How to Write a College Application Essay

You need to approach your college application essay in a different way than you approach your academic writing. This essay is more about demonstrating your personality and character than about parading your knowledge, and it just might make the difference between acceptance and rejection.

Nothing like putting on the pressure, right? It’s unfortunate, but if you’re applying to a high-flying school, the admissions team is going to be looking for high-flying students.

More specifically, admissions counselors are looking for a distinctive personality and a strong character. You need to differentiate yourself from the other applicants in this essay, and the way to do that is to figure out what makes you unique before you start writing.

Let’s take a sample topic:

All of us have met people, whether in person or through media (including books) who have influenced us to change our behavior. Write about a person who did this for you.

At first glance, you might be tempted to choose someone quirky, like Superman or Lorelei Gilmore. But I don’t think the model matters nearly as much as the change that person caused in your behavior. Admission counselors (like the rest of us) love stories about people who triumph over adversity, so if you can find a time in your life when you did triumph because of someone’s influence, the person will be less important than your experience.

Once you figure out what you want to write about, you need to start planning how to do the writing. Since these questions are usually about your experiences, chances are you’ll be telling a story, which means you’ll be writing a narrative.

I realize that we’ve all become sophisticated followers of narratives because of movies and TV, but your goal in this essay is to show your heart, not your cleverness. Tell your story as clearly as possible, and since a bit of humor can go along way, tell you story straight, and let your readers find the wit on their own.

And be careful with your language. Too many fancy words or too much slang will look labored and pretentious, so try to write in a style that sounds like the way you talk, only cleaned up a bit. When you’re done, ask someone to read the essay aloud to you, since that’s the only way you’ll be able to hear your words and catch any awkward chunks. Even though we read with our eyes, we still hear the words with our minds, so keep writing and listening until your essay sounds almost like conversation.

Finally, be gentle with yourself. Greatness and success don’t depend on where you go to college – they depend on who you are. And while a diploma with a fancy name might open some doors at first, what matters in the long run is what you do and how you do it.

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