Tips On Writing A University Essay

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You’ve taken the tests, requested the recommendations, completed the common app, and now it’s finally time to refocus on what you’ve been putting off: the essay.

While most students spend days, sometimes weeks, perfecting their personal statements, admissions officers only spend about three to five minutes actually reading them, according to Jim Rawlins, director of admissions at the University of Oregon.

High school seniors are faced with the challenge of summarizing the last 17 years into 600 words, all while showcasing their “unique” personality against thousands of other candidates.

“It’s hard to find a balance between sounding professional and smart without using all of those long words,” says Lily Klass, a senior at Milford High School in Milford, Mass. “I’m having trouble reflect myself without sounding arrogant or rude or anything like that.”

The following tips will help applicants make the leap from ‘average’ to ‘accepted’:

1. Open with an anecdote.

Since the admissions officers only spend a brief amount of time reviewing stories, it’s pivotal that you engage them from the very beginning.

“Instead of trying to come up with gimmicky, catchy first lines, start by sharing a moment,” says Janine Robinson, writing coach and founder of Essay Hell. “These mini stories naturally grab the reader … it’s the best way to really involve them in the story.”

Let the moment you choose be revealing of your personality and character. Describe how it shaped who you are today and who you will be tomorrow.

2. Put yourself in the school’s position.

At the end of the day, colleges want to accept someone who is going to graduate, be successful in the world and have the university associated with that success. In your essay, it is vital that you present yourself as someone who loves to learn, can think critically and has a passion for things—anything.

“Colleges always say to show your intellectual vitality and curiosity,” Robinson says. “They want kids who are going to hit the ground running—zoom to class and straight out into the world. They want them hungry and self-aware.

RELATED: Goucher College aims to level playing field with video application option

3. Stop trying so hard.

“One of the biggest mistakes students make is trying too hard to impress,” Robinson says. “Trust that it is those every day, specific subjects that are much more interesting to read about.”

Colleges are tired of reading about that time you had a come-from-behind- win in the state championship game or the time you built houses in Ecuador, according to Robinson. Get creative!

Furthermore, you’re writing doesn’t have to sound like Shakespeare. “These essays should read like smart, interesting 17-year-olds wrote them,” says Lacy Crawford, former independent college application counselor and author of Early Decision. “A sense of perspective and self-awareness is what’s interesting.

4. Ditch the thesaurus. Swap sophistication for self-awareness

There is a designated portion of the application section designated to show off your repertoire of words. Leave it there.

On the personal essay, write how you would speak. Using “SAT words” in your personal statement sounds unnatural and distances the reader from you.

“I think most students are torn between a pathway dividing a diary entry and a press release. It’s supposed to be marketing document of the self,” Crawford says.

RELATED: 3 tips for getting your college application materials in on time 

5. Write about what matters to you, not what matters to them

Crawford recommends students begin by answering the question, “if you had 10 minutes to talk to them in person, what would you say?” The admissions teams are looking for authenticity and quality of thinking.

“Theoretically, I think anything could be ‘the perfect topic, as long as you demonstrate how well you think, your logic and ability to hold readers’ attention,” Crawford says.

6. Read the success stories.

“The best advice is to read essays that have worked,” Robinson says. “You’ll be surprised to see that they’re not winning Pulitzers; they are pieces of someone. You want your story to be the one she doesn’t put down.”

Once you find a topic you like, sit down and write for an hour or so. It shouldn’t take longer than that. When you write from your heart, words should come easily.

Rawlins recommends showing the essay to a family member or friend and ask if it sounds like the student. “Take a few days and come back to it. But only do that once,” Rawlins says. “Reading it over and over again will only drive you nuts.”

7. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not.

While colleges tend to nod to disadvantaged students, roughing up your background won’t help your cause.

“It’s less about the topic and more about how you frame it and what you have to say about it, Robinson says. “The better essay is has the most interesting thing to say, regardless of a topic that involves a crisis or the mundane.”

The essays serve as a glimpse into how your mind works, how you view the world and provides perspective. If you have never had some earth shattering experience that rocked your world, don’t pretend you did. Your insights will be forced and disingenuous.

RELATED: Who reads your college applications anyway? 

8. Follow the instructions.

While the directions on the applications may sound generic, and even repetitive after applying to a variety of schools, Rawlins points out that every rhyme has a reason.

“They have to know that college put a lot of thought into the instructions we give them—so please follow them!” he says. “We’ve given a lot of thought to the words we use. We want what we ask for.”

9. Use this space to tell them what your application can’t.

Most colleges don’t have the time or bandwidth to research each individual applicant. They only know what you put in front of them. “If they don’t tell us something, we can’t connect the dots,” Rawlins says. “We’re just another person reading their material.”

Like Crawford, he recommends students imagining they are sitting next to him in his office and responding to the question, “What else do I need to know?” And their essays should reflect how they would respond.

At the end of the day, however, Rawlins wants students to know that the personal essay is just another piece of the larger puzzle. “They prescribe way too much importance to the essay,” Rawlins says. “It makes a massive difference—good or bad—to very few out there, so keep it in context.”

 Paige Carlotti is a senior at Syracuse University. 

admissions essay, college applications, Paige Carlotti, writing, VOICES FROM CAMPUS 

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Top 10 Tips for College Admissions Essays


In the admissions process, US colleges and universities generally use three criteria for determining which students to accept and which to reject:

  1. Previous coursework – your college preparatory work and grade point average (GPA)
  2. Standardized test scores – SAT and ACT are the two most respected.
  3. Admission/Entrance essays

Of the three criteria, the college entrance essay provides you with the greatest opportunity to distinguish yourself from your competition and show off the person behind the statistics. This article will help in writing a college essay and help you boost your chances of being accepted by an American university or college

Section 1: Planning Your Essay

Tip #1: Understand the Admissions Board Psychology

When you have compiled all the pieces of your application and sent it to the college/university of your dreams, all of your hard work gets placed in a pile with hundreds of other applications. Then a small group of admissions officers will review each application, looking over the scores and coursework and reading the college application essays.

The key to convincing the admissions officers is in understanding what they are looking for. They want students who will:

  • Succeed once they are admitted;
  • Contribute to the educational experience of other students; and,
  • Bring honor and prestige to the university once they graduate.

In your college admissions essay, you want to portray yourself as a student who will meet those needs. Of course, the specifics of what qualifies as “succeed” or “bring honor” will depend a bit on the particular university, but all admissions officers share these three goals.

Before you write your college admissions essay, take a few minutes and jot down some answers to the following questions:

  • How can I reassure the admissions board that I will succeed in their school?
  • How will I show that I am determined and ambitious; that I will not get poor grades or drop out?
  • How can I contribute positively to the educational experience of other students?
  • How might I bring honor and prestige to the university?
  • What are my long-term goals? Might I win an award someday, or start a business, or improve a scientific process?

Your answer to these questions will help you frame the content of your essay.

Tip #2: Determine Your Essay Goals

Along with the three questions above, you should contemplate how you want the admissions officers to perceive you. After reading your college admissions essay, what should they think of your personality and activities?

Most students want the college admissions board to view them as responsible, dependable, and academically ambitious. These are excellent essay goals, but you should also consider the essay in relation to your classwork. If your classwork already shows that you are studious and determined (because you have taken a wide variety of advanced classes), then you may want to highlight another feature of your personality.

Along with developing an image of your character, writing the college admissions essay allows you to feature other aspects of your life that are not reflected in your pre-college coursework. Some aspects to consider:

  • Have I worked at an interesting or relevant job?
  • Do I belong to any clubs or organizations?
  • Have I demonstrated leadership or teamwork?
  • Have I demonstrated compassion or community-responsibility?

Tip #3: Distinguish Yourself from the Other Applicants

This bit of strategic thinking should be fairly easy. As an international student, you by definition are different from the bulk of American citizens who apply to American universities. However, it is not enough to simply say, “Well, I’m not from around here.” Instead, you need to reference the strengths of your home culture. You don’t need to elaborate at length; a sentence or two should be enough to ensure that the admissions board pays attention to you.

Remember that you are more than just an international student from an interesting background; you are a complete person with a lifetime of experiences. You should take some time to think about what else makes you different from most the other hundreds of students writing college admissions essays. Add those features (plays piano, excellent at football, speak five languages) to your growing list of essay goals.

Tip #4: Contribute to the University

Remember that one of the goals of the admissions board when reading college admissions essays is to find students who will enhance the educational experience of other students. In other words, how can you contribute to other students’ learning? As with tip #3, you already have an edge by being an international student.

One of the general goals of education is to broaden people’s experiences, so that they come to realize the limits of their own intellect, and then grow beyond those limits. As an international student, you offer other students an opportunity for cultural diversity. As with Tip #3, it is not enough to assume the college admissions board will recognize this benefit. You need to highlight it in your essay. Again, a sentence or two should be enough to accomplish this goal.

Again, remember that you are more than just an international student. You have so much more to contribute to the campus social and learning environment than just your home culture. Take a few moments to consider what else you may contribute.

  • Maybe you are excellent at study groups or other forms of collaborative work.
  • Maybe you will join a student organization or athletic team.
  • Maybe you will write for a student newsletter or blog.

Whatever you feel you can contribute, add that to your list of essay goals.

Tip #5: Understand and Answer the Essay Prompt

At this point, you’ve come up with more ideas than you can possibly fit into one essay. Now you need to focus your goals to only three or four ideas – the ones that will make you the most attractive to the college admissions board. No matter what the prompt asks, you want to ensure you include those three or four ideas in your college admissions essay.

The concept is to present a few ideas very well, rather than list all your ideas poorly. A narrowly focused essay will be much more effective than a general, vague one.

Reading and answering the prompt may seem a bit obvious, but it’s often the obvious that people ignore. You should take the time to read and re-read the essay prompt, so you can answer it fully. Don’t be intimidated; unlike some college exams, the college application essay prompt is not designed to trick you. However, you must demonstrate that you can read and follow directions. Think of that great pile of applications. The admissions officers are looking for a reason to disregard candidates. Don’t let them reject you because you hastily overlooked a sentence in the essay prompt.

On the other hand, the prompt is designed to give you some freedom for creativity, which will allow you to work in those three or four key ideas that you have developed through tips 1 through 4. You are encouraged to find novel ways of answering the prompt, so long as you do indeed answer the questions provided.

If you need more help choosing a topic, you can find some tips on our Choosing a Topic for Your College Essay page.

Section 2: Writing Your Essay

At this stage in the college admissions essay writing process, you have considered the goals and psychology of the college admissions board. You have produced a list of ideas/attributes/details about yourself that colleges will find appealing. You have narrowed that list to the three or four most important ideas – the ones that will get you into your preferred college/university. Now it is time to actually write the essay.

Tip #6: Write with Specific Details

The key to excellent and memorable writing is to write in fine detail. The more specific your essay, the stronger an impression it will make on the admissions board. If you are trying to show that you are a dedicated scholar, don’t write: “I never missed an assignment deadline, no matter how poorly I was feeling the night before.” Instead you write: “In my junior year, I came down with a terrible case of pneumonia. Despite having a 103 degree fever and being required to stay in bed, I still completed my draft speech on the possible impacts of global warming on agriculture.” The latter will make a stronger impression; and people vote for the people they remember.

As you are writing your essay, ask yourself:

  • Is there a specific instance or example that shows this?
  • Can I add imagery (colors, shapes) to make it more interesting?
  • Can I replace general nouns (“class” or “car”) with something specific (“Honors Geometry” or “Honda Civic”)?

You may be thinking, “I don’t really like to boast about my personality; I prefer to let my record speak for itself.” While you should try to avoid sounding too arrogant, the college application essay is not the time for modesty. The admissions officers are expecting you to celebrate yourself, to underline your strengths and personality, so they can make a quick, accurate judgment about you.

Tip #7: Demonstrate College-Level Diction

Diction (word choice) is the fundamental structure of writing. Your word choice reveals a great deal about your personality, education and intellect. Furthermore, as an international student, you want to reassure the college admissions board that you have an excellent command of the English language (remember: they want you to succeed; they need to know that you can actively participate in English-only instruction).

With this in mind, you should replace lower-level words (bad, sad, thing, nice, chance) with higher-level words (appalling, despondent, phenomena, comforting, opportunity). You might consider looking up SAT/ACT vocabulary words and working a handful of those into your essay.

You should also remove any slang or casual diction; the university is not interested in casual language in their admissions essays.

Tip #8: Demonstrate College-level Style

An American proverb states, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” In other words, you want to present yourself as being ready for the next job. In this instance, you want to show that you already have college-level writing skills. So, in writing your college application essays, you should write with the following features in mind:

  • Write primarily in complex sentences, rather than simple or compound sentences;
  • Include figurative language such as a metaphor, a simile, personification; and
  • Include a trope or scheme, such as chiasmus, oxymoron or anaphora.

As with tip #7, this serves two functions: 1) it distinguishes your essay from those that are poorly written; and 2) it reassures the admissions board of your excellent command of written English.

Tip #9: Have Someone Proofread Your Essay

This is one of the most important tips on this list. Everyone who writes knows that the words in your head don’t always make it onto the page the way they should. Because you know what it should say, it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking the essay says something that it doesn’t. For this reason, you should ask a friend or a relative (or an English teacher) to look over your essay and check your:

  • Grammar: did you write in complete sentences? Do all your subjects and verbs agree?
  • Diction: are all the words used properly for an American audience?
  • Organization: have you grouped sentences together coherently?

Tip #10: Pay Attention to Deadlines

College admissions essays require a tremendous amount of work. As you work and rework the essay, pay attention to the admission deadlines and requirements. Every school has their own system for how and when to file your application. Do not assume that, because one school uses e-mails and PDFs, that another school does as well.

The best way to stay organized through the college admissions process (and at the university when courses begin) is to rigorously maintain a calendar that includes:

  • Final deadlines
  • Reminders of upcoming deadlines
  • Process deadlines (breaking larger tasks into smaller steps)

Bonus Tip: Post, but Don't Panic

At some point, you will file your college admissions application. After you post it, please don’t panic. With these tips, and your determined intellect, you have an excellent chance of being accepted to an American university.

Take a look at our college essay samples to get an idea of what colleges are looking for in your essay.

Admission Essays

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