The college essay is an integral part of your college application. It always has been important, but it is even more important this year because most of schools are opting SAT optional policy due to the pandemic. While your grades and transcript demonstrate your academic ability, the college essay can really set you apart from the rest of your peers. This is your chance to show the admissions committee what makes you stand out from the crowd, makes you unique, and expresses your inner self. Take this stage of the admissions process as the opportunity to showcase your voice, and prove why you should gain a place over your nearest competition.
In this article we’ll identify the essential elements of a great college essay, before looking at a real-life sample of an Ivy League college essay example, discussing what it did right and where it can be improved. By the end of this article, you will be better placed to write the essay you need to attain that college place you always aspired to achieve.
The Fundamentals of a Great College Essay
While writing the perfect college essay might seem a daunting task, there are five key factors that will enable you to understand how to write the best college application essay.
1. The Empty Canvas
When it comes to the college essay, the best way to start is by viewing the blank page before you as the empty canvas for you to make your mark, an opportunity to show what makes you distinctive (in a good way…!) from everybody else. On this empty canvas, paint a picture of who you are, colored by circumstances in your life that have built this character, demonstrating what values you will add to the college you are applying to.
While you have the chance here to highlight your best qualities and stand out, it’s important to get the middle ground: don’t try to go too over the top and end up with a result that seems disingenuous or too try-hard. At the same time, it’s important (perhaps more so) to not produce an essay that makes you blend in among everyone else either.
2. This is YOUR College Essay
The number one principle of writing the college essay is to write about something significant and meaningful to you. The admissions committee wants to find out about who you are by the end of this essay, so it’s important to find the topic that speaks to you most, not what you think the college, your parents or your teachers might find most impressive.
If you pursue a topic that you do not have an inner-drive or motivation for, it will be obvious in the eyes of those reading it. That is not what you, or the admission committee, want to see. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter so much what you write on, in terms of the specific subject matter. It doesn’t have to be a particularly remarkable event— it could be something ordinary. What matters most is the depth of emotion with which you write; finding something that is especially distinct to you will make this much easier to accomplish.
Indeed Dr. Aviva Hirschfeld Legatt, a former senior associate director of admissions at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania says:
"By the end of the committee discussion, admissions officers would be most excited to admit — and eventually meet — students whose essays could illuminate the unique identity of the person behind the application.”
3. Tell a compelling story
Once you have established a significant prompt to write about, your next priority should be to focus on telling a compelling story. The event you are describing might well be something ordinary, but you still want to describe it in an extraordinary way. Concentrate on your writing quality and create an impulse in the reader to continue reading so that they can unlock the story you are trying to tell.
4. Convey a certain likability
This fundamental can be easily forgotten, since describing your own life experiences might distract you from the fact that this is still a college essay. Remember, you have to impart to the admission committee that you will be an asset to the school community, and a positive addition, so that after reading your essay, they feel like they would want to continue the conversation with you in person, as a member of the college.
5. Use a Broad and Evocative Vocabulary
This is technical advice for writing your essay. Choose strong verbs to express not just an action, but also an emotion - this will charge your essay with life and a degree of vitality that brings the story being described into the present. Words such as rampaged, invigorating, sprinted, exhilarating, discovered, scoured, or trampled are good examples; however, as with most things, don’t overdo it by consulting the thesaurus at every opportunity or just adding verbose descriptor continuously. It’s important to maintain the flow of the narrative for the sake of your reader, while also conserving your word economy.
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CASE STUDY: Top-5-School-Standard College Essay Example
Now that we’ve gone through the five fundamentals, we’ll see these principles put into practice. What follows is a college essay example that got the applicant into a top 5 school. This example fulfills the points mentioned above, and should provide you with a good idea of what is required for a strong college essay. At the same time, no college essay is perfect, so having looked at the positive aspects of the case study, we’ll delve into where it can be improved. For now, sit back, find a quiet spot and take the time to read the next 500 words without distraction.
Walking up a seemingly endless flight of stairs, I finally reach a dark room. Its inhabitants are accustomed to the room’s black shadows and bear no sign of ever having seen the light of day. As I draw closer, they overpower the feeble light I bring, simply emanating the darkness they have absorbed over the years. As I flip a switch, however, a powerful beam of light burst forth, not losing its intensity even when it reaches the other side of the auditorium. I put on my headset:
“Amy on headset, everything is ready up here.”
“Light cue 34 standby, three, two, one, go.” At the stage manager’s go sign, I slowly lift the level up, illuminating the graceful actress onstage. From the spotlight room perched high above the auditorium, I can see the audience entranced, watching the actress, some in awe and some in jealousy. Carefully trailing the actress with the gift of my light, I remain unnoticed (dare I say unappreciated?) by an audience that could not have admired the beautiful costumes and scenery on stage without my spotlight.
This was me, four years back: too timid to sacrifice myself to intense public scrutiny, I took comfort in this backstage world and kept myself ensconced in the shadows of the spotlight room.
Then along came Suzy.
“You’re the freshman who took AP calculus??” she yelped when we first met during physical education class, drawing all eyes to my direction, much to my chagrin. Witty, open-minded, and enthusiastic, Suzy soon took a liking to drawing me out by hosting eccentric events in my honor, such as Dress-Amy-as-Hip-Hop-Girl or Give-Amy-a-Piggy-Back-Ride-from-the-Schoolhouse-to-Her-Room. My resistance never slowed her persistent attempt to embarrass me.
Although neither of us were particularly outgoing initially, we became an explosive combination, drawing each other into more and more ‘spotlighted’ positions. One November day, Suzy and I, suddenly inspired by the warm sunny weather and carefree joys of life, decided to laugh hysterically from one end of a street to the other. Even when the crowd across the street, who initially responded to our laughter with indulging smiles, changed their facial expressions to worried and even horrified looks after ten minutes, we did not stop. It was strange that I did not retreat back from such a conspicuous position. After that crazy-random-street-laughing experience, I suddenly felt accomplished, even though I did not realize what I had accomplished.
My tech experience as a spot-lighter has taught me that there are always two stories going on at the same time. Bedecked in our black ‘costumes’ and tightly connected by headsets, our tech team would scurry around backstage like silent mice finding missing props and joking with the cast. We were the phantoms of the theatre, privy to what the audience was not, the silent mechanism without which the show would not go on. While through Suzy I’ve discovered the pleasures of standing out from others and letting my voice be heard, I’ll always appreciate those who help the main action take place without disruption, aware that their opinions, though not often heard, also count.
Since, after all, I’m still one of them.
Why This Essay Did Well
“From the Very Start”
This essay seeks to draw the reader into its story from the very beginning:
“Walking up a seemingly endless flight of stairs, I finally reach a dark room.”
Rather than starting with a lengthy exposition or a drawn-out description, the author puts her reader right into the action, beginning the story in media res or “in the midst of plot”, while setting the scene in a succinct and yet descriptive way.
Notice too that in under twenty words, and all in the first line, we, the readers, understand exactly where the action is taking place, and what kind of mood is going to drive this story forward. The stairs are “endless”, the room is “dark”, and reached “finally” - these are not adjectives that are describing the author, yet we understand that these words are framing their mindset, and the character of the story.
“Me” versus the Rest of the World
This story creates a clear distinction between the writer and everybody else. This goes back to our fundamental principle of making the story about you, whether it’s by referring to most by their formal role (“the stage manager”, “the actress”, “the audience”), using nouns that create distance (“inhabitants” sounds like an observation from a wildlife documentary) or describing the crowd as one (notice how “their facial expressions” all changed as one). This centralizes the story on the writer, making sure the reader is wholly invested with the character of the author, in the relatively short word count that is available.
Create a Convincing Catalyst of the Story
There is another character aside from the author, however, who is given a certain degree of character development. It’s not difficult to spot: Suzy. You might wonder why this is the case, given what we’ve just said about ensuring your story is focused on you. Suzy is given more of a three-dimensional character because Suzy’s relationship to Amy is the catalyst of the story. Every story needs one, and here, Suzy is the person that helps Amy discover more about her inner self.
As a side note, the catalyst to your story can be anything or anyone, but it needs to have enough of a description to make the reader convincingly understand why it brings about the revelation it does in the author.
Expressing the Journey of the Inner Self
There is a particularly simple and yet effective structure to this college essay. The first half is about Amy’s “old” worldview when she first started school: introverted, hidden behind the scenes. The second half shows how, upon meeting Suzy, Amy comes to develop a more outgoing side. Finally, with her concluding paragraph, Amy establishes exactly what she has learnt, and by the end of the story we understand that her inner self has made the journey from A to B.
It is imperative to have this as your guiding principle when producing the best college essay. Begin at a certain point of your inner self, undergo an experience that creates an element of change or maturity, and express how this came to impact you as the individual.
Demonstrating Individual Growth
What this story is able to express well is someone who is self aware of the person she used to be, and who she is now. Moreover, she is mindful of the world around her. Please note that while you might be happy with one particular world view at a certain point of time, it doesn’t mean you necessarily rule out identifying with an opposing one later.
Indeed if we come to what this essay reveals about the author’s personal identity, and why it would be of particular distinction to the admissions committee, it is that the writer allows the aspects of change into her life that resulted in her growing as a person. When you think about the type of students the best colleges want to admit, it’s those that are looking to broaden their own horizons, and come to be challenged and change the way they think, even if it means engaging with something totally opposed to where they might initially have begun.
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What Could Have Been Improved
There’s no such thing as a perfect essay, so while it is certainly of a very high caliber, what improvements could be made here?
Use of Over-Extravagant Words
The essay itself is structurally sound; however at certain points the narrative gets interrupted by words that seem unnecessarily over-extravagant. Take this line for example:
“I took comfort in this backstage world and kept myself ensconced in the shadows of the spotlight room.”
What the line itself is saying is fine, and an admissions committee would have no problem understanding what is being described. However, the word “ensconced” feels out of place, almost a thesaurus result designed to artificially inflate the writer’s prose. Alternative words such as “hidden” or “settled” feel like far more natural word choices, while also not disturbing the text’s flow either.
Under-Utilizing the Available Word Count
Beyond the 250 word minimum and 650 maximum word count, the Common Application makes no requirement to make the college essay a certain length. In this particular case however, at just under 550 words, the writer could have used the additional hundred words available to flesh out her own character or her relationship with Suzy more. While the reader comes to understand Suzy’s impact on Amy well enough, it would have been nice to see more detail of how that developed, which in turn would only serve to give us further insight into the writer’s individual self.
The true challenge of the college essay is based in the fact that there is no right or wrong answer. The best essays are the ones that stick in the mind of admissions committee most and that lend themselves to the side of vulnerability more than trying to outwardly impress by actions or consequences. Perhaps the hardest part of the college essay is being honest with yourself, and revealing those truths you find to the wider world - this might seem hard, but it is in no way impossible. Good luck.