How to write an effective college application essay
All college applicants understand that they are required to write a comprehensive college essay/personal statement and they are often apprehensive about the process. US News references the Associate Dean of Admissions at Hamilton College in New York, who understand this apprehension, “I think this is the part of the application process that students are sometimes most challenged by.”
When writing a successful college essay applicants should ensure that their narrative showcases their personality, goals, and ambitions effectively as possible within the given word limit. These are the aspects of an applicant’s character that admissions committees are looking for. For applicants that require guidance, AP News highlights some excellent companies that have solid track records in helping thousands of prospective college students to draft effective college application essays.
Why is it worth investing so much time in a college essay?
Consider yourself and your story as a blank canvas for a moment. The events in your life add color to this canvas. Every brush stroke and every color describes a story and gives an insight into who you are. Your college essay should represent this canvas that encapsulates your entire life in a way that’s appealing to the college you wish to apply to.
The opportunity to tell your story to prospective colleges is provided by writing a college application essay. Think of it as adding a human element to your application, giving you the ability to talk about certain aspects of your life that might not be highlighted through your grades and test scores.
For example, just as an artist has complete autonomy over how they wish to structure their painting, add the colors of their choice, and select a language that they feel most comfortable with, you can paint the story of your life in your college essay. A good essay allows you to connect with the admissions committee on a personal level.
Think about what you would choose to say to the admissions committee if you had the opportunity to stand in front of them. What life-changing story or experience would you share to convince them that you would be an asset to their institution?
For the admissions committee to think of you as an ideal candidate, you will have to show them how you have learned from your past and become a more robust and wiser individual with a clear pathway to the future.
Your college application essay is a way to share your priorities and goals, and the ambitions that you have set for yourself in life. Candidates that can explain how being educated in a particular institution will play an instrumental role in achieving their ultimate goals are at an advantage. However, don’t try to cram in every detail of your life and your entire story in one essay.
Instead, pick one instance or event from your life that played a significant part in shaping you to be the person you are now, and changed how you perceive life.
A methodical and systematic approach should be taken to write a persuasive college application essay. The key is to take your time over each aspect of the process, and don’t try to rush through them. Don’t regard writing your essay as a chore, but as an opportunity.
Let’s take a look at what this process looks like. If you struggle with writing or simply do not have the time to learn how to write an essay yourself, you can also take advantage of cheap paper writing.
Before you begin: Give it some thought
Before you even think about starting to write the first draft of your college essay, ensure that you have read and understood the admissions committee’s requirements. You will usually be given one or two topics to focus on. The topics and questions may cover a range of areas not necessarily related to your personal life and could even be relatively trivial. However, no matter what subject you are required to focus on, it is essential to try to understand the admissions committee’s expectations.
College essays (also known as personal statements) are a key part of the application process. The admissions committee wants to understand why you’ve applied for the course and what makes you suitable for it. Evidence of relevant employment or volunteering experiences are also useful. Once you feel that you have understood what is required, you should spend a decent amount of time thinking about how you will structure your work.
These questions will help you to focus:
- What do you want to achieve with this college essay?
- What parts of your life are relevant to the admissions committee?
- Which challenges and your responses to them would best illustrate what you want to say?
Answering these questions will help to ensure that your essay furthers the narrative you are building to best describe yourself to the admissions committee.
Understand which type of essay suits your circumstances
This is perhaps the most crucial stage of the entire college essay writing process. You should start by making a list of all the things you’d like to highlight in your essay. Allow yourself the time to think about the events in your life, and how you reacted to them and pick those that best illustrate your narrative. In order to do this, you need to decide what type of essay you are going to write.
Ask yourself these questions:
1. What significant difficulties have you faced and overcome?
2. Are you certain about where you want your life to take you? And how will you get there?
Your answers to these questions will allow you to decide what type of essay is most suited to your circumstances. The four possible essay types are:
- Type A: When a student has faced numerous challenges in life and knows exactly what they want to do
This type of essay follows a ‘narrative structure’, meaning it should read like a story: your life before the challenge – what happened during the challenge and how you reacted to it – how you got your life back on track after the challenge. It’s a good idea to list out what your thoughts and feelings were before, during and after this time so that you can really understand (and then describe) how you were able to overcome the challenges and their long-term effect. This should lead into how you realised or decided exactly what you want from your life and how acceptance onto this course will help you to get it.
- Type B: The student hasn’t faced many challenges but knows what they want to do
In this case you may not have any particular challenges that you can talk about overcoming. So, what to do? You need to give the reader a good impression of your life and what you what from it by being as imaginative and ‘uncommon’ as possible. So, instead of writing a chronological narrative like Type A above, you’ll be describing your life and your attributes in a thematic way. What skills have you honed that are relevant to the course? What are your aims and values and how can you relate them to the course? Even if you have not had to endure serious challenges, what events in your life have allowed you to develop new skills or change your mind or direction? In your discussion you should aim to stray outside of the ordinary so that your statement really stands out. Instead of ‘I want to be a vet so that I can help animals’, try ‘When my cat was ill, I spent a lot of time at the veterinary surgery and came to admire the dedication and passion shown by the staff. Not only did they care for the animals, but for the owners; I came to understand what a profound and meaningful career a veterinary surgeon has’.
- Type C: The student has faced many life challenges but does not have clarity on what to do in life
This type of essay requires that you follow the ‘narrative structure’ of Type A up until you get to the part where you describe how the challenges you overcame led you to realise what you want out of life. Instead, describe what you have learnt from overcoming those challenges and connect those lessons with the course you are applying for. You need to show that although you don’t have a fully thought-out life plan yet, you do know that the course applied for is going to help you to work it out.
- Type D: The student hasn’t faced any significant challenges in life and doesn’t have a clear idea of what career path they wish to pursue in life.
This might seem the toughest essay to tackle, but it doesn’t have to be, it just needs to be approached in a different way. If you have no significant challenges to talk about, you will need to focus on yourself. Let’s imagine that you have a collection of slogan T-shirts (e.g., ‘Geology rocks’, ‘Women’s rights’, ‘Eat beans not bodies’). What slogans would feature? Write down four or five that apply to you and then spend some time thinking about each and what it says about you – how it represents your values, affects your actions, and makes you the person you are. This is ‘out of the box’ thinking and may not come easily at first, but as you spend time thinking about your life and what has shaped your personality, the easier it will become to plot the journey that has led you to the course you are applying for.
Once you have figured out the structure of your essay, the next step is to strategize how to go about drafting your paper. A good college essay has a natural flow and compartmentalizes different sections intelligently with a proper introduction, body, and conclusion.
When writing, keep in mind that this essay is your personal story, being told in the first-person narrative. Your writing will sound more authentic and convincing if you have used a writing style that you find most true. Do not try to adopt a writing style that doesn’t come naturally, as the emotion and message might end up losing their essence and meaning.
The hardest part of writing an essay is quite often finding a starting point. Consider starting with a question or quoting a statistic. It’s difficult to pull off, but you could start with something humorous, to grab the reader’s attention (test this out on a third party first to check that it’s as funny as you think it is).
Now, sit at your computer or pick up a pen, and write out a first rough draft for your essay. No matter if it doesn’t read well at this stage – the idea is to get your ideas down. You can organize them later. Once you’ve written as much as you can, separate the text into an introduction, the main body, and a conclusion. Concentrate on each section at a time and make it as good as you can before moving on to the next. Then give yourself a break, come back in an hour or so and read through it again. You’ll be amazed at how refreshed your brain will be after a reasonable break, and at how easily you’ll spot obvious errors that elude you when you’ve been working for too long.
Once your first draft is complete you need to consider the word limit and begin the process of elimination. No words should be wasted – each contributes to the opportunity of describing yourself to the admissions committee, so be as concise as possible. Any extra written material that doesn’t contribute to your story or doesn’t add impact should be edited out.
Remember – this is not a fast process. You must give yourself time to draft, refine and perfect your essay. Anyone who spends any amount of time writing will tell you that there are times when you’re out of inspiration and despair of finishing the piece. So, take a break, take a deep breath, and come back to it when you’re refreshed. If you are accepted onto the course you will certainly be expected to write numerous essays, so look upon your application essay/personal statement as good practice.
Proofread at least once
After working so hard on your essay the last thing you want to do is submit it with grammatical errors or typos. An essay strewn with errors sends a very negative message to the admissions committee, indicating a tendency to carelessness or sloppiness. As well as checking for grammatical errors and typos, this is an opportunity to review your work with a fresh perspective.
Once your essay is completed leave it alone for a day or two and then revert back to it with a new mindset. This helps you to check how your essay sounds to other readers.
If possible, have other people read your work and provide feedback. Consult your friends and other college students who have already gone through the admissions process and can provide valuable feedback.
Lastly, before submitting your college essay, ensure that you have included all relevant information such as your name, contact information, and application ID number to tie your essay with your application.
Once submitted, try to forget about it. Let the process happen and accept that it has been taken out of your hands. If you have followed this guidance you can be sure that you have done the best you can.
Story by Iren Dmitrieva