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How to Write a Great College Essay: Be True to Yourself

Students, you are not alone. Every student struggles with writing the personal essay required by college applications. "Whether the student has an ACT score of 18 or 36, it's the scariest part of the process," says Karen Daluga of Impact College Advising in Lombard, Illinois. As an experienced college advisor, Daluga helps students navigate the complex college selection and application process. "If a student is going to get stuck in the application process, it's usually on the essay," she adds.

There are three purposes for the college essay. "First, it personalizes the application and differentiates you from other applicants with similar academic qualifications, such as test scores and GPA. Second, it helps the reader get to know you and perhaps gives more detail to something in your application," says Daluga. "Lastly, it demonstrates that you can express yourself effectively and persuasively in writing, and shows your writing style."

The Common Application for colleges offers five essay topics from which to choose, or students can select their own topic. In general, each essay topic requires students to identify something, such as a significant experience, achievement, person, or concern, and asks students to describe how they have been influenced by it. This personal reflection is often very difficult for students. "They've never been asked to do such deep personal reflection. Introspection does not come easily to adolescents," observes Daluga. "So the essay process is a real learning opportunity."

Selective schools may add their own essay and short answer questions in a supplement to the Common Application. "Students should take the short answer questions just as seriously as the essay," according to Daluga. An example of a short answer question is "Write a note to your roommate that reveals something about you that will help your roommate - and us - know you better," in Stanford University's supplement. On the other hand, when a student has investigated potential careers and college majors while in high school, and has formulated realistic goals for college, the question, "Why are you drawn to this academic field?" asked by Brown University becomes far easier to answer.

Colleges are looking for students who know themselves well, have an academic and career direction, and can articulate it - whether in an essay, or later, in an admissions interview. Princeton University poses a targeted question to potential Engineering students: "Please write an essay describing why you are interested in studying engineering, any experiences in or exposure to engineering you have had, and how you think the programs in engineering offered at Princeton suit your particular interests." They seek the best students for their program, students who demonstrate a seriousness of purpose.

College admissions officers read every essay. In fact, most schools have at least two readers per application. What catches their attention? "They're looking for writing that lets the personality of the student shine through, and would indicate that he or she will be a good fit with the culture of the college," Daluga explains.

Depending on the school, officers may read hundreds of applications in an admission season. Daluga says, "That's why it's important to avoid overused topics, such as the winning shot or touchdown, or intentional "resume builder" experiences that can be purchased by parents, such as immersion experiences, adventure vacations, and yes, even mission trips. Admissions officers have heard it all." Daluga advises, "It's wiser to write about something "normal" in your life and its impact on you. Look inside yourself. Tell them the story of what makes you an interesting and unique person."

Drawing from her breadth of experience, Daluga offers the following range of suggestions that can help you produce an essay that truly reflects who you are.

To get started


Take the pressure off. Begin working on your essays during the summer before your senior year.


What personal qualities do you want to highlight? Write down, by yourself or with others who know you, a list of character qualities you would like to convey. Answer the questions: Who are you? Who are you becoming? And what have you learned in your short life? Your school counseling department may have a questionnaire you can fill out or use to prompt your thinking.


Choose an essay question that grabs you. Read the essay topics carefully. Choose a topic that would be fun or interesting to write about. Your approach can be humorous, if that's your style.

As you write


Be your natural self. Don't try to guess what admissions officers want to hear. Their goal is to determine a good fit with the culture of the school and the other students. They want you to have a positive college experience, and so do you.


Tell a story. Use the prompt "Did I ever tell you about the time…" to get started. It may be easier to tell the story out loud to someone first, then write it down. This way, your written "voice" may be more genuine and true.


Focus on one experience or idea, and develop it in some depth. Admissions officers do not want to read a "laundry list" essay describing all the things you're good at.


Grab the reader's attention. Write a compelling first paragraph that makes them want to continue.


In your writing, show - don't tell. Use details and verbs in the present tense to make it so vivid and alive, the reader can imagine being there.


Pay attention to minimum and maximum word limits. The instructions are a way of testing your ability to follow directions. Allow only about 5-10% over or under the word goal.

From first draft to final essay


Read your essay with an objective eye. Set your draft aside for a few days, and then revise it. Ask a teacher, counselor, and parent to read it, looking at content, tone, and flow.


Proofread your essay and short answers carefully. Do not depend on spell check to catch all errors. Ask one or two other people to proofread it.


Is the tone positive? Admissions officers don't want to read an essay full of criticisms, whining or complaining. If you have had tough life experiences, focus on what you learned and how you are a different individual as a result of them.


Don't brag. If you write about an activity or experience, don't focus on how good you were or what you have accomplished, but what it means to you.


If the college offers an optional essay, do it! It's an easy opportunity to sell yourself. Not writing it may be interpreted as a lack of enthusiasm or motivation.

Your essays are a very important component of your application. Invest the time to present your best and true self, and it will pay off far more than just a coveted college acceptance.

Related articles:
College Essay Tips: Getting to Know Me
Backwards Planning: A Great Strategy for Those Who Find It Hard to Get Started
How to Make College Pay Off
Surviving the College Admissions Interview
When the Answer Is Maybe: College Wait Lists

Recommended books:
Write Your College Essay in Less Than a Day by Elizabeth Wissner-Gross
On Writing the College Application Essay by Harry Bauld
The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College by Jacques Steinberg

© Copyright 2011, Career Vision. Article may be reprinted with permission.


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