The spiel’s always the same. On every college visit, chipper tour guides gush about their school’s gothic architecture, close faculty-student relationships, and how they Definitely, Positively, Without a Doubt have “the best dining hall food in the country.”
After 3–4 (or perhaps 15) of these tours, you’ve finally decided on your Dream College. You can already see yourself pulling all-nighters in the library or playing Ultimate Frisbee on the quad; but before you unpack your dorm room starter kit, you have to, well… get in. That’s where the college essay comes in. Now it’s your turn to sell yourself to colleges — but what do you have to say?
In a tribute to overenthusiastic tour guides everywhere, VSA Future presents the Top 7 Tips to Definitely, Positively, Without a Doubt Improve Your College Essay.
- Focus on the personal, not the academic. The bulk of your college application already tells admissions officers what kind of student you are. The college essay should show what kind of person you are. What can you offer to a college, university, or campus? What keeps you up at night? What makes you tick? What’s your story?
- Paint a picture. The college essay isn’t a 500-word retelling of your résumé, GPA, or spreadsheet of volunteer hours. It’s a story you craft – a narrative to tie together who you are and who you want to be. Let’s all breathe a sigh of relief that what you bring to college isn’t just your high school transcript; it’s your sense of humor, secret talents, generosity to friends and strangers, unflagging persistence, and passion to do/fight for what you love – be that a varsity sport, non-profit, or school newspaper. Use the essay(s) to tell a side of you that can’t be found elsewhere on your application. How did a transcontinental move shape your childhood? Why do you pour blood, sweat, and tears into an extracurricular? How did you come to be a semi-professional part-time juggler?
- Think broadly about your experiences. Senior year can be a rollercoaster of stress, nostalgia, excitement, and fear, and that’s how it should be. But it’s also the time for introspection. Reflect back on the last three-plus years. What classes have you taken, which extracurricular and volunteer activities have you committed your time to? What kind of friend have you been? How do all these different threads come together to form the friendship bracelet, or cheesy metaphor of your choice, that is you? While you won’t cover all of these ideas in your essay, this broader narrative will help you contextualize your selected essay topic.
- Be descriptive and specific. After some thinking, you finally have your topic! But how to begin? Think of your essay as a mini action movie (with the introspective interludes of an independent film.) Begin with something attention-grabbing, the literary equivalent of a car chase or explosion. It can be intriguing dialogue, an audacious statement, something quirky, funny or memorable. One tried and true college essay structure is the anecdotal essay — draw your reader in with a punchy, compelling story and then explain it with backstory and analysis.
- Narrate, don’t summarize. All great essays are great in different ways, but all bad essays are bad in the same ways. Don’t summarize. Yes, you joined [insert extracurricular] as a freshman, struggled, then worked your way up to become its beloved president. Congratulations, but that tells your reader nothing that can’t be found on your résumé. The essay is unique in its ability to take readers inside your mind and into the narrative moment at hand. Don’t summarize your underdog victory at a fencing competition. Narrate it! What split second decisions or thoughts were racing through your mind? What clever fencing move did you use to joust your way to victory? By giving your reader a front-row view of your anecdote, you not only demonstrate your writing skills, but more importantly make yourself a memorable candidate.
- Show, don’t tell. Another common mistake is being too obvious about the moral of the story. It’s a fine line to walk: while your essay should always include analysis and a “point,” it also shouldn’t feel like an Aesop’s Fable or Full House episode. If you’ve done your job right, you won’t need to say at the end, “This is how I learned to be a good person or hard-working student.” Instead, show it! If your worldview changed radically after a life-altering event, show us how you thought before and after this event. With enough primary sources (your emotions, dialogue, inner or outer monologue), your readers will be able to see for themselves how you’ve become the person you are today.
- Use your own voice. Just as the essay should be about you, the essay should sound like you. Don’t be afraid to imbue your essay with your unique voice. It’s okay to be colloquial — while it should always be well-written, the college essay can be more personal than the average class assignment. A friend should be able to read your essay and recognize your voice in it.
The list could go on, but in the end these guidelines boil down to these key themes:
- Discover who you are.
- Write about who you are.
- Write like who you are.
It can be a daunting task to “discover who you are” at the tender age of 17 or 18 – but don’t worry. This won’t define you for the next 30 years, or even the next four. College admissions officers don’t want to know who you’ll be at age 50 — they want to know who you are now, with all your innate strengths and flaws, whatever they may be.