By Lisa H.
Be yourself. When writing an essay, stay true to who you are. Don’t try to come off as someone you’re not. Admissions directors have read thousands of essays. And the ones that consistently stand out are the ones that are written from the heart, not the thesaurus.
After two months on the road meeting with interested students, I’ve heard all kinds of questions — everything from “What are your most popular majors?” and “How is your psychology program?” to more surprising and unique questions like, “Do students decorate their rooms for the holidays?”
Overall, I’d say one of the most common and difficult questions I am asked is, “What can I write in my essay that will make me stand out?”
While I (and my colleagues) completely understand where this question is coming from, the inherent issue here is really about how to best approach writing your college essay. In most cases, it’s not about “what” you write but “how” you write it.
Our office received over 42,000 applications last year and each staff member will potentially read over 2,000 applications by the end of application season. Quite simply, we aren’t given the luxury of being able to interview our applicants. So, the essay plays a huge role in allowing us a glimpse of who you are — outside of everything else we learn about you from your application. It’s not about surprising us or making us laugh (or cry, as the case may be) but really just letting your voice come through and enabling us get to know you better.
So, while I cannot tell you what to write or how to make your essay stand out, I can offer some advice on what not to do and how to prevent your essay from standing out in the wrong way:
Avoid repetition. There is a big difference between highlighting your leadership role in a club, difficulties you’ve faced within that position and how you addressed them in an essay and writing 2-3 sentences about the six different activities that I already know you are involved with from the extra-curricular section of the application. Take advantage of the open space to give us new insight.
Answer the question that was asked of you! If you are given a specific prompt, it’s for a reason. You could write the best essay ever, but if it doesn’t answer the provided question it won’t really help us get to the information we were looking for.
Don’t focus on being unique. Write about what’s true to you and do it well. Relationships with family members, injuries that impacted you, or exciting and life changing travel stories are all popular topics, but that doesn’t mean you should stay away from them if that is what is true to you. One of my favorite essays was about a student’s relationship with her mother.
A popular saying in our office: If you’re creative, be creative. If you’re funny, be funny. If you’re not especially funny, now is not the time to attempt a satirical or humorous essay.
Don’t wait until the last minute. This is a pretty important part of the application, and procrastination can lead to sloppy writing and weaker, unformed ideas. Give yourself the time to write a rough draft, set it aside, and come back to it. Have friends and family read it not just for edits, but for more critical feedback. Ask them, “Does this sound like me?” If so, great! If not, then maybe it needs some reworking.
PROOFREAD! You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again, and yet we still see essays rife with silly mistakes. Keep in mind, however, that while you should have others help you edit and proofread your essays, you should never let someone edit your writing so much that it is no longer your own voice. This would defeat the whole purpose!