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Unweighted GPA: 3.7
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4 Things To Keep in Mind When Writing Your College Essays

This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Robert Crystal in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.


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In this article, we will discuss how to improve your college essays, particularly “montage essays,” where you use a theme or topic to showcase different parts of who you are. For more guidance on writing college essays, read our post on how to write the Common Application essays.


Be Confident in Your Topic


It is important to choose a topic that you feel confident writing about. This confidence may come from enjoying what you do, feeling proud about something you have accomplished or because this activity or pursuit makes you feel unique. For topics that are commonly written about, such as Girl Scouts, robotics, or basketball, you will need to work hard to find an interesting angle that will help you stand out.


If possible, try to choose a topic that is less common and more unique to you and various aspects of your identity and background. Ultimately, only you and you alone will know if you are writing about something that makes you feel confident. But if you find yourself struggling during the writing process, there is a strong likelihood that you are not confident about the topic you have chosen.


Find Unlikely Connections


Try to find unlikely connections to the topic that you have chosen. For example, with a more common topic like Girl Scouts, you could discuss a time when you accomplished something or performed an act of service for which there was no badge to put on your vest. This could lead to a rich discussion on the importance of random acts of kindness, being generous of spirit, and always doing your best to serve your community, especially when your actions go unrecognized.


To find unlikely connections, consider the following questions in relation to your topic: 


  • What did you learn and how did you end up learning it? 
  • How did you change or grow as a result of what you learned?
  • How does this relate to your values and goals?
  • What is an unexpected takeaway that you had from it?
  • Are there other people who had the same experience or takeaways as you?


Use Unique Language


Part of what makes an essay compelling is not what you choose to write about, but how you write about that topic. Your voice will be more memorable if you use language that is typical for you but unique to others.


For instance, if you are writing about your passion for working on car engines, you might use technical jargon that demonstrates your strong understanding of auto mechanics. If you are writing about working at your family’s Chinese restaurant, you might include Chinese characters or pinyin (with English translations) for the slang that the cooks in the kitchen shout at each other. This would make your essay feel more authentic and represent the restaurant environment better.


Draw Insights From Your Personal Anecdotes and Experiences


A large portion of what you will write about in your college essays are anecdotes and experiences that demonstrate your values, character, thought processes, and way of conducting yourself in the world. Consequently, it is important that you identify anecdotes and experiences that are unique to you and ripe for discussion and analysis.


Here is a helpful exercise to do as you begin to write an essay:


  1. Write a list of the most cliche aspects of your chosen topic. Use this list as a reminder of what not to include in your essay.
  2. Write a list of personal anecdotes and experiences that are unique to you (and only you) in relation to your chosen topic. The best way to determine if your anecdotes and experiences are unique to you is to ask yourself if they could be copy-pasted into someone else’s essay.
  3. Write a list of core values that you hold, such as honesty, patience, and active communication. 
  4. Draw connections between the unique aspects that you identified in Step 2 and the core values that you listed in Step 3. You may need to identify more unique anecdotes or experiences to relate to the values you listed in Step 3. 


By relating your personal anecdotes and experiences to your values, you lay the groundwork for deep insight. Insight refers to the meaning that you find or make from the experiences that you have. In other words, insight is what you have learned about yourself and the world around you, with some of the best insights being gained from making mistakes or being incorrect. The last one or two sentences of each paragraph in your essay or the concluding paragraph of your entire essay are great locations for you to share your insights.


Use Representative Examples


A powerful move you can make in your essays is to turn a specific example into a representative example where you show how to apply the skills you gained and lessons you learned in other areas of your life as well as in your short and long-term goals. 


For instance, consider an applicant who writes about their passion for long-distance running. The applicant describes training for their very first marathon and the high degree of mental fortitude and physical endurance that were required. They discuss how they trained diligently, made incremental progress over many months of training, and always stayed positive in the face of setbacks. 


This applicant could transform their specific example into a representative example by discussing how the skills they developed through marathon training will translate to pursuing their other long-term goals, such as graduating from college, earning a doctorate degree, becoming a tenured professor, and completing the World Marathon Majors.