3 – Writing a Great Application Essay

The purpose of the essay is to convey a sense of your unique character to the admissions committee. It also demonstrates your writing skills and your ability to organize your thoughts coherently.

Needless to say, you can’t have a strong college application without a strong application essay. So invest as much time and effort as it takes to turn out a well-crafted piece of prose.

Follow the directions How do you write a winning essay? Well, before you do anything read the college’s directions for the essay thoroughly. You may be required to type the essay, adhere to a specific word length, staple additional pages, or write on a particular theme or topic. Do exactly what the directions tell you to do.

Find a good topic Once you understand the directions, you are ready to begin. In general, your essay should:

  1. Be focused
  2. Be thoughtful
  3. Reveal something about yourself not easily derived from other parts of the application
  4. Make the admissions committee like you
  5. Use the essay as an opportunity to tell the admissions committee something you feel they should know about you
  6. Try brainstorming if you find it hard to start writing. Jot down as many ideas as you can on a piece of paper and see if you have the germ of an essay in one of those ideas
  7. Use structure A good essay begins with a well-conceived main idea or point you are trying to get across to your reader. Each paragraph should relate to your main idea in some way. And as with any good piece of writing, your essay should have a discernible beginning, middle and end
  8. Be creative but answer the question Some applications will ask you to describe yourself in the essay, or discuss a person who has significantly influenced your life, or why you have chosen to apply to college such-and-such
  9. Be honest, original, and creative, but above all else, answer the question asked. Too many students think the essay is a license to write an angry poem, or diary confession, or something other than what was asked for in the essay
  10. Stick to your point Avoid writing your life story, a catalog of your achievements, an editorial, or writing more than is necessary. Also avoid exaggeration, silliness, cheesy humor, and whining

On the other hand, do write with passion and conviction. And apply the five basic rules of good writing:

Tip number one: show don’t tell. This means use adjectives and adverbs to create picture-making detail instead of simply telling your reader what happened. Try to evoke an image.

Weak Version: My father bought me a bike for my fifth birthday.
Better Version: I remember my father shelling out a fist full of crinkled dollar bills at the bike shop. He bought me the shiny red bike I had my eye on for months for my fifth birthday.

Tip number two: prefer the positive to the negative. In other words, avoid the word “not” when possible.

Weak Version: I did not make class on time.
Better Version: I failed to make class on time.

Tip number three: use the active voice instead of the passive voice. This means avoiding forms of the verb “to be,” as much as possible. Am, are, is, was, were, comprise the forms of the verb “to be.”

Weak Version: The ball was kicked by the boy.
Better Version: The boy kicked the ball.

Tip number four: prefer the specific to the general. This means using specific details in your sentences as opposed to general descriptions.

Weak Version: The car passed by and made a loud noise before it stopped.
Better Version: A speeding yellow Cadillac came to a screeching halt.

Tip number five: be concise. Avoid wordy sentences.

Weak Version: I find that writing an essay is a very difficult thing for me to do.
Better Version: I find writing an essay difficult.

All of these tips will help you write better essays. But remember, an essay can only get better if you put something down on paper. Don’t throw away that rough draft because it sounds horrible. Rewrite it. Then rewrite it again. A bad essay can often turn into a good essay, but it takes work.

The most important advice of all: proofing, editing and rewriting After you’ve written the first draft of your essay, try reading it aloud. Hearing how the sentences sound and flow will help you catch mistakes in grammar, awkward phrasing, and will help you avoid using unnecessary words.

Set your completed rough draft down for a few hours then come back to it. Now read your essay again. You’ll be amazed how mistakes seem to jump out at you by simply taking a break from writing.

Write several drafts of your essay making sure your spelling, grammar, and punctuation is perfect. Leave no room for error. Then ask your college guidance counselor or English teacher to critique your essay and rewrite accordingly.