposite.
Avoid Extreme or General Statements
Always avoid extreme or general statements with little evidence. Don’t provide generalizations, instead it’s important to use detail – the more the better! Personal stories will always be more powerful than stating general information, and students should strive to show and not tell their story. make sure you submit the information correctly the first time.
Choose the Prompt Wisely
Depending on the institutions that the student decide to apply for, there will be varying options when it comes to the available essay prompt. For schools that accept the Common Application, the student will be able to choose one of five essay prompts. Other schools may have their own essay or other supplements that are required. If given an option, your student should brainstorm and think of how they might respond to each potential prompt. From this initial brainstorm, it’s best to select the essay topic that gives them the best opportunity to express a unique and important part of who they are as an individual.
When students are writing their first draft, they shouldn’t overthink it. They should let their thoughts flow, and once the first draft is written, let it sit. It’s best to come back to it another day. If starting early enough, they’ll have plenty of time to fix mistakes and improve their writing later. It’s best if they give their brain a chance to disconnect from the topic, and by the time they revisit the essay, they will view it with a fresh perspective.
The essay prompt might ask something such as discuss a life failure that shaped who you are today, or describe your best quality you would bring to that certain institution. When faced with these types of prompts, students should write from a place of honesty, and not just say what they think the admission staff want to hear.
Visualize Your Story
Use adjectives to describe the setting, the smell, the taste, and the emotion involved. Using vivid words will connect the reader with the student’s story by making it seem like they are immersed in the experience. The more detail that can be provided by the student, the more vivid the essay will become to the reader.
Select a Creative Title
Titles should not be generic or bland; what is the best way the student can think of to summarize their story? They should consider the tone when selecting a title, as it will be the first impression of the essay to the reader. It can also be helpful to utilize a hook that will intrigue the reader and make them interested in reading the essay.
Proofread With Care
Editing is a crucial part of the essay writing process, and it’s important to make sure that the essay is free of spelling, grammatical, and structural errors, and sounds like the student and represents who they are as an individual.
Spell Check – Not Always a Student’s Best Friend
While checking for spelling problems, remember that spell check isn’t always the most reliable friend. My office once came across an admission essay where a student was trying to write “I aspire to be a doctor”, but actually wrote “I perspire to be a doctor”. That second statement certainly does not have the same meaning as the first, and is an example of a simple spell check error. Applicants should never accept spell check recommendations on a computer unless they have seen each of them and know for certain that they are accurate.
Use a Thesaurus With Caution
It’s not necessary to try and “upgrade” the language of an essay in order to sound more intelligent. Sprinkling a few less common words throughout an essay is fine, but one should not overdo the use of such words. Similar to being careful with spell check, students should always look up words they want to change to ensure that what they are changing it to does in fact have the same meaning in the same context. Having additional sets of eyes from a counsellor or a trusted family member or friend can also help to catch such errors in an essay.
Keep Your Voice
When students show their draft to family, friends, counsellors or teachers, they should ask them if it sounds like them. When they read the essay, they should be able to hear the writer’s voice throughout the writing. While it’s important to receive and apply feedback and recommendations for improvement, the student must make sure that the essay doesn’t lose their voice in the process.
Submit and Treat Yourself!
By following these tips, the students should be able to feel confident upon submission that they’ve written a strong and authentic essay that represents them as a unique individual and prospective student to the school(s) they have applied for. Once the essay is submitted, worrying about it only causes stress and unnecessary worry. They’ve worked hard, and should treat themselves!
Writing the college admission essay is something that can either be a stressful and anxiety-filled experience, or an experience filled with growth, authenticity, and excitement. Remind your students that these applications are the starting point of a life filled with unlimited doors of opportunity, so they should enjoy the process and put their best foot forward. Happy writing!Previously published in Crossing Borders