How to Write a Stand-Out College Essay
This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Pascale Bradley in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.
- Introduction to College Admission Essays
- Make Your College Admission Essays Stand Out
- Choose a Compelling Topic
Introduction to College Admission Essays
College admission essays comprise approximately 20% to 25% of the evaluation criteria for college applications. This is especially true when applying to top-tier institutions with large pools of applicants who are equally competitive with respect to their academic performance, standardized test scores, and extracurricular involvement. Most schools require applicants to submit a Common Application essay and their own school-specific supplemental short responses and essays. However, they also require applicants to respond to different types and quantities of topics, and you need to confirm which essays are required for each school.
Essays are the most significant personal component of the application process. They serve an integral role in humanizing you and helping colleges understand who you are, how you came to be, what you value, and how you respond to different challenges and situations. This information is critical because it helps admissions officers determine what you can contribute to their respective school, which is important because you need to demonstrate why a college should want you to attend and not just why you want to go to that college.
Essays will range from 100 to 700 words in length. Short responses may range between one or two words to several sentences. You may also have the opportunity to submit a multi-page document or a portfolio of your work for a particular program or for admission in general.
Make Your College Admission Essays Stand Out
When it comes to writing college admission essays, most applicants feel pressured to write about something that others will perceive as exceptionally interesting and impressive, such as a national award or a niche hobby. Applicants may feel unsure and insecure about not being talented, accomplished, or interesting enough, and the events and experiences in their daily life may feel too mundane or clichéd to write about. These pressures and insecurities stem from applicants internalizing the incessant messaging that they need to be exceptional and unique in order to distinguish themselves from other applicants and be attractive to schools.
Most applicants have not accomplished anything of regional, national, or international significance. Even for the few who have such accomplishments, the accolades in and of themselves are not sufficient to craft a compelling essay.
What actually makes a compelling essay is not what you choose to write about but how you write about whichever topic you choose. The essay will stand out because of your voice, your perspective, and your way of experiencing the world. You will not be penalized for what you have not experienced or achieved, as admissions officers understand that not everyone has access to the same set of opportunities and that geographic location, socioeconomic status, family connections, and many other factors constrain and determine what you are able to do in high school.
Choose a Compelling Topic
Once you divorce yourself from the misconception that your essay needs to be about something dramatic, life-altering, or incredibly exciting, you can start to home in on the content of your life that is worth writing about. Moments from and aspects of your everyday life—a book that was particularly meaningful to you, a relationship that you cherish, a memory of time spent with loved ones, a time when you were humiliated—are the seeds of great essays because they are the vehicles by which you can reveal something significant about who you are and how you think.
Your essay can be about anything you want, so long as it is appropriate for a general audience, satisfies the prompt to which you are responding, and shows the admissions officers something important about you that they could not find anywhere else in your application. Topics and content to avoid include any statements that could be construed as racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, xenophobic, or otherwise prejudiced against any particular group of people. You should also avoid the use of unsupported facts, obscene language, illicit activities, violence, or graphic subjects.
If you are considering writing about something that could be considered controversial, you need to recognize and prepare for the reality that your reader may completely disagree with you and may finish reading your essay doubting your character. Although there is a slight chance that you could write a really strong essay about one of these topics, you run a great risk that is unnecessary and will likely not prove worthwhile.
For more information about how to write strong college admission essays, review our comprehensive articles on “How to Write the Common Application Essays” and “19 Stellar Common App Essay Examples” to get inspired.