What should you write on your college application essays?

College Admissions



Ah, the dreaded essays. They cause sleepless nights, endless fretting, and constant stress. And that's before you start writing them! Once you begin, it's an endless stream of worries--are you writing about the right thing? Is this sentence structure correct? Did you say something that might keep you out of your dream school? Is someone else writing about the same thing--only better? 

It's an understandable fear. When it comes down to it, your essays are the only time in your applications where you really get to inject your own perspective and your own personality into your file--so what's the right thing to say? Is there a magical way to address those pesky questions ("Who is your hero?" "What is your greatest fear?" "What is the biggest obstacle you've overcome?"--and so many, many other questions that colleges like to ask their hapless victims...er, applicants)? 

Here's the simple truth: There's no magic way to write these essays. There's no secret code, there's no perfect composition. There's only thing that will make your essays stand out: You.

Here's what you need to do to make sure that your essays ring true and become memorable:

  1. Keep it personal. Remember, the main protagonist in your essays is you. Sure, there are secondary players but, at their core, all of these essays should seek to convey your feelings, your choices, your values--after all, colleges are seeking to admit you, and not anyone else.
  2. Tell stories. Don't just simply list out facts or events. Don't merely say that you possess a certain trait or characteristic. Instead, make it interesting--tell a story. Give the reader background, details, specifics, even dialogue. Think of it this way: When you're reading something interesting, what makes it interesting is that you feel connected to the characters, drawn in to the story. You're the main character now. Make sure you're interesting!
  3. Don't be afraid to be lengthy. When writing your first draft, don't worry about word count. Instead, focus on getting your story down with as many facts and details as you want. Once you're done writing that first draft, then focus on cutting things down to meet word limits or cut out what really is unnecessary and just bogs the story down. For that first draft, though, go nuts! 
  4. Don't worry about saving the world or being larger than life. So many students fret that if they don't have a story of overcoming immense obstacles or doing unbelievable things, that they won't stand a chance. That's simply not true--colleges aren't looking to put together a class of superhuman teenagers, they're looking to bring together students from varied walks of life that can bring multiple viewpoints and experiences to the classroom. 

So what's the moral of this story? That, at the end of the day, the best essay you can write is about the topic you know the most about: YOU. Focus on telling your story and presenting your view of the world, and you can't go wrong.