Seniors, it’s that time of year. College application deadlines are fast approaching, and (if you’re anything like I was in high school) you’re stressed to the max over getting every little detail right, especially when it comes to those daunting and sometimes downright pesky college essays. Over the last few months, you’ve probably asked yourself tons of questions like these: How on earth am I supposed to explain who I am in 500 words or less? Do I sound pretentious? Do I sound like a fifth grader? Why does it matter what part of a bicycle I think I’d be?
Writing a college essay is nerve-wracking, and there’s no getting around that. After all, who likes to think about a paragraph or two determining the next four years of their life and maybe even their future? But no, some ruthless admissions officer at your dream school isn’t going to throw your file in the trash just because they asked you the bicycle question and you said you’d be “the brakes.” When it comes to the college essay, the truth is there are no right answers. That said, there are some key things admissions panels are looking for when they read your application.
What admissions panels are looking for in your college application essay:
1. Strong writing skills
Does the applicant’s writing have good grammar, conventions, and mechanics?
2. Clear expression
Does the applicant express his or her thoughts clearly?
3. Willingness to improvise
When faced with a specific or abstract question, does the applicant rise to the challenge and use it to their advantage?
When you think about it, this is great news because it means you are in control. As a student, you’re used to having your knowledge tested constantly, but admissions essay questions are not designed to test you. Rather, they exist as a platform for you to show admissions who you are, not who you or they want you to be. And if you think about writing your college essay in this way, if you think about what’s important about you to you, I think you’ll find that you can explain who you are in 500 words, not by checking off a list but by doing what you’ve been doing for your entire life—being yourself.
Here are some tips for letting your best self shine through in your college application essay:
1. Be clear and concise
Don’t hide what you’re trying to say under mountains of words. Remove adverbs and words like “really,” “very,” and “just,” and you’ll find your sentences read easier without them, not to mention you’ll have more room in your word limit for the things that really matter.
2. Know when (and when not) to brag
If there’s an opportunity to talk about that summer you spent doing research at the local university or a really cool volunteer program you’ve participated in since middle school and it makes sense within the context of the question, take it, but don’t drop your resumé smack in the middle of your essay. Doing this will compromise the flow of your writing, and chances are there’s a place elsewhere in the application to list activities and experiences that you won’t talk about in the college essay section.
3. Watch your tone
Admissions essays are not research papers, nor are they Facebook posts. Strike a balance. Let your personality come through in your writing, but make sure you sound like the mature person you are.
4. DON’T OVERTHINK IT
This sounds counterintuitive, but thinking too much about how you want to come across in your college essay will hurt them in the end. They won’t sound like you. Trust your instinct, and you’ll be fine. I promise.