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How to Write a Great College Admissions Essay: A Guide to the Acceptance Process

Updated on February 3, 2015

Get Ready

Writing your first college application essay can be a little unnerving. You feel that your whole future is riding on 500 words or less. And in a way it is. College admissions personnel spend hours reviewing applications and reading essays from hundreds or thousands of candidates each year. Someone who has never met you will basically be judging you by your answer to a prompt. And sometimes those prompts can be anything from boring to ridiculous.

Everyone is not necessarily a great writer, but if you are going to college, now is the time to improve your skills. The following tips can help you to overcome your anxiety and write a great college application essay.

Prepare emotionally by letting go of your anxiety and boosting your confidence. Drink some Kava tea or do some controlled breathing exercises. Get together with some friends or family members and talk about what makes them love you. Think of your application essay as a way of introducing yourself to a new friend you want to impress.

Step One - Know Your Audience

Getting to know your chosen college is critical. One way to do this is, of course, to review their website. College websites are a wellspring of information about everything from the qualifications of the professors to the attitudes of each department. The website is where the college puts its best foot forward and you should study it to get a feel for the personality of the institution you are aspiring to join. Find out at least a little about the history of the college and try to discover their future direction. Most importantly, read their mission statement. Read it and think about it deeply. A Mission statement tells you what is at the very heart of a college. The mission statement can sometimes be found on the homepage and at other times it has its own page with some explanation.

Becoming familiar with the character of the College you have chosen is essential. This will help you to find ways in which you can demonstrate your alignment with their purposes as you write your essay. It will also help you to determine whether or not this college is really the right place for you.

Step Two - Follow Directions

Want some advice that will help you all throughout college and life? Your parents and teachers have been telling you this for years, and now is the time to start listening to their advice – PAY ATTENTION. Slow down and read the directions carefully - and more than once if necessary. Think analytically what the instructions for the essay are telling you. A common mistake people make is that they read guidelines then inject their own ideas without even realizing it. If anything helps you through college it will be your ability to follow instructions. It can be helpful to make a preliminary outline based on the requirements stated in the instructions.

Step Three – Organization, Notes and Outlines

Your first outline, the one based on the instructions, can be a springboard for a larger but still very basic outline. If you need to, mull things over and start by brainstorming and jotting down notes for each point you need to make. Then make the outline. Choose a thesis or main point and remember that later you will need to make strong arguments for your case. Do not feel that you must be enslaved by your outline though. You can always make changes later if you need to. The bottom line is that everything in your essay must somehow be tied to or supportive of your main point or thesis. You may even want to present a contrary line of reasoning answer it, in order to strengthen your point. In your outline, be sure to plan for an attention-getting introduction, powerful body paragraphs and a conclusive ending that summarizes everything and ties up any loose ends. Admissions personnel should be able to easily recognize your thesis and there should be a flow that can be easily followed throughout the entire piece.

In addition, make a list of your achievements and good points. Write down the things that make you unique, interesting, fun, successful and in general a great person with a great future. You will need to somehow weave this in to your essay.


Step Four - Dive In

Time to dive in and get busy. Take the outline you have built and start writing your rough draft. It is alright to get a little carried away because later you will trim it down. For now, think of the outline as a sort of skeleton and your rough draft as a way of adding sinews, muscles, a little fat, some skin and maybe even some nice clothes to complete the picture. You need to cover your topic thoroughly and creatively. At the same time, you need to make it about you. How does your life shed light on this topic? How can you showcase your morals and values through this subject? How can you make the essay's theme a vehicle through which you can display your strength of character?

Think of your topic as a platform from which you can toot your own horn a little. You need to make the focus of the essay clear but also display your love of learning, your aspirations and the ways in which you hope to change the world. Keep in mind that the essay readers are interested in admitting students who can succeed in college, then go into the world as innovators and leading thinkers. Colleges want students with determination and curiosity who will graduate, make something of themselves and help make a good name for their institution.

You will want to present yourself as a goal-oriented individual even if you are not completely sure of what you want to be when you grow up. Set some tentative goals if needed. It is best to have a target in mind to start with. You can always change your mind later on if you need to. Be positive and show that you can overcome difficulties. Focus on your successes. Even if you have a story about a negative experience, use this to show how you have persevered.

As you write your admissions essay, be sure to use interesting adjectives and include little details that add a personal touch. Talk a little about your interests and pet peeves about the world. Do not be vague or make sweeping generalizations that use words like everything, everyone and anything. Be specific and carefully say what you really mean. Avoid using dusty clichés or phrases that just anyone might say. Be passionate about your topic and make the essay reader step back and notice you. When the reader is finished, she should feel like she just met a unique and interesting individual. She should still be discussing something poignant she read in your essay the next day at supper. At the same time, do not overdo it. Don’t be pitiful, sappy, fake or a braggart.

Finally, you might want to throw in a little humor to spice things up. Just take it easy. Readers who have spent hours reviewing application essays may be tired and irritable. A laugh will do them some good but foolishness will just annoy them.

Step Five - Condense and Refine

In this step you will basically hack what you have written to pieces. Remember that nasty little bit about a word count of say 500 or even 200 words? Trust me you do not want to go over that limit. As I stated before, admissions personnel have many essays to read and can often become overwhelmed and impatient. Start sifting through your rough draft for the gemstones and for things that support your thesis or main point. Without losing your thrust, look for ways to pack the greatest amount of information into the fewest number of words. And make it sound good without using too many difficult words. A thesaurus will help with this. Scour the essay for repetition and have no mercy on the fluff – get rid of it all.

Finally, keep in mind that you want to make a good impression. After you have proofread your essay, print it out, set it aside and proofread it again after a period of time. Check it for technical errors, punctuation problems and grammatical mistakes. Make notes and revise if needed. Then get someone you trust to proofread it for you and give you feedback. (Get a critic, not just someone who will just say, “That’s really good,” and hand it back to you.)

Submit Your Essay with Confidence

Writing a college admissions essay is challenging but in the end it will give you a great sense of accomplishment. When you are finished, you will be amazed and proud of yourself. You will be able to submit your application essay with confidence and carry your head a little higher. When you arrive on the campus of the college of your dreams, you will have already earned the respect of at least one member of the staff.

Essay Video: How to

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