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Culture: How to Write an Outstanding College Essay


Culture_SaraZassarWriting college application essays fills many students with dread, especially if they don’t like to write. However, a college essay is very different from the kinds of essays you typically write for school, and you might find that you actually enjoy this type of writing!

As a senior in high school, chances are you are quite adept at writing a five-paragraph essay. Yet your college essays should be anything but the standard format of an introductory paragraph with a thesis at the end of it, three body paragraphs with details and evidence that support your thesis, and a concluding paragraph that restates your thesis.

A college application essay, sometimes called a personal statement, is not an argumentative essay in which you try to prove a point; rather, it is a story about you. The more formal term for such a story is “personal narrative.” Chances are, you’ve written personal narratives before, but it may have been several years since you last did so.

Think back to elementary school. Were you ever asked to write in response to such questions as, “What did you do over summer vacation?,” “Who is your biggest role model?,” or “What do you want to be when you grow up?” If so, you wrote a personal narrative.

To get in the mindset of writing a college essay, it can be helpful to read personal narratives you wrote in the past. Ask your parents if they saved any of your papers from elementary school, and if they did, look for ones with prompts like those above. You’ll probably laugh at how unsophisticated your writing was (and maybe at how terrible your handwriting was), but reading these will help you get ready to write a college essay.

If your parents didn’t save any of your elementary school work, there are other places you can find personal narratives. If you’ve ever kept a journal, the entries in it are personal narratives. Have you read any memoirs or autobiographies? Those are personal narratives as well.

Once you’ve read some examples, it’s time to figure out what you will write about. First, identify the prompt. Many college applications ask you to answer a specific question or give you several questions from which to choose.

As you’re considering possible topics, keep in mind that your essay should communicate something unique about you. The other parts of your application — your transcript, test scores, activities, etc. — may be similar to those of other students’. Your essay, on the other hand, should tell a story that only you can tell. Additionally, your essay should communicate something that either is not found anywhere else in your application or is mentioned elsewhere but needs further explanation.

Once you’ve decided on a topic, write down some ideas. This doesn’t have to be in the form of an outline; in fact, in order to avoid writing a five-paragraph essay, it probably shouldn’t be. Rather, use bullet points or a graphic organizer like a web. Alternatively, you can simply start writing. Different people approach the writing process in different ways, so do what works best for you.

As you write, remember that it’s important to tell a good story. The admissions officers who will read your essay will read hundreds of others, so you need to do everything you can to make your story compelling and entertaining. Think about your favorite books.  What makes them interesting: characters, plot, action, suspense, humor, all of the above?  These are the same elements that will make your college essay interesting.  

You should aim to grab the reader’s attention at the beginning of your essay. Sometimes an introduction that is confusing or strange is a great way to make someone want to keep reading. If a person who doesn’t know you would read the first few sentences of your essay and wonder what you’re talking about, that’s a good thing. Just be sure that the rest of your essay explains your opening.

Use details and description throughout your essay. Show, don’t tell. For example, instead of writing “It was a really cold day,” write “It was so cold that when I sneezed, the droplets turned into tiny balls of ice!” (That may actually be impossible, but you get the idea.)

When you think you’ve finished your essay, set it aside for a week or two and then read it again. Looking at it with fresher eyes may give you ideas to make it even stronger. You also should take a break from writing if you get stuck or have writer’s block. If you’re truly struggling and/or are not happy with your essay, sometimes it’s best to start over with a different topic.

Finally, proofread your essay several times before you submit it. Read it out loud, as you may hear mistakes that you didn’t see. Have someone else read it, too. Make sure the topic is appropriate and that your essay is within the given word limit.

Unfortunately, you have no way of knowing how the admissions officers who read your essay will react to or interpret it. However, you have complete control over your essay’s content and presentation. By following the above tips and putting thought and effort into crafting your story, you should be able to write a college essay that truly makes you stand out from other applicants.

Sara Zessar, the founder of Discovery College Consulting, LLC, has assisted hundreds of students with the college search and admissions process. With an M.Ed. in counseling, Sara worked for six years as a high school counselor in private, public, and charter schools. To learn more, visit www.discoverycollegeconsulting.com.