How to Showcase Your Strengths in Your College Application Essays
Your admission essay is an adcom’s greatest insight into who you are as a person. It can also be a tool to showcase your high school accomplishments. So, how can you craft an essay that both conveys your personality and portrays your strengths—without coming off as arrogant? Here are four tips to guide you.
1. Paint a picture.
This is a phrase that English teachers have drilled into your head, but it’s true for your college essay and in all your written work. Painting a picture of your accomplishments through examples and rhetorical devices helps adcoms visualize the steps you’ve taken to get to where you are today and the person you are and strive to be.
How can you show rather than tell? There are many ways to express yourself through language, from personalized metaphors—actions, experiences, or objects that mirror and symbolize your journey—to rich, vivid details. This is especially true in your essay, but you can also employ these rhetorical devices and language throughout your application, such as in your extracurricular accomplishment descriptions.
For instance, if you’re a pianist, you might use imagery to describe the progression of your musical development, initially exploring playing one note at a time to learning how to play the music you play today. You could evoke specific sounds and melodies to illustrate this development.
2. Use action-oriented verbs.
Rather than relying on soft adjectives, use action verbs like “implemented,” “facilitated,” and so on. These types of words are much more powerful and demonstrate that you do and make things happen. They also emphasize your ownership of your achievements, signifying that these achievements don’t just happen to you: you made them happen.
For example, rather than saying that you were responsible for speaking on behalf of the student body as student council president, you might say, “Raised awareness of X issue and implemented a procedure for handling complaints.”
3. Offer examples and details.
Examples are an essential feature of your essay. They illustrate your accomplishments, provide context, and show adcoms how you’ve made an impact in concrete ways. You should also use numerical values and other details to quantify your accomplishments.
In this post on successful activity entries, students use details to summarize and portray their accomplishments. While this post concerns another section of your application, you can apply the same concepts to your essay.
Example: “Provided homework and study help to underprivileged kids. I studied with one girl until her Cs became As. I love being the “go-to” mentor.”
Here, the applicant shows the impact of her tutoring, rather than simply stating that she tutored. In doing so, she demonstrates the impact on both her and the students she tutored.
Example: “I have been studying piano and performing in recitals since kindergarten. I’m currently working on Beethoven’s Sonata No. 1 in F minor from Opus 2.”
This entry shows the progression of the applicant’s work by demonstrating how far she has come, exemplified by the challenging piece she’s currently playing.
These examples bring your experiences to life, so you’re not just listing achievements but also quantifying them and pointing to concrete ways in which they’ve affected you and others.
4. Tell a story.
Like any good story, your essay should have a narrative arc. Instead of a list of achievements, it should portray an experience that shaped you. No matter what topic you choose, you should be able to tell an account that captures your reader’s attention and has all the hallmarks of a compelling narrative.
For instance, if you’re a first-generation student, you might begin by describing a specific moment in your childhood when you realized that you would be the first member of your family to attend college and then narrate specific events along your journey, such as encouragement from your parents or teachers, difficulties you faced and how you overcame them, and how you finally reached this moment and are excited about the next chapter. This is much more effective than simply stating that you’re a first-generation student and listing the reasons why attending college is important to you.
If you can’t weave together a compelling story with the topic you’ve chosen, you may want to rethink it. Spend some time brainstorming to hone your topic and ensure that it is one that will both capture your audience and showcase your accomplishments.
Your Essay: A Reflection of You
Your essay is a concise glimpse into you as a person. While other areas of your application detail your accomplishments, grades, and extracurricular achievements, this is a place to showcase your qualities as a person. Still, your accomplishments are most likely integral to your personality. Keep these tips in mind as you craft an essay that both captures your character and your strengths as a candidate for admission.
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