Writing a college application essay that stands out can hinge on a few basic elements; indeed, these seemingly minor aspects can have a huge effect on the overall tone and impact of your piece. Here are a few of the top tips for improving your admissions essay – and avoiding the common pitfalls that can hold it back.
1. Be specific.
In my opinion, this is by far the most important aspect of any college application essay, and it applies to every section of your piece – from the anecdote you might draw from to begin your essay, to your description of the courses that have inspired you most, to your plans once you have matriculated to the college of your choice. Specificity allows you to reveal more about who you are as a person and a scholar. Specificity illuminates the vivid images that will make your application essay resonate powerfully with admissions officers. Specificity reveals your skills as a writer, your powers of observation and your unique perspective on the world around you.
2. Keep it positive.
This often comes down to a matter of phrasing. For example, rather than stating that physics has been your greatest weakness throughout your academic career, describe it as a challenge that has taught you the value of hard work, self-discipline and effective time-management. Along these lines, there are certain things that should not go into your personal statement. If your grades suffered due to a death in the family, serious illness or other extenuating circumstances, this should be saved for the section in your application that asks if there is anything you would like to add that has not been addressed thus far. Do not put this material in your Statement of Purpose/Personal Statement.
3. Too casual versus too formal.
As much as you want your admissions essay to be buoyed by your own unique and engaging voice, there is a fine line that must be tread between too casual and overly stiff and pompous. You should sound like yourself (when you are holding forth amongst peers and adults, not in the locker room). I recommend clients avoid words such as ‘therefore’ and ‘moreover.’ By the same token, the more formal ‘child’, ‘mother’ and ‘father’ should always be used in place of words like ‘kid’, ‘mom’, ‘dad’ etc. Finally, avoid contractions – can’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t etc.; they should always be spelled out: cannot, could not, would not, etc.
4. Start with an outline.
Starting an essay can be overwhelming, but an outline can make a world of difference – and save you time in the long run, given how it can help with the organization of your material. A very general outline for a personal statement might be as follows:
(a) a personal anecdote related to who you are and your goals that serves to draw the reader into your piece;
(b) the ‘introduction proper’, which introduces who you are and what you want to study;
(c) your academic background related to what you are interested in studying;
(d) the extracurricular activities that have further broadened your experience and shaped you;
(e) specific aspects of the school you are applying to that make it your top choice (courses, clubs, sports, professors, location etc.);
(f) what you would contribute to the program and academic community; and
(g) your future goals, and why this particular college is uniquely suited to helping you achieve them.
5. Do not worry about word count with your first draft.
With the first draft, I always encourage clients to write at length. Ultimately, the piece can be trimmed to within the proper word count – but it is always better to start with too much material than not enough.
6. The conclusion is not about repeating everything you have said in the body of the essay, it is about looking forward.
This is a common trap, but my advice is always not to waste the valuable word-count limit repeating what has already been said. Rather, use the conclusion to point to the future – for example, what you hope to accomplish after you have graduated.
7. Stay true to yourself and your voice.
Never lose sight of the fact that in the end, this is your essay. It ought to be something you are excited about and proud of; something that bursts with who you are, all you have accomplished, and all that you have yet to offer. As such, it needs to resonate with your unique voice – and only you have the strongest sense of what that is. So if a friend, family member or professional editor makes corrections or adjustments to your work that do not sit right with you, it is important to hold fast to your vision.
If you feel strongly about keeping something in your essay – if there is a word or phrase or detail that you feel should remain as you originally wrote it – by all means keep it. When I edit an essay, the changes I make are ultimately merely suggestions. The editing process with my clients is very much a back and forth. A good editor should be a facilitator, one who seeks for the best ways to allow your voice to shine through, rather than obscuring it.
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