College Essay Checklist: Are You Ready to Submit?
The college admissions process is a human process. An admissions committee filled with real people will evaluate your application, and these people will choose whether to advocate for you to gain admission to the university. So in order to be accepted, you need to stand out from the other applicants and persuade the admissions committee to choose you over students with a similar academic profile. Luckily, college essays are specifically designed to be your tool to stand out in the admissions process.
Given that college essays are so important, it’s important to make sure that they are absolutely perfect before you submit them. How do you make sure your college essays are ready to send to colleges? Make sure you’ve gone through this checklist before you hit that “submit” button!
Why Are College Essays So Important?
A college application has many components – test scores, grades and coursework, your extracurricular profile, recommendation letters, interviews, and, of course, your essays. So why are the essays such an important part if there are so many other components of your application to consider?
Well, most colleges receive thousands of applicants, many of whom have similar academic and extracurricular profiles. In fact, for every spot in a selective university’s admitted class, there are at least four outstanding applicants with similar grades and test scores. So how do admissions committees choose among so many students who have such strong potential? They use their essays to decide who would best fit in with the campus community.
For this reason, your college essays aren’t just about showing off your abilities and accomplishments. It’s about showing who you are as a person, what your values are, and what you’re passionate about. That’s no small task for a short essay. Every word is going to count, so follow the checklist below to make sure that your essay is as strong as it can be.
College Essay Checklist: Before You Submit
1. Does your essay share who you are and what you care about?
Your essay needs to be personal. It should share your personality, goals, and voice. Even if a prompt doesn’t explicitly ask you who you are and what you care about, you should use it as an opportunity to showcase your personal qualities. For example, take the following supplemental essay prompt from the University of Chicago’s 2020 Application:
What can actually be divided by zero?
At first glance, this prompt may seem confusing. After all, didn’t we all learn in elementary school math classes that nothing can be divided by zero? More abstract, philosophical prompts like this one are actually ripe opportunities for students to showcase who they are and how they think.
So if you answered a prompt like this very practically, e.g. explaining that the laws of mathematics prove that no real number can be divided by zero, you’re missing out on a key opportunity to show the admissions committee your capability for creativity and abstract thought. Instead of answering a prompt like this literally, you ought to think critically about your own life and see if you can metaphorically or rhetorically link the question to something you have gone through or accomplished.
Alternatively, if you’re more of a logical person and want to answer the question analytically, make sure that you are showcasing your knowledge of various theorems and strategies, and be sure to cite where you learned them. Either way, you are showing the admissions committee how your brain works and how you go about solving problems.
Remember: the goal of an essay is, first and foremost, to showcase yourself. There are no right or wrong answers in college essays, so as long your essay tells the committee something important about you.
2. Do your essays form a portfolio that accurately represents you?
While having to write so many essays is a lot of work, there is an upside. Having multiple essays means you can use each essay to display a different aspect of yourself and your accomplishments. That way, holistically, your application will give a very representative picture of who you are, and you won’t have to leave anything out.
So when you’re evaluating your essays, ask yourself: do your essays depict as many facets of yourself as possible? Specifically, have you repeated a story, experience or quality about yourself in any of the essays you’re going to send to the same college? If you have, then consider editing one of the essays to highlight something that you haven’t yet shared with the admissions committee. The more you can share with them in a limited amount of space, the easier it will be for the admissions committee to imagine how you would fit in at their university.
3. Did you answer the prompt?
Okay, so we’ve talked a lot about making sure that your values, passions, and accomplishments are showcased in your essays, even if the prompt is more abstract. This is certainly important, but it’s also important to make sure you’re showcasing yourself in the context of the essay prompt that was given to you. In other words, you should be sure that at some point in your essay, you answer the essay prompt clearly. If you don’t, you risk coming across as a student who doesn’t know how to follow basic directions.
Moreover, you need to make sure that you answer every part of the essay prompt given. Some essay prompts will just have one part. Some will have many. If you have to answer an essay prompt with multiple parts, be sure you address all of them. Take the following essay prompts from the 2019-2020 College Application Cycle:
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2019-2020:
Tell us about the most significant challenge you’ve faced or something important that didn’t go according to plan. How did you manage the situation? (200-250 words)
What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time? (350 words)
In both of these prompts, you are asked to respond to two related questions. If you were to answer the MIT prompt, you would need to not only describe a significant challenge but explain how you overcame it. For the University of California prompt, you’d not only need to explain your greatest skill but outline how you’ve cultivated it over time. If you miss any of those parts in your response, you will not have fully answered the prompt.
4. Did You Stay Within the Word Count?
Most main college essays (like the Common App essays) have a word limit of anywhere from 250-650 words. Supplemental essay prompts generally have word limit of 100-400 words. Either way, you need to make sure that you stay very close to the upper word limit in your response.
As a general rule, you should try to stay within 10% of the upper word limit. So if the word limit for one of your essays is 650 words, your essay shouldn’t be fewer than 585 words. Keep in mind that most online applications will cut off your essay at the word limit, so try not to go over the word count. However, on the other extreme, you don’t want to make your essay too short, as it may make it seem like you don’t care about the application. After all, every extra bit of space in your essays is an opportunity to further impress the admissions committee, so you should take advantage of it.
For some more details on how long your college essays should be, check out our previous post entitled How Long Should Your College Essay Be? What is the Ideal Length?
5. Did You Proofread?
Here are some things to look out for as you look over your essay:
Incorrect grammar and spelling mistakes. These can make a well-thought-out essay seem subpar in the eyes of an admissions committee.
Awkward or formal wording. Read your essay aloud and listen to how it sounds. If it doesn’t sound natural, then you’re likely not displaying your authentic self to the admissions committee. Consider shifting some of the wording to sound more like something you would actually say, even if it means you have to take out a bit of the advanced vocabulary and complex sentence structure.
Instances of telling, instead of showing. One of the biggest mistakes students make is to tell, instead of show. Here’s an example of telling: “It was a rainy and gloomy day.” Here’s an example of showing: “The gray clouds hovered ominously above the lake. I felt a drop. Then another. And another. It began pouring, and I frantically tried to row the canoe back to shore.” It’s much more engaging to read the second example, as you feel as if you’re there with the writer.
Repeated sentence structure and vocab. Do you use the same word over and over again? Do you begin lots of sentences in a row with “I”? As you’re reading your essay, make sure that you’re using varied language to keep things interesting.
Inconsistent style. While your language should be varied, your style shouldn’t. If you use contractions or acronyms, use them throughout the essay. If you begin the essay in past tense, keep it that way, or make sure there’s clear demarcation when you shift tenses.
Also, if you’re reused an essay from another school’s application, give it an extra read-through to make sure that you’ve replaced all of the mentions of and references to the other college. You don’t want the admissions committee from UC Berkeley reading about how thrilled you are to take advantage of the opportunities that Tufts has to offer. It would not bode well for your likelihood of acceptance to Berkeley.
Of course, it is okay to reuse essays if the prompts are similar, but just be sure to double and triple-check that it doesn’t seem like you’re reusing an essay meant for another college. Also, if you’re answering the famous “Why This College” essay, we at CollegeVine recommend that you not reuse another essay. This essay should include specific resources and opportunities that you plan to take advantage of at each university, so you shouldn’t be able to use the same essay for two different schools. In fact, if you’re able to reuse a “Why This College” essay, that’s a sign that you need to rework the essay and make it more specific to the college.
6. Did You Get a Second and Third Set of Eyes on Your Essay?
It’s important to get another person or two to read your essay before you submit. The best people to look at your essays are those who are well-versed in creative essay writing, but also people who know you well. Older peers who have gone through the admissions process successfully can offer some of the best advice. English or Communications teachers who know you well also make great proofreaders, as do writing-proficient friends and family.
If you’re not sure who to ask, you can also use our free peer essay review tool. You can get feedback on your essays, and improve your own writing skills by reviewing others’ essays.
7. Did You Revise and Proofread Again?
Once you’ve read through your essays and had others give suggestions, make the necessary edits and corrections. Then, be sure you proofread your essays one more time before you hit submit. You should try not to submit an essay that hasn’t been read at least a few times all the way through, without any changes. Consider even reading your essay out loud and printed out (have a pen at the ready!), as you may catch things you missed when reading silently.
Want help with your college essays to improve your admissions chances? Sign up for your free CollegeVine account and get access to our essay guides and courses. You can also get your essay peer-reviewed and improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.