Writing Your Way to an “A”
Creating a Stand-out College Essay
This article will change your life.
Did I get your attention? If so, then I’ve got a good shot at getting you to read the next paragraph. And that’s exactly what a college essay should do: encourage the reader to read on. If only it were that easy. But the simple act of sitting down to create an engaging, stand-out essay can send some otherwise confident rising seniors into a tailspin, often resulting in hours of procrastination, guilt, and angst.
“The hardest part about writing my college essay was coming up with something that I thought the admissions counselor would want to know about me while also being original.” says Dylan Lewis, a recent graduate of Wilton High School now attending Quinnipiac as a freshman. “At first, the task seemed overwhelming but then I chose to write about my experience working with Habitat for Humanity and the essay flowed naturally.”
Consider also the other side of this dilemma: the college admissions officer who reads piles of essays and is probably praying for a really great submission to come across her desk, and rescue her from the tedium of reading mediocre efforts.
Karen Pellegrino, associate vice president and dean of enrollment at Fairfield University, says that, “an extraordinarily well-written essay which reveals a great deal about the student can definitely have a positive impact on the decision.” But, she adds, “The opposite is true as well: a weak essay that shows little thought or insight can easily be a factor in a student being denied admission.” In short, a powerful essay can tip the collegiate scales in your favor.
So it’s time to get down to work. And with a few tips, the process of finally getting a personal, unique story down on paper can feel more like fun instead of dreaded torture. Did I say torture? Yes, but more important I said story.
As humans, stories are literally part of our DNA. We are hard-wired for telling and listening to them and as author Jonathan Gottschall writes in The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, “Humans live in landscapes of make-believe. We devour novels, films, and plays. Even sporting events and criminal trials unfold as narratives.”
So it makes sense to structure the essay like a story to draw in the reader and to engage him/her in the subject about which you’ve chosen to write. Adding dialogue, description, action, and colorful phrases can put a brand new twist on a predictable topic. For instance, if what you’ve chosen to write about is how much you learned on your family’s trip to California, don’t stack your story with a bunch of generalities. Instead, find one occasion—and only one—that can help exemplify your journey and that will ultimately lead the reader to your “aha” moment, whether it be a new perspective, a life lesson, or how you’ve changed as a result of the experience.
Roll up those sleeves and get in there. What were the details? Set the scene, using as many sensory cues as you can to draw the reader in. Were you expecting a great trip to the Redwood Forest, only to find yourself stuck on the interstate in a hot, sticky rental car for hours with your mother’s 1980s music playing and your little sister whining? Did you feel like a caged animal? How did your change in perspective lead you out of your own metaphorical forest? Packaging your story is also important. So if your account of the trip begins with a bumpy ride through the redwoods, try to end your story with a reference back to those majestic trees.
Pellegrino also emphasizes that the biggest mistake students make is to try to impress the reader: “Students often feel they need to tell a dramatic or traumatic story for an essay to be meaningful. As a result, sometimes students do not write about a topic that might provide valuable insight to an admission committee.” Instead, she says, “It is very important that students reveal something about themselves in their essay.”
What you choose to reveal is up to you, but above all, have fun writing. Be glad that you have been given an opportunity to share a piece of yourself beyond grades and test scores. And when you’re done, pat yourself on the back for entertaining the admissions committee with your one-of-a-kind life, in a way that only you can tell it. With a great essay and a little luck, it won’t be this article that changes your life; it will be that polished paper that will nudge you closer to your next best story, at the college of your dreams.
Hook, Line and Tinker
Put pen to paper and write your story as fast as you can for five minutes. Sometimes the best parts of a story will come out if you forget to censor yourself. Edit later.
The first sentence should have the reader scratching his or her head and wondering what comes next and how it will turn out.
Embrace the Thesaurus
Livening up an essay with descriptive words can add emotion. Synonyms are your friends—buddies, companions, chums.
Don’t list your accomplishments. Lists are boring. Instead, find an engaging way to incorporate them into the story.
The beginning and the ending should complement each other.
Keep It Real
Don’t puff up your essay with scholarly words to impress the reader. He or she wants to get to know you, not your vocabulary.
TURNITIN IS WATCHING
Tempted to “borrow” (aka plagiarize) parts of your college-admission essay? Don’t do it ! Turnitin is an anti-plagiarism database service that’s been adopted by hundreds of colleges to weed out cheaters.