How To Write A College Application Essay That Stands Out

UChicago is well known for its unusual essay prompts. (Photo: Aaron Brown/Flickr)

After helping students with literally thousands of essays over the last decade, I’ve noticed five clear truths that stand out among the rest when it comes to crafting an application piece. These ideas may seem obvious, but you would be surprised just how many people forget these simple steps because they are overthinking their application essays.

1. To Thine Own Self Be True

You’ll see this advice again and again, and that’s because it’s so crucial. Admissions officers want to know why they should specifically choose you out of all the worthy candidates. That means revealing what makes you tick, including all your hobbies and interests. One of the best essays I’ve ever helped develop was framed by the student’s obsession with Rubik’s Cube. We used this as metaphor for his personality, his goals and what he hoped to gain academically and professionally. Ultimately, it was a unique and attention-grabbing essay, most of all because it really felt like insight into the character of the author.

Take note that he didn’t have to write something that was completely against form in order to stand out. Being creative with form is useful, but only if it ties into your personality and character. Do not be whimsical or abstract just for the sake of trying to be clever—it will backfire big time.

And if you are coming from a non-traditional place as a student, never feel as though you need to cover up any of your experience. It is this experience that makes you unique and particularly desirable for the right college program.

2. Don’t Hide Your Light Under a Bushel

One of the hardest things to accomplish in these pieces is praising yourself. I know it can feel icky to pump your own tires so much, but the essay should be filled with effusive praise. Most people have a natural sense of wanting to temper their accomplishments with thoughts of “oh, it wasn’t such a big deal.” And when you are in the moment, it’s easy to think of aspects of your life that may have had a large impact on others as just another thing you did.

But this essay is a place to really let your accomplishments shine. Think of it this way: There are a number of other shameless applicants who will tout all of their accomplishments. This is your competition. If you’re not willing to do the same thing, you will miss out.

The best way to make sure you are hitting on your great deeds is to ask your biggest fans. Talk to friends, family and faculty—they may bring up some deeds that you completely forgot about but will be perfect fodder for an essay piece.

And remember: don’t ever apologize. Part and parcel with this is not highlighting anything negative in your experience. If you had a dip in your grades but then worked hard and started getting good grades again, that is not a story for this piece—it shines light on something negative that you’d rather not address here. Again, your peers are focusing entirely on positives. Do the same and do it better.

3. Tell Them About It

The most glaring omission on many applications is the simple step of demonstrating a desire to go to the school to which you are applying. Be absolutely certain that you have done some due diligence on the school so that you can show why you are applying there specifically. Mention a professor that inspires you and a program they have that you would like to be a part of… and actually say the words “this university is my first choice” or something similar.

There are a few reasons why this is so important, but the biggest one might be a metric called “yield ratio.” This is the number of students that have been offered admission who accept that offer at a particular school. It is a number that colleges love to use to compare to each other. So show some school spirit. Also, it gives adjudicators the impression that you are not just using a template and cookie cutting each essay.

4. What Would Your Psychiatrist Do?

Your grades are fantastic, your test scores amazing, you are very active in extracurricular activities… so why is your essay so boring? Because your essay has no narrative.

It’s crucial for this piece to go beyond these particulars to your emotional states. What drives you? What is your passion? Adjudicators want to know what they cannot get from the resume and transcript they already have in front of them. So don’t just list your accomplishments. If your grades are fantastic, describe where you got this drive and what you hope it will do for you. Are there particular classes or topics at which you excel? Why? What are your feelings about your experiences? Delve beyond the facts into your personality.

Small things may have larger resonance. Always try to “show” your emotional connection rather than “tell” people about it. For example, a specific story about a time you helped a homeless man to his seat at a soup kitchen is much more effective than, “I derived a great deal of satisfaction from working at a soup kitchen.”

5. Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

One thing that would-be essayists neglect again and again is to address their hopes and dreams for the future. Remember that the school to which you are applying is interested to know how you plan to focus your time and where you intend to end up. Of course, you may not really know that information, but pick something for the sake of this essay. The idea that you are focused on something will be a positive mark in your favor.

I like to outline how to accomplish this in terms of short-term and long-term goals. Here are a couple of tricks for outlining these in your piece.

  • Short term goals: This might require a little homework, but find a company or person who is doing the kind of work that you would love to be doing. Mention them specifically in your essay and how you see them as an inspiration to you.
  • Long term goals: Don’t be afraid to be “pie in the sky” here. Choose your ideal position and talk about reaching for it. If that means president of the United States, talk about that and why that is your plan.

If you actively apply these five truths during the writing process, your essay will surely shine through the weeds. Remember, as much as a program is choosing you, you are also choosing a program. The “right” place might not be what you initially think it is. By being true to yourself and honest about your accomplishments, you will more effectively match yourself to your ideal school.

Ryan Hickey is the Managing Editor of Peterson’s & EssayEdge and is an expert in many aspects of college, graduate and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL; editing essays and personal statements; and consulting directly with applicants.

This article comes from The USA TODAY College partner network. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of USA TODAY. You understand that we have no obligation to monitor any discussion forums, blogs, photo- or video-sharing pages, or other areas of the Site through which users can supply information or material. However, we reserve the right at all times, in our sole discretion, to screen content submitted by users and to edit, move, delete, and/or refuse to accept any content that in our judgment violates these Terms of Service or is otherwise unacceptable or inappropriate, whether for legal or other reasons.

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As a parent, you’ve observed your child working incredibly hard throughout high school to achieve good grades and ACT/SAT scores, as well as devoting significant time to several extracurricular activities to build a strong college résumé.

Shouldn’t that be enough for your child to gain admissions to his or her top-choice schools? Probably, especially since your child has been accomplishing all of this while trying to be a normal teenager, which is hard enough in itself!

Nevertheless, when applying for college admissions, your child will be asked to submit a number of personal essays. This process represents the last step in your child’s journey to his or her dream schools, but more importantly, to be in the best position to achieve his or her educational and career goals.

Why do college application essays matter?

This is a loaded question, so I’m going to provide three answers to fully explain the importance of college application essays:

1. From a purely functional standpoint, college essays carry a lot of weight in the admissions process. In fact, many of America’s college insiders estimate that college essays account for 10-30% of admissions decisions! Whereas a great college essay won’t help your child overcome low-to-average grades or standardized test scores, a poorly-written or average college essay could sink an otherwise strong application. Therefore, your child should take the college essay writing process seriously.

2. From an application standpoint, the college essay provides the only opportunity for your child to tell college admissions committees anything he or she wants them to know. In other words, through college essays, your child can tell his or her story beyond grades, standardized test scores, and extracurricular activities. What makes your child tick? What qualities set him or her apart from other applicants? During college admissions season, there is nothing your child will be able to affect more than what goes into his or her college essays to wow admissions committees.

3. From the colleges’ standpoint—and this is typically the most difficult angle to consider—admissions committees want to know what’s in it for them to admit your child to their school. What will your child do for them? How will your child be an asset to their college, as a student and future alumnus? Yes, colleges want to know what makes your child wonderful, but mostly, they want to assess how he or she will positively impact their college community and build their prestige.

How can my child write great college essays?

Another loaded question. Writing a great college essay requires a particular writing approach your child has likely never used up to this point, nor will use in college.

Unfortunately, when the stakes are highest, your child is expected to write college essays that make him or her sound brilliant yet humble, accomplished yet grounded.

That’s a tall order, but the good news is that your child doesn’t have to go through the college essay writing process alone. Better yet, I’ve distilled my knowledge from helping hundreds of students write standout college application essays and get into America’s top colleges, and I’m sharing some of my most key insights here.

A lot of material on writing college essays provide tips, but no examples. They cover what students should or shouldn’t do, but they don’t demonstrate how well-written essays read vs. typical essays.

To cover these gaps, I’m going to provide comparative examples of the primary ways the best college application essays stand out from the competition.

Comparison #1: The best essay writers focus on conveying their special qualities through everyday stories, regardless of the college application essay prompts. The others over-focus on directly answering specific prompts with their biggest accomplishments.

When most students see The Common App or University of California’s essay prompts, their mind quickly jumps to the experiences they think will most impress admissions committees while directly answering the essay prompt.

For example, students will often feel like they have to write about their role in winning an important soccer game, or their specific contributions during an international summer volunteer trip. The reason this is a problem is that admissions committees don’t want to know more about what your child has done or accomplished; much of this information will already be provided in the lists of extracurricular activities on his or her applications. Instead, through college essays, admissions committees want to know who your child is.

The best college essay writers, therefore, focus on their defining qualities—character, personality traits, attitudes—first, and then choose the moments where these qualities were best exemplified. That way, admissions committees can learn a side of your child, or an interest, habit, or routine, that they couldn’t elsewhere. More importantly, admissions committees will learn about the great qualities your child will bring to their school.

Perhaps counterintuitive, these qualities often come through in students’ most mundane, everyday experiences. For example, a student who wants to convey their perfectionism may choose to write about how attempting to perfectly floss every single tooth in the morning has produced impeccable teeth, but also led to tardiness five days before the school year’s end, ruining their perfect attendance record.

Once these moments have been identified, the best college essay writers will choose a college essay prompt where their story can reasonably fit. The essay prompts are purposefully made very general, so this approach is not at all a problem.

Another benefit to focusing on specific moments where your child exhibited his or her defining qualities is that the essay, and by extension, your child, will be more memorable. In the example above, admissions committee members will certainly remember “the perfectionistic girl whose tooth-flossing ruined her perfect attendance record.” And like the perfectionism example, your student will get bonus points for demonstrating the positive and negative aspects of owning their defining qualities.

Comparison #2: The best application essays start in the middle of the action to hook the admissions readers from the opening sentence. The others take a while to warm up.

Most admissions committee members from top colleges that I’ve spoken with tell me that they read hundreds of essays during each admissions cycle. They often come across essays written about life-changing volunteer trips, major artistic accomplishments, and significant leadership moments. In other words, they are rarely surprised by essay topics.

While admissions committee members read every essay through, they pay extra attention to the ones that are written so engagingly from the first sentence that they interrupt the reader’s routine.

So, how could your child write these types of essays? By starting their story in the middle of the action, leaving the before and after for later. There’s no need to write a linear story with a beginning, middle, and end. As the news world puts it, your child shouldn’t “bury the lead,” that is, the most provocative and interesting part of the story.

I’ll provide an example of a captivating essay intro and then break down its key elements:

“The first time I met true heat, it was more of a slap in the face than a handshake. At half time, the local soccer team needed a break from beating us 6-0 during the 95-degree, 100% humidity afternoon, and we needed a break from losing–and from the Zambian sun. Our team, composed of volunteers from my school, huddled up to create strategies to lose by less, but I was not listening because I frankly could not care less who won. Instead, I was smiling uncontrollably, even though I was dripping in sweat, covered in dirt, and had missed three shots on goal during the first half. During that soccer game, I was the happiest I had been on my entire trip, but I did not know or think about why I felt like this until midway through the second half.”

I chose to highlight this example on purpose. The story occurs during an international volunteer trip, a common essay topic that I highlighted in Comparison #1, above. However, a close read reveals that the essay isn’t about the trip at all, but rather about a realization or lesson learned during a specific moment during that trip. This example underscores an immensely important point for college essay writing: there’s no good or bad essay topic, only strong and weak execution.

That said, let’s dig into why the above example is well-written:

  • Begins in the middle of the action
  • Uses vivid details to set the stage (e.g., being down 6-0 in a soccer match during a 95-degree, 100% humidity afternoon in Zambia)
  • Uses first person and maintains the focus on themselves
  • Employs a casual writing style
  • Shows vs. tells (e.g., “I was dripping in sweat, covered in dirt, and had missed three shots on goal during the first half” vs. “I was tired, dirty, and frustrated”; more on this in Comparison #3, below)
  • Is unique to the writer, that is, it could not have been written by another applicant

Taken together, the vividness, relatability, and authenticity of this story will surely demonstrate the student’s tendency to practice mindfulness during difficult moments and capture the reader’s attention—and heart.

Comparison #3: The best college essay writers demonstrate their qualities, feelings, and insights through detailed examples, rather than simply listing everything.

Think, for a moment, about reading your favorite book. Whether it’s a timeless masterpiece such as Pride and Prejudice, or a modern classic like The Time Traveler’s Wife, great authors engage us not by plainly telling us how the story unfolds, but rather through creating a vivid moving picture in our minds. Then, we as the reader ascribe certain qualities to the characters and infer what they may have been feeling or thinking.

Now, your child doesn’t need to be a literary genius to write a highly engaging college application essay; I know I’m not! Rather, they have to harness the power of showingtheir qualities, emotions, and thoughts, instead of simplytelling them.

To demonstrate this point, let’s consider the following two sentences:

1. Telling: “I continued to wonder.”

2. Showing: “Thoughts uncontrollably rushed through my mind.”

The first sentence tells you that the writer continued to wonder, whereas the second sentence shows you how he or she wondered. If the writer pumped this up even more, they could write something like:

3. Showing (with pumped-up details): “My thoughts resembled a high-speed freight train with no signs of slowing down.”

When admissions committee members read sentences like that, they will inevitably be transported to the time and place the writer is describing, and understand the emotions and thoughts the writer was experiencing. Ironically, although the pumped-up version doesn’t use the word “wonder,” the intensity of the wonder comes through so much more than if the writer just stated that they “continued to wonder.”

Showing sentences serve the dual purpose of connecting with the admissions committee reader, as well as providing support for the claims and sentences being made.

Think about it. If one student writes, “I often spend time with my grandmother,” and the other writes, “Each time I hold my grandmother’s hand, her right palm feels indistinguishable from the dry New Mexican soil she has gardened during the past three decades,” who will come across as more family-oriented and caring?

Your child’s next steps

Admittedly, there are other way ways in which the best college application essays stand out from the competition. The best essays provide a clear context for the opening sentence and paragraph, highlight a problem, describe the resolution, and reflect on the lessons learned.

Nevertheless, the three comparisons discussed in this post are some of the most important for your child to keep in mind. By following this advice, your child will be well-equipped to write a captivating college essay to connect with admissions committee members and have a leg up during college application review season.

College essays, while stressful for many students and families, offer a unique opportunity for your child to share the values and qualities that will make him or her successful in his or her future college, career, and community. The good news is that there are tried-and-true approaches your child can use when writing college application essays to have admissions committees practically begging him or her to join their institution and alumni.

About Dr. Shirag Shemmassian

Dr. Shirag Shemmassian, Founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting, is a college admissions expert who has helped hundreds of students get into top schools like Princeton, MIT, and Stanford. Click here to receive, for FREE, the top 10 steps your child must take to stand out and dramatically increase their chances of getting in.

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