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College Essays: Three Tips to Success

by Carol Barash, PhD, on Apr 22, 2014 9:23:00 AM

In a 2012 NACAC study of over 2000 college admissions officers, essays were the most important factor in college admissions after grades and SAT/ACT scores. In the crowded application pool, the essay plays a key role in helping admissions officers choose between candidates with similar test scores and GPAs. 

College application essays reveal your character; they show admission officers who you will be on their campus and in their community. In a survey of 48 admissions officers from selective private colleges, admissions officers said that they look for three things when reading your essay: a unique perspective, strong writing, and an authentic voice.

Let’s look at the three keys to admissions essay success more closely:

1. Unique perspective

A unique perspective shows how you see the world and what difference you have made through your actions. List 20 or more moments when you learned a key lesson, changed in a fundamental way, or made a difference in the lives of others. These can be simple moments, like a family meal or late night conversations with friends. Narrow the list down to focus on things you did, not concepts you realized or believe in. And remember: admissions officers aren’t looking for expensive trips or fancy experiences--in fact, sometimes that kind of extravagance can be a little off-putting. Colleges read your essays to learn more about you, not what your parents can buy. Share personal moments that reveal who you are as a human being.

2. Strong writing

You might think admissions officers are looking for essays like you write in English class, with a strong argument and tight grammar. Not so! The most important thing is the narrative. It’s important to proofread your essays and clean up any grammar snafus, but much more important is to write with the power of storytelling. 

3. Authentic voice

An authentic voice sounds like an individual. To access your authentic voice, start by telling your stories out loud into a phone or computer. If you can gather a group of friends and tell your stories to one another--even better. Telling your stories out loud is your authentic voice, and builds a powerful emotional bridge between you as an individual and your audience. Use these storytelling sessions to draft your essays in a way that sounds like you and conveys your personality. This will connect you to your audience, the people who read your applications in admissions offices.

A bonus tip: don’t repeat your achievements in your essays; they already show up in your transcript and lists of awards and activities. Essays provide a unique opportunity to add another dimension. Which stories show who you will be as a classmate? Roommate? Fellow leader of a campus activity?

Looking to find inspiration for your essays? Try these resources.

Topics:college admission