Lily Fang 10 min read 12th Grade, Essay Tips

10 Guidelines for Highly Readable College Essays

You’ve probably had this happen to youafter reading for a long time, the lines start to blur together, and you look at the words on the page, but they don’t register in your brain. 

 

Admissions officers deal with this daily, as they have to scan through thousands of applications each cycle. The volume of applications makes it all the more important to write an essay that’s highly readable, both in terms of physical readability, and how engaging your story is. 

 

In this post, we’ll share our top 10 tips for writing a college essay that will make admissions officers pay attention.

 

How to Write a Readable College Essay

 

1. Start your essay with an engaging introduction.

 

Do you sometimes close out of a video or article because the introduction was boring? With so many things vying for our attention in the modern world, it’s important for introductions to grab our attention right away. This is equally true for college essays.

 

You want the first lines of your essay to make us want to read more. Some ways to do that are using dialogue, or starting your essay in media res, in the middle of action. 

 

Here’s an example of an essay introduction that uses dialogue and the technique of in media res.

 

“1…2…3…4 pirouettes! New record!” My friends cheered as I landed my turns. Pleased with my progress, I gazed down at my worn-out pointe shoes. The sweltering blisters, numbing ice-baths, and draining late-night practices did not seem so bad after all. Next goal: five turns.

 

And here’s an example of an essay that begins in media res:

 

Fire! 

 

Was I no longer the beloved daughter of nature, whisperer of trees? Knee-high rubber boots, camouflage, bug spray—I wore the garb and perfume of a proud wild woman, yet there I was, hunched over the pathetic pile of stubborn sticks, utterly stumped, on the verge of tears. As a child, I had considered myself a kind of rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free. I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms. Yet here I was, ten years later, incapable of performing the most fundamental outdoor task: I could not, for the life of me, start a fire. 

 

You’ll see that with these introductions, we’re plunged into the writer’s world, and we get to observe the moment as it’s happening. This makes it easier to relate to the writer, and also makes us wonder what happens next in the story.

 

2. Break up long paragraphs.

 

No one wants to read a huge block of text, and this can be another deterrent from paying attention to your essay. The ideal paragraph length is 3-5 sentences, or 50-100 words. This allows you to separate your ideas and to include natural breaks in your writing. 

 

For example, let’s take a look again at the previous excerpt from a student’s essay on starting a fire. The introduction would’ve been easier to read with a new paragraph beginning with the “As a child” line. This line is a fitting place to separate paragraphs, as it goes from the present moment to a description of the writer’s childhood.

 

Fire! 

 

Was I no longer the beloved daughter of nature, whisperer of trees? Knee-high rubber boots, camouflage, bug spray—I wore the garb and perfume of a proud wild woman, yet there I was, hunched over the pathetic pile of stubborn sticks, utterly stumped, on the verge of tears.

 

As a child, I had considered myself a kind of rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free. I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms. Yet here I was, ten years later, incapable of performing the most fundamental outdoor task: I could not, for the life of me, start a fire.

 

As you read your draft, go through and see if there are any places you could naturally begin a new paragraph, especially if your paragraphs are long. On the flip side, do make sure that not every paragraph is super short. While having one or two standalone lines is fine for dramatic effect, it can look gimmicky to have too many, and it will also diminish their impact.

 

3. Include dialogue in your anecdotes to bring readers into the moment. 

 

Dialogue is a powerful tool not only at the beginning of your essay, but also throughout. You can and should use it any time you want to draw attention to what specifically was said, or to bring your essay to a specific moment. 

 

Using dialogue tends to be much more engaging than summarizing what was said in your own words. Take this excerpt as an example:

 

No dialogue: My brother told me that I ruined his life. After months of quiet anger, my brother finally confronted me. To my shame, I had been appallingly ignorant of his pain.

 

With dialogue: “You ruined my life!” After months of quiet anger, my brother finally confronted me. To my shame, I had been appallingly ignorant of his pain.

 

Between the two excerpts, the first feels more like a summary of events than a real glimpse into the writer’s life. Adding dialogue takes the reader to the specific moment that the brother actually uttered those words. 

 

Of course, dialogue should also be used judiciously, as dialogue can’t always reveal important details like your thoughts during a conversation, what the setting was like, or how you felt. Too much of anything is never a good thing, even if it’s a useful writing technique. (Of course, you could make your essay primarily dialogue if you write it in the form of a script for a movie, but that’s a whole other story).

 

4. Show, don’t tell. 

 

You may also know this technique as “indirect characterization” from your English class. If you want to describe a personality trait or event, highlight it through your actions, thoughts, and feelings instead of explicitly stating it. Otherwise, your essay will just read like a report of your experiences, which is boring. 

 

Here’s an example: say you want to say that someone is arrogant. 

 

If you were “telling” or “directly characterizing” them, you’d write: Bill is arrogant.

 

If you were “showing” or “indirectly characterizing,” you’d write: Bill swaggered into the meeting late, with his perpetual sly grin. He shooed the presenter away and shut off the projector. “Hey my dudes, I have a killer idea you just won’t believe. It’s my greatest idea yet, and it’s gonna change the world.” Accustomed to Bill’s exaggerated claims, those in attendance gave each other knowing looks.

 

While the second version is longer, it gives us a better understanding of Bill’s personality, and it’s much easier to relate to the situation. Simply stating that someone is X or Y trait, or summarizing how something happened, is much less illustrative. As you’re writing, think about ways you can use anecdotes to convey what you want, as these are more engaging.

 

5. Use impeccable grammar and spelling.

 

This should go without saying, especially since college admissions officers also use your essay to gauge your writing skills. If your essay has several misspelled words or uses improper grammar, it could make an otherwise engaging essay unreadable.

 

Use spell check, take the time to proofread carefully, and ask others to give you feedback. And before you submit, print your essay out and read it aloud with a pen in your hand. You’d be surprised at the typos you catch. After you read a document over and over, you start to fill in the words that should be there, and can easily miss a mistake.

6. Vary the length of your sentences.

 

The best essays flow almost rhythmically. If you use too many short sentences, your essay will feel choppy. If all your sentences are long, readers may get lost or bored. 

 

You don’t have to alternate short or long sentences in a robotic pattern, but try to naturally incorporate varied sentence length. Similar to the tip about paragraph length, break up any sections with many long sentences by creating new, shorter sentences out of the originals. To do this effectively, choose points where the writing shifts, whether that’s in terms of ideas, time periods, or the subject.

 

7. Make sure that your essay is logically consistent throughout.

 

It’s important that different parts of your essay don’t contradict each other. For example, if you describe yourself as shy in one section, don’t paint yourself as outgoing later on, unless it’s clear there was a period of change or personal growth. 

 

This point is especially important if you’re writing a more academic essay, like the fourth Common App prompt. This prompt asks you to describe a problem you’d like to solve, its personal significance, and potential solutions. Say you want to write your essay on food waste, and your argument is that most of the waste is happening at the production/corporate level, and is due to improper distribution. In this case, don’t write your entire essay on ways individuals can reduce their food waste.

 

8. Be consistent with your use of slang, acronyms, etc.

 

Similarly, your language should be as consistent as possible. For example if you use an acronym to describe an organization, you might spell it out the first time with the acronym in parentheses, i.e. “National Honor Society (NHS),” but use the acronym the rest of the time. 

 

Or, if you use slang like “gonna” in your dialogue, keep using it in the rest of the dialogue, unless the person speaking actually has a more formal tone (which you should make clear). Of course, keep in mind that you probably shouldn’t be using slang like “gonna” in parts of your essay that aren’t dialogue. 

 

You can, however, use contractions, and they can be a great way to not only lower your character count, but also make your essay feel more conversational. Just be sure to stay consistent with them as well.

 

9. Avoid excessive repetition of words and phrases.

 

If you find yourself using the same word over and over again in your essay, consider using synonyms, or rephrasing the sentence. An exception, of course, would be repetition for emphasis. In that case, it should be clear that the repetition is intentional. Otherwise, using the same words and phrases can come off as lazy, and your writing can seem unpolished.

 

10. Make sure that your verb tenses are consistent. 

 

Use the same tense throughout your essay, or make sure that there are clear lines of demarcation where you shift tenses. There are few reasons to need to shift tenses, but the most common one is incorporating flashbacks into your essay, or changing time periods. In that case, it would make sense to use present tense for the most recent time period, and past tense for the less recent one.

 

Here’s an example of an essay that does a good job shifting tenses:

 

Night had robbed the academy of its daytime colors, yet there was comfort in the dim lights that cast shadows of our advances against the bare studio walls. Silhouettes of roundhouse kicks, spin crescent kicks, uppercuts and the occasional butterfly kick danced while we sparred. She approached me, eyes narrowed with the trace of a smirk challenging me. “Ready spar!” Her arm began an upward trajectory targeting my shoulder, a common first move. I sidestepped — only to almost collide with another flying fist. Pivoting my right foot, I snapped my left leg, aiming my heel at her midsection. The center judge raised one finger. 

 

“POINT!”

 

There was no time to celebrate, not in the traditional sense at least. Master Pollard gave a brief command greeted with a unanimous “Yes, sir” and the thud of 20 hands dropping-down-and-giving-him-30, while the “winners” celebrated their victory with laps as usual. 

 

Three years ago, seven-thirty in the evening meant I was a warrior. It meant standing up straighter, pushing a little harder, “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am”, celebrating birthdays by breaking boards, never pointing your toes, and familiarity. Three years later, seven-thirty in the morning meant I was nervous. 

 

The room is uncomfortably large. The sprung floor soaks up the checkerboard of sunlight piercing through the colonial windows. The mirrored walls further illuminate the studio and I feel the light scrutinizing my sorry attempts at a pas de bourrée, while capturing the organic fluidity of the dancers around me. “Chassé en croix, grand battement, pique, pirouette.” I follow the graceful limbs of the woman in front of me, her legs floating ribbons, as she executes what seems to be a perfect ronds de jambes. Each movement remains a negotiation. With admirable patience, Ms. Tan casts me a sympathetic glance.   

  

“Point.”

 

There is no time to wallow in the misery that is my right foot. Taekwondo calls for dorsiflexion; pointed toes are synonymous with broken toes. My thoughts drag me into a flashback of the usual response to this painful mistake: “You might as well grab a tutu and head to the ballet studio next door.” Well, here I am Master Pollard, unfortunately still following your orders to never point my toes, but no longer feeling the satisfaction that comes with being a third degree black belt with 5 years of experience quite literally under her belt. It’s like being a white belt again — just in a leotard and ballet slippers. 

 

But the appetite for new beginnings that brought me here doesn’t falter. It is only reinforced by the classical rendition of “Dancing Queen” that floods the room and the ghost of familiarity that reassures me that this new beginning does not and will not erase the past. After years spent at the top, it’s hard to start over. But surrendering what you are only leads you to what you may become. In Taekwondo, we started each class reciting the tenets: honor, courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, courage, humility, and knowledge, and I have never felt that I embodied those traits more so than when I started ballet. 

 

The thing about change is that it eventually stops making things so different. After nine different schools, four different countries, three different continents, fluency in Tamil, Norwegian, and English, there are more blurred lines than there are clear fragments. My life has not been a tactfully executed, gold medal-worthy Taekwondo form with each movement defined, nor has it been a series of frappés performed by a prima ballerina with each extension identical and precise, but thankfully it has been like the dynamics of a spinning back kick, fluid, and like my chances of landing a pirouette, unpredictable.

 

The shift of tenses in this essay is very clear, and it marks a transition from seven years ago to the present day.

 

Final Thoughts

 

The readability of your essay is just as important as the content. If your essay is hard to read, it’s unlikely that admissions officers will pay attention. Follow these tips to present your essay in the best possible light, and to make it as engaging as possible. With that, we wish you the best of luck on your essays!

 

For more inspiration and advice on your college essays, check out these posts:

 

How to Format and Structure Your College Essay

11 Cliché College Essay Topics + How to Fix Them

How to Use Literary Devices to Enhance Your Essay

 

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Lily Fang
Blog Editor at CollegeVine
Short bio
Lily Fang is 2018 grad of Amherst College with a degree in math and French. She has called three countries “home”: the U.S., France, and England. In her spare time, she trains for marathons and writes for her travel and running blog.