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The 3 D's of College Application Essays

by Carol Barash, PhD, on Jul 20, 2012 10:00:00 AM

Want to write a personal statements that really make your college application essays stand out? Whatever your topic, when you start to stray into abstract statements – e.g. “That was the day I realized that all people are connected” – stop right there, before you go any further!

Instead of veering into generalizations, which are boring and send your reader packing, dig for details, dialogue and description to draw your reader into the experience and leave them asking for more.

What’s that? Don’t college admissions officers want to hear about my big ideas and great global experiences? They may want to know what you’ve experienced, but not what happens in your mind! Admissions officers say they want to see what you’ve done; they want to experience your unique perspective through strong writing with a unique point of view.

The details, dialogue and description you remember make your writing college application essays vivid and your own. These 3 D’s of college application essays add spice to your writing, just as surely as plenty of salt and pepper keep you in the kitchen on Top Chef.

Here’s how to do it:

Details: Share the experience with your reader through vivid sensory details: What colors were the leaves? What sounds came with the pounding rain? Which vegetables could you taste in your grandmother’s soup? What perfume was she wearing? Those scratchy trousers you wore to your first interview – were they polyester or wool?

Dialogue: It’s much more powerful to recreate the exact words of the conversation. Which of these draws you in and makes you want to read more?

“We talked about Manhattanhenge.”


“That is the biggest sun I have ever seen,” Charles said, pointing west across 53rd Street.

Description: These are the journalism questions: who, what, when, where, with the occasional why woven in. What year was it? What season? What was going on historically? Who else was there? Set the scene for your reader, so he or she is ready when you appear and take action.

And one more D for the road: it’s much better to go into depth with your college application essays, and to talk specifically about one specific moment, than to try to convey your whole life history in 250-500 words! 

Want more tips? Check out our guides, college admission essay tips and webinars that provide college essay help and enable you to successfully bridge the gap from high school to college, and life.
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Topics:college admission