Updated on Wednesday 27 February 2013
It may be only 500 words, but the admissions essay portion of a college application can mean the difference between acceptance and rejection. How you write your personal essay shows the admissions committee why you are different from everybody else. It provides information about you that test scores, grades, and extracurricular pursuits just cannot. You can use the essay to describe a favorite activity, to tell a story about yourself, or even a story about your dog, but make sure to really use it -- in a way that captures the readers attention and shows that you are exceptional.
You should expect to devote about one to two weeks simply thinking up possible essay subjects. From this process of
brainstorming, you may find a topic you had not thought of at first. Here are some questions to consider:
As these thoughts start to solidify into an essay topic, think about execution. What sounded like a good idea might prove impossible in the writing. Most importantly, think of how you can make the subject matter original. Even seemingly boring essay topics can sound interesting if creatively approached. With an essay question in mind, think over the following questions:
Entitled "Hiking to Understanding," this essay tells the story of one hike, but at the same time, gives a
complete idea of the authors values, interests, and philosophy. Thus, the essay presents run-of-the-mill subject
matter in an out-of-the-ordinary way.
You must bear in mind your two goals: to persuade the admissions officer that you are extremely worthy of admission and to make the admissions officer aware that you are more than a GPA and a standardized score, that you are a real-life, intriguing personality. But before you can convince an admissions officer of this, you must first grab his or her attention.
Most admissions officers spend at most 2 minutes reading your essay. With this reality in mind, spend the most time on your introduction. One technique is to create mystery or intrigue in this first paragraph. At the very least, you should not give away the whole story right at the beginning. Give the admissions officer a reason to keep reading. As an example, the first sentence of the "Hiking" essay reads as follows:
This first sentence sets the mood for the essay, it draws the reader into the scene, but it does not state the authors argument or even the plot of the story to follow. The reader has to continue reading in order to learn what happens next.
After the first paragraph has been perfected, you must ensure that the body paragraphs relate to the introduction. It helps to have a theme or phrase that runs throughout the entire essay. In "Hiking to Understanding," the author uses the mountain as a unifying image:
Also notice that the author uses simple language. Many students think that big words make good essays, but powerful
ideas are often best expressed in simple and elegant prose.
Another way to impress an admissions officer is by using specific examples and evocative touches of imagery that stay clear of cliches. The application essay lends itself to imagery, since the entire essay requires your experiences as supporting details. Successful essays stick to the mantra, "show, don't tell." Here's one example from the "Hiking" essay:
This passage shows how description of the stars and cold can make us both imagine the scenery and understand the authors point of view. It tells us what the author feels and thinks, more so than if the author had spelled it out for us.
The conclusion is your last chance to persuade the reader or impress upon them your qualifications. Expand upon the broader implications of your discussion. The "Hiking" essay does this successfully, both expanding on the description of the scene as well as on the scenes meaning for the author:
Don't be surprised if the writing process takes many days. Few writers can dash out a quality essay in just a few sittings. It takes awhile to find the perfect structure, wording, and imagery. If you have the time, spend a week away from your draft; when you return to it, you will read it with fresh eyes. Ask friends and family for help. Other readers will find small mistakes that your brain has ceased to recognize, and they will answer the essential question, "what makes this essay memorable?"
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