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College Essay Tips How To Start A Small

Most selective colleges require you to submit an essay or personal statement as part of your application.

It may sound like a chore, and it will certainly take a substantial amount of work. But it's also a unique opportunity that can make a difference at decision time. Admissions committees put the most weight on your high school grades and your test scores. However, selective colleges receive applications from many worthy students with similar scores and grades—too many to admit. So they use your essay, along with your letters of recommendation and extracurricular activities, to find out what sets you apart from the other talented candidates.

Telling Your Story to Colleges

So what does set you apart?

You have a unique background, interests and personality. This is your chance to tell your story (or at least part of it). The best way to tell your story is to write a personal, thoughtful essay about something that has meaning for you. Be honest and genuine, and your unique qualities will shine through.

Admissions officers have to read an unbelievable number of college essays, most of which are forgettable. Many students try to sound smart rather than sounding like themselves. Others write about a subject that they don't care about, but that they think will impress admissions officers.

You don't need to have started your own business or have spent the summer hiking the Appalachian Trail. Colleges are simply looking for thoughtful, motivated students who will add something to the first-year class.

Tips for a Stellar College Application Essay

1. Write about something that's important to you.

It could be an experience, a person, a book—anything that has had an impact on your life. 

2. Don't just recount—reflect! 

Anyone can write about how they won the big game or the summer they spent in Rome. When recalling these events, you need to give more than the play-by-play or itinerary. Describe what you learned from the experience and how it changed you.

3. Being funny is tough.

A student who can make an admissions officer laugh never gets lost in the shuffle. But beware. What you think is funny and what an adult working in a college thinks is funny are probably different. We caution against one-liners, limericks and anything off–color.

4. Start early and write several drafts.

Set it aside for a few days and read it again. Put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer: Is the essay interesting? Do the ideas flow logically? Does it reveal something about the applicant? Is it written in the applicant’s own voice?

5. No repeats.

What you write in your application essay or personal statement should not contradict any other part of your application–nor should it repeat it. This isn't the place to list your awards or discuss your grades or test scores.

6. Answer the question being asked.

Don't reuse an answer to a similar question from another application.

7. Have at least one other person edit your essay.

A teacher or college counselor is your best resource. And before you send it off, check, check again, and then triple check to make sure your essay is free of spelling or grammar errors.


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About Rob Franek

Rob Franek, Editor-in-Chief at The Princeton Review, is the company's primary authority on higher education. Over his 24-year career, he has served as a college admissions administrator, test prep teacher, author, publisher, and lecturer. Read more and follow Rob on Twitter: @RobFranek

Here’s a brutal truth about applying to college: On paper, most teenagers are not very unique. Some three million high school graduates send applications into universities every single year, and that’s just within the United States. Seasoned admissions officers—particularly at elite schools—know how to spot cookie-cutter applicants and toss them into the reject pile in seconds.

Luckily, you do get a modest chance to distinguish yourself. Universities in the US and across the world are increasingly looking away from test scores and grade point averages and toward one particularly unique component of students’ applications: the essay. If done exceptionally well, it’s a catapult to an acceptance offer. So what exactly is the best way to sell oneself to Harvard in a thousand words or fewer? Reporters and editors across Quartz’s newsroom have come together to offer some foolproof advice.

Forget “writing from the heart”

Parents and teachers will often tell students who are just starting out on their essays to “write sincerely,” “write about your feelings,” “write about what matters to you.” That advice, while well-intentioned, is not helpful. An essay can be completely heartfelt—and terrible.

Instead of starting from such a broad place, begin with the narrow strategy of researching the worst college-essay clichés; that way, even if you don’t have the faintest idea what to write about, you at least know what you have to avoid. Examples of hackneyed essay characteristics that immediately make admissions officers roll their eyes include:

  • Dictionary definitions (“Webster’s defines ‘courage’ as…”)
  • Epigraphs or references of famous writers (“It was the best of times…”)
  • Sound effects (“Whizz! Snap! Whew! went the rocket that I built…”)
  • Sentences that are just strings of SAT words (“The fortuitous phenomena that transpired on the fortnight of…”)
  • Overused metaphors
  • “Let me tell you a story”
  • Repeating information from other parts of your application, i.e. re-listing all your extracurriculars
  • Talking about the university instead of yourself
  • Over-using passive tense, instead of telling an engaging story
  • Sticking too close to the prompt (“A time I overcame an obstacle was when…”)

Don’t be interesting. Be interested

Now, what to write about? Essay prompts are intentionally open-ended, and there are several ways to go about choosing a topic. Here’s a nearly foolproof one: Write about a person, place, or idea that you genuinely—perhaps to the point of geeky, nervous-laughter embarrassment—love.

“Write about what you’re interested in, not what you think is interesting about you,” says Quartz lifestyle reporter Jenni Avins, who wrote about her part-time job in high school making crepes in a coffee shop: “I was really interested in the people who came into this creperie, and this little world. It was an observational piece about having this window on a community.”

But this doesn’t mean you should ramble on pointlessly for five paragraphs. Make sure your topic reveals something about yourself, or why you want to study and pursue the things you do. Jenni’s essay highlighted her curiosity toward others. Quartz science editor Elijah Wolfson wrote his essay about pizza joints in New York—but it was really a tale of moving across the country and coming to terms with loss.

Yale’s dean of admissions Jeremiah Quinlan told Quartz last year that the university is explicitly “looking for passion” in the kids it admits; you can bet that the admissions offices at Stanford, MIT, and other top-tier schools are hunting around for the exact same. Don’t worry about your topic sounding too boring or pretentious—the raw emotion underneath matters more.

Pull out unflattering memories

It can be instinctive to paint the best picture of yourself possible in your essay, but put aside vanity and pride for a moment. You’ve already spent the rest of your college application flourishing your immaculate GPA, club leadership, and volunteer work. Oftentimes, the most powerful essay topic is one that lets some of your imperfections seep through.

You can start by thinking of a time that you struggled, made a mistake, or were embarrassed. Quartz technology reporter Mike Murphy, for example, wrote his essay on being stranded at the bottom of the Grand Canyon as a kid. He begins by setting up the scene: “I’m sorry, but 3:30 a.m. is never the same as 4:00 a.m.” He goes on to explain how he and his relatives were accidentally separated on the trip, walking the reader through the challenges he faced on his way back to safety, and ending on a tone of humility and lesson-learning.

Good essays don’t all need to hype up an applicant’s superpowers: They can expose weaknesses, demonstrating subtlety and self-awareness.

Tell a story—however you want to

When it comes to the college essay, taking a risk—however small or big—is better than playing it safe. Try writing different versions of your essay, maybe in completely different formats, just to see if one of them resonates more than the others.

“Admissions officers have to read so many essays that physically look the same. An essay that stands out is simply more memorable,” says Quartz growth editor Jean-Luc Bouchard. “I wrote a series of thematically linked poems for my admissions essay, and even though the poems were probably pretty bad, I think I got points just for trying something different.”

You may recall the news this spring about Ziad Ahmed, a student who got into Stanford by writing “#BlackLivesMatter” a hundred times on one of his essay prompts. Such ventures may come off as gimmicky—and we certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone repeating this exact idea in a future year—but they’re effective at one thing: grabbing the reader’s attention. Ziad, who had interned for Hilary Clinton and was recognized by Barack Obama at a White House dinner in 2015, was already more than qualified. What his essay did was make admissions officers pause in their tracks for a moment, and peer a tad more closely at the rest of his application.

Tinker with your essay. Think of it not as an essay in the academic sense, but an unlined blank canvas you can use to present whatever you want. That said, no sound effects—please.

Proofread

Run your essay through spellcheck. Ask a teacher, friend, parent, or counselor to read it over—then ask five more people to do the same. Admissions officers barrel through dozens of essays a day, and the rote tedium of it can cause them to be hyper-critical of even the smallest of typos and grammatical errors. Show them this small respect, and you’ve already beat out many others kids for that coveted acceptance letter.


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