The Common App has limited space to express yourself. Your only opportunity – outside of supplemental materials – are the essays (both generic and school-specific) that you must write.
Here are 5 basic tips to writing a quality college admissions essay for top schools:
1. Market yourself, not a story.
What I mean is – you can tell the best story in the world, but if it doesn’t provide insight on your accomplishments then it fails.
I remember reading this wonderful essay from one applicant who told a story about how her family adopted many stray dogs and how she took care of them growing up. While heartwarming, it had two problems:
-It didn’t highlight any of her accomplishments
-It showed very limited insight into her personality
She was waitlisted. And while the essay wasn’t the only reason, it didn’t help.
That’s what I mean by marketing yourself. At the end of reading your essays, the reader should have a much better sense for both your dominant personality traits and either your achievements or future goals in life.
2. Don’t be modest
This is a common problem with overachievers. Having done many impressive things, they then downplay their success, with comments and phrases like:
“There are so many other qualified students who want to get into Harvard”
“I will be incredibly lucky if you accept me to Stanford – I know many others deserve it
Do NOT say stuff like that.
Perhaps honest, and unfailingly nice, it does nothing for you.
Now, don’t go around bragging about how you’re the smartest physics student since Albert Einstein. But don’t downplay your accomplishments – be proud of them. Sincerely describe how hard it was to win first place in Academic Decathlon, or top prize at the State UIL contest.
Be confident – if you’re not, admissions offices are liable to overlook your application in place of someone who acts like they deserve it.
3. Use anecdotes and stories
A good story is priceless. Remember the girl above who adopts dogs? While the purpose of her essay was misguided, her use of a vivid story certainly caught my attention.
Remember, admissions committees discuss a lot of the candidates – particularly borderline ones. You want memorable stories in your essay that they can refer back to, that they can quote, that they can point to and say, because of what this student did, they deserve to come to Stanford.
Your essays are your best chance at making that happen. Use powerful imagery and personal anecdotes whenever you can. Leave readers with a lasting impression and it will serve you well come decision time.
4. Reinforce achievements, don’t reinforce a narrow interest
Similar to the first point, you want to brag a little bit in your essays without overdoing it. But when you brag – make sure you brag about your most impressive accomplishments.
Don’t talk about the 3rd place finish at your first track meet, UNLESS you also talk about how that propelled you eventually to the state championship.
Don’t talk about your first published short story, UNLESS you also describe how that success led you to commit to fiction writing, eventually winning national recognition.
You get the drift. Too often, students will discuss a small accomplishment that had great personal significance but limited professional significance. The best candidates describe accomplishments that had both – and those are the successful ones.
5. Don’t name drop when it doesn’t make sense
Too often, I’ll read essays that include sentences like the following:
“Harvard has been my dream school because my friend Ryan Smith is a Harvard freshman and I’ve always looked up to him.”
“I think Stanford would be a great match for me because my older sister is currently a junior there, and our personalities have always been very similar.”
It gets even worse when people name-drop various professors, university alums, etc
Here’s my best advice – only name-drop if mentioning that name is a KEY PART of your story. Only name-drop if, without the name, your essay would lose meaning.
If you do it wrong, at best it will be ignored. At worst it will make you look fake. Not helpful.
Thanks for reading! For more on college admissions essays – and other Ivy League admissions topics – check out my guide to getting into Harvard.
Want to attend Ivy League schools? Check out my insider’s course and guide to getting into Harvard, even with a 1360 SAT from a public high school.