While not all schools require it anymore, the college application essay is a staple for every selective university. Why? Three reasons. First, a college essay shows that you can write to a prompt, with attention the the disciplines of writing and style. Second, a college essay shows that you can communicate ideas effectively yet briefly, as college essays typically have a word or page limit. Third, your college essay is supposed to show your personality and feature the non-academic side of yourself. As colleges want to enroll future graduates that will bring prestige to their institution, they use a college essay to screen an applicant's drive, attitude, and character.
The bottom line: Your essay shows what your transcripts don't.
Your GPA, ACT, and SAT scores show academic achievement, but they don't show how you've grown and changed as a person. Colleges can see that you've taken honors classes or repeated a class, but they can't see the motivations behind those struggles. The college essay is a way to highlight your best qualities while proving that you are more than just a test score. While every college has its own application and prompt, some common prompts tend to pop up. Here are the most common prompts, as phrased on the 2017-2018 Common App:
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success, and grades do not always reflect how good of a student one is. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Leadership is standing up for what's right even when what's right is unpopular. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a popularly held belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-- anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
- Often, what we do in life is not as important as the journey there. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth. How did this growth start, and how did it lead to a new understanding of yourself or others?
- The best innovators are driven by their passions. Describe a topic or idea you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
These prompts may seem easy-- deceptively easy. A college essay is intended to not challenge the student with a difficult question, but reveal who the student is by not spelling out exactly what the recruiters want to see. There are a lot of pitfalls of these essays, so here are the five tricks to make sure your essay will impress your recruiter:
Make it a personal narrative
While it's called a college essay, it's actually a narrative in disguise. You have to write a story about yourself, with a conflict, a climax, and a resolution. The whole point of this essay is to show who you are and what makes you stand out from other candidates, so you need to dive deeply into yourself. Don't generalize or hold anything back. Tell the truth. Be vulnerable. Admit to your embarrassing flaws if you need to. And for the love of G-d write in a first person perspective--this is YOUR story, so tell it from your point of view!
Make it reflective
Ensure that you take some time thinking about the prompt before you answer it. The best way to do this is think of a memory that fits the criteria, set a timer for ten minutes, and do a free write, jotting down every single detail you recall form the event. The free write is just to get the ideas out of your head--don't worry about punctuation or grammar or even making sense. Any fool can write abut winning the big game or how music is their passion--you're going to need details and rich imagery to stand out. You should be able to give a moment-to-moment replay of your story, and end the essay with a So What? paragraph (i.e., a formal conclusion reflecting on how the experience changed or defined you).
Make it short
Recruiters read thousands of application essays every year--if your essay is too long, they may literally throw it out, as it would take too much time to screen you. Many digital applications even have a word limit you have to follow (the Common App limits you to 250-650 words). Don't see this as a limitation, but as an opportunity. You should be making multiple drafts of your essay, so with each draft, cut more and more superfluous or unneeded ideas to get to the meat of your story. Remember, your essay shouldn't retread anything mentioned on your formal application--it's a waste of space, as the recruiters already know that information.
Make it stylish
Since you can't maximize the amount you can write, every word matters. Use vibrant and vivid imagery. Use high-level collegiate diction (which you can find here). Make your syntax dynamic so the essay is interesting to read--don't just make it a series of simple declarative sentences. Use parallelism to make it seem more cohesive. Break some rules creatively while still maintaining proper structure. Have a strong intro and incorporate your favorite quotations if you want. End on a strong note. For once, don't worry about a title.
Make it perfect
The brevity of your essay also means that your typos, misspellings, and other errata have nowhere to hide-- so your essay must be grammatically perfect. Remember that people with the title of Doctor who have published books will be looking at your essay, so it must be beyond reproach. Run it through a spelling and grammar checker. Have others read it over. Go through my Ten Rules of Writing with it. Make sure every word is accurate and not mistaken for a yellow word. Draft and redraft until you literally cannot conceive a better essay. Then revise it once more.
...oh, and humor is a double-edged sword.
The best college essays always toss in a little bit of humor-- after all, if you can make your college recruiter laugh, he or she will remember your essay. Yet humor is really, really hard to nail. Often, the humor is too subjective or "you had to have been there" to be comprehensible. Worse still is offensive humor or sarcasm, which is very hard to get across in a paper. No humor is better than ineffective humor. Your litmus test for if humor in your paper works is to have four different people read it: one younger than you, one about the same age, one your parent's age, and one your grandparent's age. If all four can get and appreciate your humor, then it's good for the essay.
A NOTE ON PORTFOLIOS
While a college essay helps one get into the school, more and more colleges are requiring an audition or portfolio to get into the major program the student wants, especially if the major is in the arts or humanities. If your school requires or recommends a portfolio submission to be accepted into the program you are pursuing, do the following:
- KNOW WHAT YOU NEED: Contact the college or search the website for requirements of your portfolio. There will typically be a list of how many artifacts are required and what type of work counts as an artifact. For example, an art program may require five art samples in at least three different media; a music program may want video auditions of you playing pieces in thee different time signatures; or a writing program may require a research paper, fictional narrative, memoir, poem, and a piece of choice.
- MAKE IT ACCESSIBLE: Some colleges still require an in-person audition or portfolio--if you have to submit any physical materials, make sure you don't submit originals, as you may not get them back. Most colleges that require portfolios, however, are requiring them through a digital medium. For these portfolios, you will want to create a free website (through Wix or Weebly) or a portfolio through a digital app (like Bulb or Behance).This way, you can send a hyperlink to your recruiter and keep your portfolio continuously accessible.
- MAKE IT PERFECT: Give every artifact in your portfolio the same attention as your college essay-- it's like a college essay on steroids. Make sure all images are high-resolution and that they have captions clarifying what each images is. Make sure all text has perfect grammar and spelling. Only add artifacts that are relevant and examples of your best work.