How to Nail Your College Admissions Essay

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The blinking cursor stares at you, as if tempting you to make the first move. College admissions deadlines are inching toward you, and all that’s left to do is write the often-dreaded college essay. Worry not, clever applicant, the admissions essay doesn’t have to trigger clammy hands and cold sweats. This misunderstood piece of the college application puzzle—and one that carries significant weight for admissions committees—is actually the best opportunity you have for expressing who you are beyond letter grades, test scores, and extracurriculars.

This is your opportunity to shine in only a way you can.

ASU Prep Digital compiled the best advice from college admissions experts across the web to equip you with the tools, tips and tricks for writing an authentic and admissions-worthy college essay.

Stay true to your voice.

Time and again, college admissions experts drive this point home: above all else, your essay must be authentic. Scrap the idea of being who you think admissions directors want you to be. The only person they want you to be is you.

Be honest in your response to the essay prompt. Don’t butter up your feelings, but rather lay them bare. This takes a certain vulnerability, but that momentary discomfort of wearing your heart on your sleeve pays off in strides. Honesty, transparency, and authenticity are always more compelling than their opposites.

Use online essay prompts, like those provided by The Common Application, to get your gears turning while building your writer’s muscle.

Believe in your essay topic.

Nothing is more evident than a writer bored by their own words. By all expert accounts, your college essay should answer the question, “What do I believe in?” And since that can be an intimidatingly broad question, start small. Lead yourself to the answer during a dedicated brainstorming session. Set aside an hour of time with no digital or #IRL distractions in sight, then ask yourself questions like the following:

  • What keeps me up at night?
  • About which topics could I teach a class?
  • What’s the first thing I want to do each day when I get home from school?

The point of this exercise is to come up with a list of the things that you believe in, love and enjoy. With this list in hand, you’re inevitably closer to finding an essay topic that’s worth writing about.

Don’t be afraid of conflict.

On the flip side of finding your passions, many college admissions counselors advise students to write about tense situations. Allow for conflict or inner turmoil to turn up the tension and enthrall your reader. According to the New York Times, “you want to express more nuanced thinking and explore your own clashing emotions.” This may seem uncomfortable at first. After all, many high-school essays ask students to summarize existing information or support one side of conflicting viewpoints. But that’s precisely what you don’t want to do in your college essay; rather, it should give college admissions personnel a scope into who you are.

Try to push yourself out of your comfort zone by thinking about your recent missteps. Elaborating on why you consider something a failure, what you learned from it, and how it helped shape you into who you are today tells a strong story about you, your character, and your resilience.

Read this New York Times article for valuable tips on writing your college essay, including a list of “10 Things to Avoid.”

Find what makes you fascinating.

“There’s something fascinating in everyone’s life,” says George Anders in his Forbes article. Students often think only a difficult upbringing or serious setback can make for an interesting person. Not so. Each of us has something unique to offer, whether it be an odd obsession with Pez dispensers, a passion for birdwatching, or another hobby that makes our hearts flutter.

Here’s an interesting way to find a fascinating story hiding in plain sight: Start by writing about how others may perceive you. Try asking people in your life to describe you or what comes to mind when they think of you. Start developing those themes in an essay, fine-tuning them steadily throughout the next few drafts. You will likely be surprised at the story that results.

According to the IvyWise College Admissions Blog, schools often include unconventional secondary prompts or short answer questions to draw out an applicant’s individuality. Try answering some of the quirky prompts IvyWise rounded up to spur your imagination and get yourself thinking outside the box. Some of our favorite prompts include:

  • “You have a popular podcast. What’s the title? What’s the topic?” This prompt gets you thinking about your passions and the things you believe in. After all, you’d only want to spend time podcasting about something you love, right?
  • “What do you hope will change about the place where you live?” This prompt helps familiarize admissions committees with how you perceive the world around you, which values you hold true, and what you look for in a community.

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