8 Tips on Writing a Successful College Essay
by Michael Ragozzino
Private Tutor, Main Line Philadelphia
It’s college essay time and you’ve spent hours wracking your brain to remember everything that might show just how important and amazing you are. But when you start writing, it immediately feels as if you’re running a marathon in quicksand. And when you finally finish, you read it over and shrug your sagging shoulders and think, “It’s okay. At least it sounds like a college application essay, and that’s good enough, right?"
Wrong. That essay, like 90% of all college essays, will end up in the trash emblazoned with a big red rejection sticker. Why? It’s not that you didn’t work hard enough on it. Believe it or not, you worked too hard on it—too hard and in the completely wrong way.
Over the past eight years more than 150 students have sought my help for their college essays. They learned how to stop struggling and ended up writing better essays than they’d ever thought possible. If you’re looking to maximize your chances of getting into your reach school, follow my most important pieces of advice.
1. Before you even look at an essay question, figure out why you want to go to college. Not your parents. Not your friends. YOU.
The whole point of the college essay is to get into college, right? But what’s the whole point of getting into college? Most students apply to college because that’s what their parents and teachers expect them to do. They see college as “just the next step” or “a way to get a good job.” But weak reasons like these won’t motivate you to put your best self into your essay. And they certainly won’t motivate you to tackle your college career with the confidence and focus you’ll need to get the most out of it.
Just as I once did, nearly every student I’ve ever worked with has struggled with this question—not because they didn’t have their own reasons, but because they hadn’t really searched for them. Once you discover your own personal reasons for wanting to go, you’ll be much more prepared to take on the college essay. So, before you write, spend some time really examining why you want to go to college.
2. The essay you THINK the admissions officer wants to read is NOT the essay the admissions officer wants to read.
So many students spend hours crafting the perfect essay to match what they think admissions officers want to read. The problem? You don’t know any admissions officers and so you end up writing for someone who is a mix of your English teacher and your principal. Those essays always end up stuffy and stilted, with a lot of “henceforths” and “aforementioneds” but absolutely zero personality. And, in the admissions game…
3. ...it’s all about personality.
Mainly, it’s all about your personality. Admissions officers go through thousands of applications a year and they’re looking for someone who stands out. The only way to separate yourself from the rest of the pack is to put a part of your real self in your essay. Here’s how:
4. Unless you are an actual superhero, don’t try to look like one.
A sad majority of students write essays that can basically be summed up like this: “I’m sooooo awesome. Look at all the awesome stuff I’ve done. I’m, like, waaay beyond perfect.” The problem here is that no one—especially not an admissions officer—actually believes that a high school senior is perfect. Pretending that you are only makes you sound like you don’t think you have anything else to learn. And someone who doesn’t have anything else to learn is going to be hard to teach.
Instead of rehashing how great it was to place in the state tournament for three years, talk about the one year you didn’t make it and what you learned from that experience. Remember, colleges are looking for the perfect fit, not the perfect person.
5. Avoid the “laundry list.”
The “laundry list” essay comes from the same place as the “superhero” essay. You want to look great, so you make sure to mention every little positive thing you’ve ever done in high school. In other words, your essay ends up with all the personality of a laundry list of extra-curricular activities.
This is the one moment that you have the admissions officer’s undivided attention. Don’t waste it by repeating the info already on your application. Instead, choose the one activity or accomplishment (or failure) that you feel most strongly about and write your essay around that.
6. Tell a good story
The number one way to ruin a college essay (or any piece of writing for that matter) is to forget to tell a story. Every good story needs a main character (you) and a problem (which is why superhero and laundry list essays don’t work). Even if you’re the prom queen or the state champion quarterback, high school has been full of underdog moments, near-defeats, impossible challenges, and last-second against-the odds victories. It’s also been filled with drama, secrets, betrayals, revelations, family, friends, nemeses…in other words, stories—good, solid, juicy stories that will give your application the personality it needs to pop right out of the stack and into 3-D animation on an admissions officer’s desk.
7. Stay positive
Yes, you’re writing a story and yes, it is going to be filled with challenges and pitfalls, but it should always have a hopeful (if not happy) ending. That doesn’t mean that you have to win the school-wide spelling bee or get the A you were after, but that the experience taught you something much more valuable than a trophy or a good grade.
8. Find your “happy place” and write there
Remember, this is not a paper on themes in Madame Bovary or a report on the Teapot Dome Scandal. This is a creative essay so find a place that inspires you to think about how you’ve developed over the past four years. One of my students was once struggling to write an essay on a soap-box car race he lost in the tenth grade. He had a great idea, but he just couldn’t write it the way he wanted to because he was sitting in the library. I suggested he take his laptop to the hill where the race took place. The next day he had it all finished. The lesson? The closer you can get to the experience you’re writing about, the more real your essay will feel.
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