It may be only 500 words, but the admissions
essay portion of a college application can mean the difference between
acceptance and rejection. How you write your personal essay shows the
admissions committee why you are different from everybody else. It provides
information about you that test scores, grades, and extracurricular pursuits
just cannot. You can use the essay to describe a favorite activity, to tell a
story about yourself, or even a story about your dog, but make sure to really use
it -- in a way that captures the readers attention and shows that you are
Step One: Brainstorming
You should expect to devote about one to two
weeks simply thinking up possible essay subjects. From this process of
brainstorming, you may find a topic you had not thought of at first. Here are
some questions to consider:
What Are You Like?
What is your strongest personality trait?
Does any attribute, quality, or skill distinguish you from everyone else?
How did you develop this attribute?
How would your friends characterize you?
What would they write about if they were writing your admissions essay for
Consider your favorite books, movies, works
of art, etc. Have these influenced your life in a meaningful way? Why are
they your favorites?
Have you experienced a moment of epiphany,
as if your eyes were opened to something to which you were previously
What Have You Done?
What are your major accomplishments, and why
do you consider them accomplishments?
What have you done outside of the classroom
that demonstrates qualities sought after by universities? Of these, which
means the most to you?
Have you ever struggled mightily for
something and succeeded? What made you successful? Have you ever struggled
mightily for something and failed? How did you respond?
What was the most difficult time in your
life, and why? How did your perspective on life change as a result of the
Where Do You Want to Go?
Of everything inthe world, what would you
most like to be doing right now? Where would you most like to be? Who, of
everyone living and dead, would you most like to be with?
What are your dreams of the future? When you
look back on your life in thirty years, what would it take for you to
consider your life successful?
How does this particular university fit into
your plans for the future? Why do you want to spend two to six years of
your life at a particular school?
Step Two: Selecting an
As these thoughts start to solidify into an
essay topic, think about execution. What sounded like a good idea might prove
impossible in the writing. Most importantly, think of how you can make the
subject matter original. Even seemingly boring essay topics can sound
interesting if creatively approached. With an essay question in mind, think
over the following questions:
Will your topic only repeat information
listed elsewhere on your application? If so, pick a new topic. Dont
mention GPAs or standardized test scores in your essay.
Can you offer vivid supporting paragraphs to
your essay topic? If you cannot easily think of supporting paragraphs with
concrete examples, you should probably choose a different essay topic.
Will an admissions officer remember your
topic after a day of reading hundreds of essays? What will the officer
remember about your topic? What will the officer remember about you? What
will your lasting impression be?
Choose a Story
The best essays tell a story about the
applicant. The essay does not have to be the story of your whole life, but
rather a small glimpse of it, one that is rich with meaning and alive with
imagery. It often helps to think about the impact that past events have had on
you. In one admissions essay written by a student who was accepted to Harvard,
Princeton, Dartmouth, and Stanford, an ordinary story is told in a unique and
captivating way. In this narrative about hiking up a mountain, the student
also conveys a deep appreciation for science, as well as a dedication to the
hard work required to fully understand the universe:
Although the first few miles of the hike up
Mt. Madison did not offer fantastic views, the vistas became spectacular
once I climbed above tree line. Immediately, I sensed that understanding
the natural world parallels climbing a mountain. Much like every step
while hiking leads the hiker nearer the mountain peak, all knowledge leads
the scientist nearer total understanding.
Entitled "Hiking to Understanding,"
this essay tells the story of one hike, but at the same time, gives a complete
idea of the authors values, interests, and philosophy. Thus, the essay
presents run-of-the-mill subject matter in an out-of-the-ordinary way.
Step Three: Writing the
You must bear in mind your two goals: to
persuade the admissions officer that you are extremely worthy of admission and
to make the admissions officer aware that you are more than a GPA and a
standardized score, that you are a real-life, intriguing personality. But
before you can convince an admissions officer of this, you must first grab his
or her attention.
Most admissions officers spend at most 2
minutes reading your essay. With this reality in mind, spend the most time on
your introduction. One technique is to create mystery or intrigue in this
first paragraph. At the very least, you should not give away the whole story
right at the beginning. Give the admissions officer a reason to keep reading.
As an example, the first sentence of the "Hiking" essay reads as
Surrounded by thousands of stars, complete
silence, and spectacular mountains, I stood atop New Hampshire's
Presidential Range awestruck by nature's beauty.
This first sentence sets the mood for the
essay, it draws the reader into the scene, but it does not state the authors
argument or even the plot of the story to follow. The reader has to continue
reading in order to learn what happens next.
After the first paragraph has been perfected,
you must ensure that the body paragraphs relate to the introduction. It helps
to have a theme or phrase that runs throughout the entire essay. In
"Hiking to Understanding," the author uses the mountain as a
Some people during their lives climb many
small hills. However, to have the most accurate view of the world, I must
be dedicated to climbing the biggest mountains I can find. Too often
people simply hike across a flat valley without ascending because they
content themselves with the scenery. The mountain showed me that I cannot
content myself with the scenery.
Also notice that the author uses simple
language. Many students think that big words make good essays, but powerful
ideas are often best expressed in simple and elegant prose.
Another way to impress an admissions officer is
by using specific examples and evocative touches of imagery that stay clear of
cliche. The application essay lends itself to imagery, since the entire essay
requires your experiences as supporting details. Successful essays stick to
the mantra, "show, dont tell." Heres one example from the
When night fell upon the summit, I stared
at the slowly appearing stars until they completely filled the night sky.
Despite the windy conditions and below freezing temperatures, I could not
tear myself away.
This passage shows how description of the stars
and cold can make us both imagine the scenery and understand the authors point
of view. It tells us what the author feels and thinks, more so than if the
author had spelled it out for us.
The conclusion is your last chance to persuade
the reader or impress upon them your qualifications. Expand upon the broader
implications of your discussion. The "Hiking" essay does this
successfully, both expanding on the description of the scene as well as on the
scenes meaning for the author:
When observing Saturn's rising, the Milky
Way Cloud, and the Perseid meteor shower, I simultaneously felt a great
sense of insignificance and purpose. Obviously, earthly concerns are
insignificant to the rest of the universe. However, I experienced the
overriding need to understand the origins and causes of these phenomena.
Dont be surprised if the writing process takes
many days. Few writers can dash out a quality essay in just a few sittings. It
takes awhile to find the perfect structure, wording, and imagery. If you have
the time, spend a week away from your draft; when you return to it, you will
read it with fresh eyes. Ask friends and family for help. Other readers will
find small mistakes that your brain has ceased to recognize, and they will
answer the essential question, "what makes this essay memorable?"
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