These days, college applications are no joke. Crafting the seemingly perfect college application has so much in common even with mounting a presidential campaign. The application system is complex, the standardized testing is intense, the stakes are high, the acceptances are oftentimes unpredictable, and there are so many complicated answers to questions that seem so very easy to answer.
Let's take, for example, this question.
Q. How important are grades?
A. Very important. If you're aiming for extremely selective universities, you need to show that you can handle college-level coursework and that you have the motivation to succeed in class. However, top grades are definitely one thing that will boost your college application.
Now, a slightly harder question.
Q. What is a good SAT or ACT score?
A. It all depends on the school, but it is indisputable that the higher the score, the better. Look up each school's average score range, and aim to score in the above-average range if you want a great application.
But one important thing to remember is that scores in the same range are usually looked at the same. What do I mean? For example, if you're applying to an elite school with a 1570 SAT score, it's technically in the same range as a perfect 1600 (the typical range is 1560-1600). This means that you shouldn't be aiming for a higher score; you're already up there.
But how important are college essays?
Short answer: it's pretty complicated. Long answer: sometimes, it just really comes down to the school and the applicant pool, maybe the admissions committee.
But the very true answer #1:
An outstanding college essay can't salvage a mediocre application and a poor essay can hurt an already terrific application.
But the very true answer #2:
College essays reveal something important about you that your statistics can't.
In the end, the ones attending the college aren't numbers. They're human beings. Often when two applicants are nearly identical in grades, activities, and SAT/ACT scores, colleges look to their essays.
How well executed each essay is written, how much they learn about him/her, the grammar, and ultimately, which one stands out more. With all that being said, it is important to note that college essays play a HUGE part in your application.
Trust me, I speak with experience, but not with college essays. I had to write 4 essays as part of my application to get into the high school I will be attending this upcoming fall (ranked by Niche.com as the #1 Best Public High School in America), so I spent countless hours researching essay tips and, of course, reading various college essays. It was one of the most frustrating times of my life, but one of the most beneficial as well, for I learned so many things that ultimately helped me craft my best application essay so far.
Go into college, or maybe even some competitive high school applications, with these 8 tips to craft your very best college essay.
1. Get started with meaningful brainstorming, and remember that sometimes great ideas will pop up when you least expect them to.
This is most likely the hardest part of the entire process: finding a place to start. It's a daunting task simply because students don't want to brag about themselves or they haven't really thought about themselves in this manner. So where do brilliant topics come from?
Thinking. And a LOT. OF. IT.
Start by making a list of things, experiences, people, pets, and others that have helped to define YOU. Go out and seek inspiration, and come back armed with ideas to write about. Here are a few questions and tips to help get you on track:
- Identify some key milestones in your life that have had a significant impact on you!
- Ask the people who know you best to describe you. Get together with some of your closest friends, family, and teachers and have them describe you in 3-5 words (with explanations).
- Follow your passion! What is something you enjoy doing and how is it important to you?
- Who do you look up to and why?
- What is a significant challenge that you have overcome? How did you do it?
- Trust your gut! Go with the topic that you would most want to write; don't write about it just because your pushy aunt wants you to.
This part seriously takes time, so it's best to start early if you can. Be sure to write down the key points that you want to include in your essay, keep note of your possible concerns, and let your ideas flow out.
2. Let your first draft flow out, and don't be afraid to write, write, write!
Let. It. FLOW.
For your first draft, simply tell your story and don't stop to focus on the nitty-gritty details of grammar and sentence structure. Not only is this like a breath of fresh air, but it also gives you a good sense of where your starting point is. Observe your writing: does it show good grammar and diction?
Is the vocabulary varied (one big mistake is to use the same word OVER. AND OVER. AND OVER again when there are other synonyms to use)?
Does this tell a story that describes YOU? Keep this draft, and from there, start to make edits to it, and don't be afraid to rewrite! In my case, the more I rewrote my essays, the clearer they became, the more defined the ideas became, and it just effectively told a good story in 500 words.
3. Tell a story that is UNIQUE TO YOU
One of the things that I found to be most common while researching about the college essay (that I even found in my classmates applying to the same school) is that the students always want to write about what they think the SCHOOL wants to hear, not what they wanted to. They forced themselves to write about their experience on their school's math team when in real life they were much more committed (and better at) track and field. It's like this for students all across the country.
Tell a story that YOU WANT TO HEAR. If somebody went up to you and just gave an anecdote on how they studied hard to get on the top four of their school's math team, does that really stand out? How many other applicants also thought that you would only want to hear about their math team experience?
Don't be afraid to get a bit personal. After all, this is the only chance in your application where you can write about yourself and teach readers what you are like.
Another big thing that students forget is that the story doesn't have to be a dramatic, once-heard-in-a-lifetime story (but if you do have one of those experiences, talk about it!). You didn't have to be in a car crash to learn that change is hard. For many of us, it's the simple things that influence us the most.
Write about what is unique to YOU and your thought processes. Just like how you aren't writing this college essay for your pushy aunt, you also aren't writing about this topic because you think it's what the committee WANTS to hear.
4. Find your creative angle that will set your essay apart from others
If you want to stand out from your applicant pool, write an essay that will make the committee REMEMBER you. How?
Find your creative angle that will make your essay different from others.
Whether it's the way you layout your essay, through a crazy weird but influential story, or both, find a way to make your essay stand out. Here's how I did it, and hopefully you can learn something too.
For one of the prompts, I had to write about a significant challenge that I faced and how I overcame it. I haven't really gone through any dramatic injuries or struggles, but one thing that I was extremely proud of myself for was teaching myself vibrato on the violin. I decided to make it even more creative by writing it in the format of a letter. Here's the introduction of my essay:
I would have never thought that a rusty, old, wooden instrument like you would ever influence me so much. In these past few years, you have thrown countless obstacles at me, but I want to thank you for challenging me to learn vibrato. It was through the long, tiring journey of learning vibrato where I changed from a naive player to a passionate, motivated musician..."
See, learning vibrato absolutely isn't the hardest thing in the world, but it was something of significance to me. This just goes to show that when you write about topics close to you, oftentimes it's easier to write it out.
6. Don't begin with throat clearing! Instead, aim for a creative introduction that will hook the reader.
For this example, I will be referring back to the same prompt in tip #5.
"I have gone through many hard things in my life, but the hardest was moving to another high school. I had no friends, and I didn't know the city well...."
I'll put this out now: the admissions committee reads every single essay that comes across their computer. They will have read many, many essays, and many, many of the same types of introductions. Just having a creative introduction to hook any reader will not only draw more attention, but it may also just help to make you stand out.
Start with a description of a scene! Use vibrant diction and imagery to describe a place or person that means a lot to you. Or start with a quote that captures some aspect of your life.
Maybe start your introduction with a weird thought that you have thought about for a long time? Either way, find a way to transition into the main idea of your essay and go from there.
7. Find a way to showcase yourself without bragging or coming off as cocky
Showing confidence is key, but coming off as bragging may hurt your application. Instead, find ways to incorporate some of your accomplishments and activities without making your essay seem to revolve around it. Here's an example:
Let's say you want to remind them of all the activities that you do. For example, let's say that you were the top 4 in your school for math, played varsity lacrosse, played in the elite orchestra, and tutored kids for the SAT.
One technique that you could use is to use all these accomplishments and to instead turn them into LOCATIONS. How? In one of my essays, I talked about how I took my passion for learning and my traits as a good student everywhere I went. It could go a little like this:
"I took my new, burning passion for learning and brought it into Mr. (Blank)'s club room where the intense aura covered the four of us preparing to represent our school at the state competition, the eruptive lacrosse field filled with screams and cheers from the student section and JV team, the beautiful sounds of our elite string orchestra, and to the tutoring session with (Blank), where his eyes began to showcase a new burning passion."
8. Edit and revise as early as possible!
Proofread, proofread, proofread! Use Grammarly and make sure that you didn't miss any simply grammatical mistakes, and it even recently added a clarity tool that helps to clear up your essay of any redundant or unnecessary words. But one of my best tips is to get another set of eyes to read your essay.
Your classmates, friends, family, even teachers can help to catch any other mistakes, see if the essay SPEAKS about YOU, and give even more suggestions. After working on an essay for months, your essay becomes so engraved into your head to the point where you can't imagine any change happening to it. Trust me. Sometimes, the change just gives you a huge breath of fresh air, and it never hurts to get some constructive criticism.
With that being said, go into college or high school applications with a goal, purpose, and inspiration. Keep these tips in mind while you're writing, and remember that you aren't going through this alone. This will be one of the most important times of your life.
And seniors in high school?
Take a break and abuse that 30-day Netflix trial you have. Don't be afraid to take a day off every once in a while! You deserve it. :)