How to write a great college essay

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Think about how many college-entry essays are read each year by admissions counselors. Imagine how their eyes must glaze over after they’ve read a few dozen essays. You don’t want yours to sound like everyone else’s.

The people reviewing the essays are looking for a better understanding of you than they can get from your GPA, your SAT scores or other information on your application. A good essay can raise a so-so application higher, and a poor essay can diminish an otherwise stellar application.

These pointers will help you make your essay stand out from the crowd.

  • Tell a story. Make your point by telling a story about something that has happened to you or that made an impression on you. A vivid telling of an important moment in your life is far better than listing all your accomplishments (which will be in the rest of the application, anyway).
  • Capture the reader’s attention. Pay particular attention to the beginning of your essay. Hints of something dramatic or unusual to come later in the essay will help keep your reader’s interest.
  • Be yourself. Don’t try to sound like a college student. Sound like yourself. No one expects you to be perfect or brilliant. The university is interested in who you are and how you think.
  • Set the tone. Your essay should be friendly, but not too casual. Use complete sentences, and don’t resort to slang. Clear out all the clichés. A clever turn-of-phrase or metaphor is appreciated by the committee members. But don’t over-do the comedy; a little humor goes a long way.
  • Be concise. Write in as few words as possible. Take out words and phrases that don’t add anything to a thought. Be on the lookout for too many adjectives.
  • Use active voice. Search through your essay for variations of the verb “to be.” Change these passive verbs to active verbs. Moving the subject to the beginning of the sentence also helps to eliminate passive voice.
  • Be specific. Rather than this: “I want to help people.” Try this: “I want to be like my mom, who is the first person you think of when you’re hurt, feeling down or in trouble.”
  • Don’t try to impress. Long sentences and big words do not enhance your essay — especially if you use a word incorrectly. Stick to words you’re sure of; it never hurts to look them up to make sure they mean what you think they mean.
  • Take “I” out. If you write “I” more than a few times, go back and rewrite to eliminate most of them. It’s difficult, since you are writing a personal essay, but too many “I’s” are a sign of a poor writer.
  • Proofread and revise. Ask your parents, teachers and friends to read your essay and tell you frankly what they think. They may have specific grammar or spelling corrections, or suggestions about the direction of your story. Or they may be able to point out anything that’s not clear. You don’t have to take everyone’s advice, of course, but if a criticism rings true, pay attention.
  • Let it simmer. After you’ve finished your essay, set it aside for a few days, and then read it again. Coming back to it after an absence will allow you to read it fresh, just the way the admissions committee will. You’d be surprised how often a paragraph that seemed perfect last week will seem muddled or overly dramatic this week.