Are you looking for college essay tips? We've got you! With top colleges getting increasingly competitive, applicants must look for ways to impress the admissions committee, and one of the best ways to do that is with compelling college essays. In this blog, we are going to elaborate on that and discuss the importance of both Common App and supplemental college essays. Then we will share ten expert tips that'll help you craft an outstanding essay and show an example of an excellent college essay to give you some inspiration.
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Why are college essays important?
Students often wonder if college essays play an essential role in the admissions committee's decision, and the answer is yes! According to the National Association for college admission counseling, most institutions in the US consider the college essay to be one of the most important application components.
Colleges only accept a limited number of students every year, and depending on the school you are applying to, they may be receiving a significantly higher number of applications. For example, Columbia University received well over 60 000 applications last year, and they only admitted 2350 students. This level of competition isn't limited to Ivy League Schools. Several other top institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford are just as competitive.
These universities want to make sure that they are selecting the candidates who are most likely to thrive in their campus community, both academically and socially. They can find out about your academic background from your high school transcripts, and they can also learn about your abilities and interests from your Common App activities section, but the only application component that really gives you a chance to tell them about the person behind your numbers is your college essay.
It gives you an opportunity to talk to the admissions board and show them why you are a good fit for their school by sharing your story in your own words. For instance, let's say that you are hoping to get into college with a low GPA. Your college essay gives you an opportunity to address your subpar grades. You can talk about the circumstances that led to your low GPA, the steps you have taken to improve your grades, and what you learned from that experience.
In short, your college essays help humanize your application and give you an opportunity to strengthen your application. That being said, essays can do more harm than good for your application if not done well. A student with a low GPA can get into college with strong college essays and glowing recommendations, but a student with perfect stats could be waitlisted or even rejected because of a poorly written college essay.
Looking for more tips? Check out the infographic below:
10 College essay tips to help you write an outstanding essay
Now that you know why well-written, compelling college essays are a necessity for college applicants, let's go over the tips and strategies that'll help you write an essay that will not only stand out, but will also strengthen your overall application.
College essay tip #1: Don't rush the process
Most people can write a decent essay in a day. If you are a skilled writer, you may even be able to write one in a few hours. But writing the essay that will get you into college will require a lot longer than that, even if you have great writing ability. We recommend that you spend four to six weeks working on your college essays. This gives you enough time to learn how to write a college essay and go through the five-step process below to write a much better essay.
- Step 1: Research
- Step 2: Review essay examples
- Step 3: Brainstorm
- Step 4: Write your first draft
- Step 5: Review & edit
This is why it is important to start as early as you can. You want to make sure that you understand the essay prompt you will be responding to and that you include all pertinent information in your essay. If you rush through the process, you would be doing yourself a disservice. You may forget to include relevant information, or you may not have enough time to edit and polish your essay to ensure that it is error-free and as compelling as possible.
Bonus tip: After writing your first draft, put your essay away for a day or two and return to it with fresh eyes. You may notice a few things that you missed the first time around.
College essay tip #2: Research thoroughly
Research is one of the most important things you can do when writing your essays. Oftentimes, applicants will skip this step when they are writing the Common App essay because it is not school-specific, but we recommend that you still take the time to read about the different schools that you are applying to.
First, because not all colleges accept applications through the Common App platform. You should therefore look at the list of colleges you have decided to apply to and verify their admissions pages to determine which schools use Common App and which ones require direct applications. If you are applying to any schools directly, then you will need to include specific reasons for choosing that school in your essay.
Secondly, even though you are applying to different schools through a platform, you have selected those schools for reasons that probably overlap. You should take the time to research those schools thoroughly and look for similarities that you can use in your essay. It would be best not to mention specific programs or the different schools, but you can use your essay to highlight some of the skills or traits those schools value. For example, if you are applying to schools that have strong STEM programs and they value curiosity and creativity, you can highlight those traits in your essay.
Furthermore, strong supplemental college essays require detailed, specific information about the school that you're applying to. The admissions committee wants to know that you're not just applying to their school because it has a high ranking or because it is famous. So taking the time to research and write down the things that interest you about the school can go a long way toward making your essay stand out.
Still have questions about the college application process? This video can help:
College essay tip #3: Look at essay examples
Step 2 in the process outlined earlier is reviewing essay examples - a crucial step that students sometimes skip. Most of the time, the prompt students are required to respond to for both the Common App essay and other college-specific or Supplemental essays can be viewed months before the application deadline. We recommend taking the time to review these prompts and look for examples of essays that have been written for them.
For example, one of the questions that students can choose to answer for the Common App essay section is this:
"Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?"
Many students find this question challenging because they are not sure what topic to cover and how they can link it to their readiness for college. However, if you take the time to look for Common App essay examples, you will find out how other students or admission experts have approached this question, and it will give you a better idea of how you can too.
It is important to remember that reviewing examples should be used for educational and inspirational purposes only. Plagiarizing is not only unethical, but it can also have severe consequences, so it is best to simply do the right thing and not copy someone else's work.
College essay tip #4: Gather your story
Your college essay is supposed to tell the story of who you are. Therefore, you should approach it with a clear idea of what you want it to discuss. One of the strategies we use is "gathering your story"; it is one of the first things you want to do when you start brainstorming for your essay. To gather your story basically means to reflect on your experiences so far and write them all down so that you can decide what you need to share with the admissions committee. Think about the following:
This list of questions is not exhaustive, but it should give you a pretty good idea of where to start. Write down all the answers to your brainstorming questions, and then take a look at the story you've gathered. It's also a good idea to elaborate on your experiences, classes, and activities' impact on you. Think about the non-cognitive skills and other abilities that you picked up from those different experiences and write them down too. You can then start deciding what pieces of this story you wish to share with the college admissions committee and create an outline that will allow you to include those details in your essay.
College essay tip #5: Outline & expand
Failing to plan is planning to fail. You’ve probably heard this saying before. It applies to many things in life, including college essays. While you do not need a detailed plan, you should at least have a general idea of the structure that your essay will take and what it will discuss. We highly recommend that you take the time to create that rough outline as it will give you a chance to not only organize your thoughts, but it will also help you ensure that you do not forget any relevant information.
For context, here is an idea of what a rough outline for a college essay could look like:
- Tell story about the football game with dad
- Why my background made me love sports
- Discuss formative experience when we lost the match in 8th grade
- Describe steps I took after this experience (physio, research, etc.)
- What I learned from this experience (resilience, practice, taking care of your body and mental health, paying attention to details)
- Why this has prepared me for a degree in sports medicine.
This outline is obviously very particular to the person who wrote it, and it may not have much information. Still, it reminds the person of the specific traits and specific experiences that they wish to discuss in their essay, thus ensuring that the final essay will have a clear flow that is easy to follow and all the relevant details.
College essay tip #6: Use examples
One of the most important college essay tips we can give you is to show, not tell. You want to use specific experiences and examples in your college essay that'll show the admissions board that you have the skills and abilities required to thrive in college. Instead of summarizing or merely listing facts about yourself, it would best to use short anecdotes and describe specific experiences. Using examples is more impactful because it shows the admissions board that you can back up the claims you are making about yourself. People are also more likely to remember a narrative than a list of traits or facts, making your essay more memorable.
College essay tip #7: Provide new information
Do not use your college essay to rehash the information on your transcripts, high school resume, or any other application component. Remember that this is your chance to humanize your application and sell yourself as a candidate to the admissions board, so do not waste it by giving them information that they already have.
Think of your college essay as a cover letter for your college application. When you are applying for a job, you use your resume to show your academic background and work history. In this case, your school transcript and other application components show your GPA, grades, and extracurriculars for your college application. On the other hand, your cover letter (or college essay) is slightly more personal. It should provide additional information about who you are, your soft skills, and other competencies that can't be quantified.
Want some more tips for tackling the Common App essays? Check out this video:
College essay tip #8: Follow instructions
It is imperative that you follow instructions when you are applying to colleges; this includes the instructions that you are given for your college essay. You should take the time to review the instructions carefully before you start working on your essay and verify them again before submission to ensure that you are not missing anything.
Pay attention to the prompt and the specified word count or essay length in particular. Most application platforms, such as Common App or the Ontario Universities Application Centre (OUAC) for those applying to the universities of Ontario, and colleges, will ask you to answer a specific question in your essay and give you a maximum number of words. However, this is not always the case. For example, the instructions for Georgetown essays tell students to write half a page for certain questions and a full page for others.
It is important that you follow the guidelines specified because this shows the admissions committee that you are able to follow simple directions. If your essay is longer or shorter than requested, it will tell them that you either didn't pay attention to the instructions they provided or didn't care enough to follow them. Either way, it makes you look like a weaker candidate.
College essay tip #9: Get help from the experts
Considering the role that college essays play in the admissions process, you need to do everything you can to make sure that you are submitting the best essays possible. You can do that by working with college essay review services. These services are offered by college advisors or admission consultants who are trained to assist students and guide them through the complex world of college admissions.
These experts can review your essays and give you personalized feedback to help you edit and polish them until they are ready for submission. Please note that these advisors will not write your essay for you. Actually, we'll just go ahead and warn you right now: stay away from "admission experts" who offer to write your college essays for you. It is not only unethical, but if the college you applied to ever finds out, it could cost you the acceptance that you were hoping for.
Instead, admissions consultants can give you additional college essay tips and strategies to help you write a compelling essay. They also review your essay and help you edit it to ensure that it highlights your strengths, skills, and abilities in the best way possible. They are able to see little things that the untrained eye wouldn't be able to notice, but that could make a big difference in the quality of your overall essay.
College essay tip #10: Be genuine
While it is true that you are the one competing with thousands of applicants for a spot in a school, you need to remember that if your application is accepted, you will need to go to that school. So, you want to make sure that you are being accepted to a school that genuinely wants you to be a part of its student body. Therefore, it is necessary for you to be truthful and genuine in your essay. Do not try to tell the admissions board what you think they want to hear. Instead, tell them who you are and why you deserve a shot. Your essay should be somewhat formal, but it should still show off your personality. So don't be afraid to add a couple of appropriate jokes, anecdotes, etc.
College Essay Examples
College essay example #1
Brown students care deeply about their work and the world around them. Students find contentment, satisfaction, and meaning in daily interactions and major discoveries. Whether big or small, mundane, or spectacular, tell us about something that brings you joy. (200-250 words)
"I'm not a businessman; I am a business, man..let me handle my business" - Sean Carter (Jay Z)
I remember hearing those lyrics for the first time and loving the play on words. I loved it so much that I forgot that I was in class and that I was meant to be quiet while the others finished their assignment, and I laughed out loud. My teacher, Ms. Roosevelt, asked me what was funny, and I reluctantly explained Mr. Carter's play on words to her even though I didn't think she'd appreciate it.
To my surprise, Ms. Roosevelt knew exactly what I was talking about. It was on that day that she explained to me that a lot of rap music, when done correctly, is really just poetry. I went home that day and googled the relationship between rap music and poetry. I learned about Pulitzer-winning rappers like Kendrick Lamar, poets like Maya Angelou, and artists who did both like Tupac Shakur. I learned about the literary devices that are used in both mediums and how they manipulate words to make the audience feel something.
That conversation with Ms. Roosevelt led to my research, and my research introduced me to the world of poetry. I have continued to read and learn about both art forms. I hope to explore this subject even more through Brown's comparative literature program, which would teach me how to engage critically with literary works across cultural boundaries and understand how culture affects those works.
College essay example #2
Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. (max 650 words)
I sought guidance when I was preparing to write this essay. As with any important task or decision in my life, I wanted to have as much information as possible so that I could write an essay that would give you all the information that you were looking for. My guide, who also happens to be my English teacher and school guidance counsellor, told me to write about who I am. I didn't have to think long and hard about it. My answer was simple: I am a musician.
So, as you read my application, I would like you to know that music is not only what I want to study in college, but also an important part of my identity. The first time I played the piano was in church when I was ten years old, and I fell in love immediately. I grew up in an underserved community where the school was unable to support many extracurricular programs, including music. But I did not let this setback stop me.
I spoke with the church's choir director, who agreed to let me use the church piano for practice twice a week. I taught myself how to read and write music, and play the piano by watching videos on YouTube, and I learned how to write music in the same way. Then, because I wanted to challenge myself, after learning the piano, I started learning about the cello and then, later, the violin.
I got the opportunity to put my skills to the test and utilize years of solo practice a few weeks ago when I played with a small group of students at a local festival. I remember getting on stage and feeling like I was exactly where I needed to be. My dream is to be a part of a symphony orchestra, which is why I was very intentional in selecting colleges that would give me the opportunity to play with other passionate musicians and explore this underdeveloped part of who I am under the guidance of gifted directors.
Shifting from an isolated artistic practice to genuine collaboration and community will be a challenge for me. Still, it is one that I welcome as it will help me grow as a musician and a person. I am eager and ready to take on this challenge. I look forward to using the skills I have spent years building, learning from fellow musicians, and sharing my unique perspective with them and our audience.
1. What’s the difference between a college essay and a personal statement?
Personal statements are a type of college admission essay. Most of the time, when people refer to college personal statements, they are referring to the Common App essay or school-specific admissions essay.
2. Can I apply for college without writing college essays?
The likelihood of this happening is quite slim if you are applying to schools in North America. However, there are a few schools that only ask for essays after reviewing your initial application or if you are applying to a very competitive faculty.
3. How important are college essay?
Very! Your college essays are one of the most important application components that you will submit, so it’s important that you take the time to research, plan, write and edit your essay carefully.
4. What topic should my college essay cover?
The most important topic is you. However, in most cases, you will also be given a prompt for your essay so make sure that you read it often and carefully to ensure that you have answered the question it asks in your essay.
5. What makes a strong college essay cover?
A strong college essay tells a story. It has an attention-grabbing opening, specific examples and it shows the applicant’s personality.
6. Should my essay talk about my high school experiences or what I want to do in college?
Unless otherwise stated by the prompt, your essay should discuss both. You want to talk about your past experiences and how they have prepared you for the future that you hope to have in college and beyond.
7. How long are college essay?
On average, college essays should be between 400 and 650 words, but the length of your essay will depend on the school you’re applying to and the type of essay. For example, the Common App essay has a maximum of 650 words, while the Brown supplemental essays need to be less than 250 words and Johns Hopkins supplemental essays need to be between 300 and 400 words.
8. How can I get more college essay tips?
Our team of college essay advisors would be happy to share more tips and strategies. Book your free strategy call to find out more.
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