The college essay is an opportunity for applicants to tell their story beyond their test scores and GPA.
“A great essay can help set you apart from all the others who might get in,” writes Venkates Swaminathan, Founder and CEO of LifeLaunchr, a college admissions coaching company. “And unlike your grade on a Calculus course, a great college essay isn’t an objective evaluation, it’s a subjective decision.”
But what exactly makes an essay great? US News recently spoke to college admissions experts and offered a few tips on how applicants can go build a powerful essay from the ground up.
SELECTING A TOPIC
Experts say it’s not so much what you talk about in your essay, but how you talk about it that matters.
“What we think of as the topic is just the frame or the lens that we’re using to get into other parts of you,” Ethan Sawyer, founder of College Essay Guy, which offers free and paid essay-writing resources, tells US News.
Stephanie Klein Wassink, founder of Winning Applications and Admissions Checkup, Connecticut-based college admissions advising companies, recommends students to brainstorm potential topics by asking peers or family members questions such as: “What do you think differentiates me?” Or, “What are my quirks?”
THE WRITING PROCESS
Starting the essay may often seem like the most difficult task. For those struggling to create an engaging intro, experts suggest choosing a focal point.
“The simplest way to restrict the scope of your essay is to recount an anecdote, i.e. a short personal story that illustrates your larger point,” Alex Heimbach, a college admissions tutor, writes for Prep Scholar.
Heimbach recommends starting in the middle of the action to capture the reader’s attention.
“Don’t spend a lot of time at the beginning of your essay outlining background info—it doesn’t tend to draw the reader in and you usually need less of it than you think you do. Instead start right where your story starts to get interesting,” Heimbach writes.
From there, explain what the situation is.
“Now that you’ve got the reader’s attention, go back and explain anything they need to know about how you got into this situation,” Heimbach writes. “Don’t feel compelled to fit everything in—only include the background details that are necessary to either understand what happened or illuminate your feelings about the situation in some way.”
While the intro hook and context are important elements of your essay, the most important aspect is demonstrating what you’ve learned from the described situation or scenario.
“The last step is to tie everything together and bring home the main point of your story: how this experience affected you,” Heimbach writes. “The key to this type of structure is to create narrative tension—you want your reader to be wondering what happens next.”
REVISE, REVISE, REVISE
Writing is a long process that involves multiple revisions.
The best writing is rewriting,” Adam Sapp, assistant vice president and director of admissions at Pomona College in California, tells US News. “You should never be giving me your first draft.”
Experts suggest that applicants have their drafts reviewed by experts, whether through a college admissions company or free essay advising service. These companies and services will often focus on the structural elements and writing techniques that can improve your essay.
While the essay is an important component of your application, applicants should remember that it’s only one piece of your complete story.
“The essay is the window, but the application is the house,” Sapp tells US News. “So let’s not forget that an application is built of many pieces.”