The College Application Essay Basics

This is my first post in a series about writing more effective college application essays. To learn more about me and my experiences in writing and editing personal statements (for college applications and beyond) check out my personal introduction post.

Let’s be real: Writing a college application essay can be TOUGH. High school English classes don’t necessarily prepare us to write about ourselves in persuasive, illustrative ways. And writing one essay is hard enough – what are you supposed to do when the college asks for multiple topics?

Despite these challenges, the college application essay – or “personal statement” – is a powerful component of your application. It allows you to advocate for yourself in a unique way to show the admissions committee that’s there more to you than your GPA, grades, SAT/ACT scores, AP scores, etc. There’s also far more to your identity than being a high school student! For these reasons, it’s important to invest the time and effort to write strong personal statements that communicate the unobvious parts of your experience.

Now that you’re motivated to do a good job with these essays, here are the basic things you should keep in mind moving forward.

One Piece of the Puzzle
Use your essay to add more depth and context to your college application packet. Hopefully you’re aware of what the full college application packet looks like, but if not, no worries! When you apply to a college or university, they ask for your high school transcript, college admissions test scores (SAT/ACT) if applicable, your AP/IB/SAT II test scores, letters of recommendation from your teachers and mentors, and application essays. Some institutions may ask you to interview with a representative as well. (BIG NOTE: Many colleges are making SAT/ACT scores optional for the 2021/2022 admissions cycle due to the pandemic). The weight of your application essays can vary from college to college. You might write an amazing essay, but if there are strict GPA cutoffs for admission at a university, they may never even read your essay. On the other hand, universities that do a more holistic read of your application packet will have a chance to understand poor grades or other comments on your academic record with the context provided by letters of recommendation and your personal statement.

Know Your Audience
So who exactly do you need to impress with your essay? Very generally, the admissions committee is made up of “adults” with college degrees – that is, they could be recent graduates or retired professors. These readers are likely alumni of the institution to which you’re applying, and they are genuinely invested in creating a student body that will both benefit from and contribute to the institution. They’ve read too many application essays to count, so they’re not easily swayed by melodramatic narratives, words (mis)used from thesaurus searches, and superficial accounts of how your volunteering experience changed your life.

It all boils down to delivering a well-written and compelling essay.

The admissions committee is looking for a writing sample that shows you actually paid attention in English class. Your writing must use proper grammar and have a clear narrative structure with a beginning, middle, and end. Hopefully you have the skills to conquer the “well-written” factor on your own, but if you need support, there are a plethora of good resources to help you. You can ask teachers, family members, or friends for feedback on your writing. Professional editing services also exist to proofread and edit your college essay.

Your personal statement needs to have a clear and compelling answer to the question, “What makes me excited about you as a candidate?” This is the real challenge – you must decide the answer to this question for yourself. First, do a little soul searching to figure out what qualities you bring to the table. Then, select personal experiences that really allow you to showcase those qualities. I like to use the 50 Words Activity to identify these key stories that you should tell about yourself.

If you’re ready to start writing, check out these other articles:

The Five-Step Guide to the College Application Essay
Authentic and Unique Storytelling with the 50 Words Activity
Avoiding Cliches and Taking Risks for Your College Application Essay
Writing Rules for the College Application Essay
Writing a Concise, Intentional, and Powerful Personal Statement

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