As college application season approaches, students may find themselves wondering how best to tackle one primary part of their applications: the dreaded college essay. Even as grades, AP tests, and standardized test scores maintain their importance in the modern college application landscape, essays offer an amazing opportunity for students to express their individuality and personality.
More and more students are applying each year, all of them eager to stand out from the others. Looking for tips on making your essay memorable? Look no further.
1. Ditch the dictionary and thesaurus
All too often, stumped essay-writing teens turn to sources like Webster’s Dictionary and Thesaurus.com to boost their writing and attempt to appear smarter. This is a rookie mistake, however: stay away from dictionaries and thesaurus. You may think that longer and more intelligent-sounding words will elevate your essay, but the reality is that college admissions officers—and any adult with a formal education, for that matter—will see through this obvious ploy. In the best case scenario, an essay that uses obscure words as a crutch will sound stuffy and unnatural. In the worst case, this type of essay will fail to make students’ applications stand out from the crowd and stilt a student’s true writing voice.
Instead, play around with a less formal writing style. Use contractions, if that sounds natural to you—just not too many. Break the fourth wall. If you’re bilingual, add in a couple phrases of your native language. Whatever you write, make sure it sounds like you.
Above all, avoid opening your essay with the cliched “The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines [insert positive character trait that ties into personal anecdote here] as…”. Avoid it like my younger brother avoids carrots. This shaky opening has been used time and time again and does nothing but detract from your limited word count.
2. Experiment with different formats
College essays offer a range of flexibility. They don’t have to follow the same types of structure rules preached in writing classes, and don’t need to have a strictly-defined introduction, thesis, body paragraphs, and conclusion. As such, this opens the door for full creativity and artistic license with writing your college essay.
Experiment with writing your essay like a story. Add in some dialogue. Put those skills to use and make the types of creative writing decisions your English teacher would applaud you for. Incorporate allusions and other literary elements. In a sea of look-alike essays, admissions officers will value your creativity. Just make sure to avoid venturing too far into abstract territory. Remember, this is still a college essay that adults will read over. It needs to be presentable, and creativity is not an excuse for messiness.
Long story short? Take (calculated) risks. The system just may reward you for it.
3. Read some successful essays for inspiration
Sometimes, even the most creative of writers can find difficulty in opening an essay. Don’t fret. Often, the best source of inspiration can come from what others have created before us. Make use of the vast resources on the internet and read over some successful college essays written by real students, not forty-something English majors looking to make some quick money. Start out by reading through the essays below:
8 essays from students accepted into top universities—I recommend reading number two first
2 essays from transfer students with notes from experts about why they work
6 essays from students who got into John Hopkins University with one rare catch—input from the school’s admissions committee
A collection of extremely creative student essays from Tufts University
Remember: these are examples. Don’t copy—plagiarism is hardly conducive to getting into college. Instead, use these essays as a jump start into writing your own original essay.
4. Add humor to the mix
College essays absolutely need depth and some serious elements, but humor has a place in both formal and informal writing as a means to making easy, lighthearted connections with readers. Use a well-crafted (and tested, with the help of a few adult proofreaders) joke near the beginning of your essay for the perfect light opener to put college admissions officers at ease. In an essay that, for most students, will largely focus on impressive aspects of their life or other accomplishments, any type of humor—whether it be through a joke, a pun, or an embarrassing or funny anecdote—will add a touch of humility to the narrative.
Crafting the perfect joke or telling an anecdote in the right way will require some planning and dedication, as jokes that fall flat will often do more harm than good. Ask yourself, “Who is my audience? How can I relate to this demographic on a more personal level?”. Try to steer your jokes more towards clever than corny.
Remember that while admissions officers appreciate creativity and thinking out of the box, a college essay is not the time to make potentially offensive or inappropriate jokes. Any jokes you crack in your essay will help the readers build a better image of you as a person, so make sure any humor in the essay contributes positively to that image.
5. Avoid the three D’s: Death, Disease, Divorce
A huge percentage of essays that admissions officers read focus on these topics that my English teacher has lovingly dubbed the three D’s: the death of a loved one, a disease of some sort, or the divorce of the writer’s parents. These events are tragic, yes, but also extremely common in essays. You may hope to write a moving essay and elicit some sympathy, but don’t expect much of that from college admissions officers, who read about horrible events on the daily during application season each year. According to Creative Marbles Consultancy, one University of California admissions officer admitted to predicting the essay’s ending rather than focusing on its content when it came to reading essays in these categories—which is very much the opposite of what students want.
Stay away from the mistake of thinking that a college essay has to be about one of the most dramatic events in your life—more drama does not necessarily equal a higher chance of admittance; rather, introspection often takes the lead as one of the most important parts of a college essay. In other words, take your time describing an important event or series of events in your life. After that, reflect on how these events have changed you as a person or what they signify in your life. Take the opportunity to discuss how your world view changed, or how the event or events altered your life and career goals.
6. And finally...don’t try too hard
I get it—college essays are tough. It’s extremely difficult to wrap up all the ups and downs of high school, the successes and failures, clubs and activities, and everything in between into one neat package. With more students applying to higher education every single year, there’s the added stress of attempting to appear unique in a mass of students doing the same.
As cliche as it sounds, be yourself. An over-the-top attempt to make yourself sound different will only come across as forced. Focus on who you are and what you want to do. Start early, brainstorm, write, edit, and finally, submit, with the knowledge that you did your best.
Make my English teacher proud.