Writing a College Essay

If you're an admissions officer, a typical day might look something like this: over your mug of morning coffee, you're peering at a stack of hundreds—maybe thousands—of applications from students from all over the world. You consider standardized test scores, grade point averages and other information to determine some of the strongest candidates. After the numbers are crunched, who will catch your eye and hold your interest?

Assess your options for the essay question. Most colleges and universities provide specific questions to direct your essay writing. You may be asked to consider how a particular experience or person has influenced you or to explain why a specific issue is important to you. Whether you explain your interest in environmental causes or illustrate the impact of inspirational volunteer work, choose a question that feels approachable based on your personal experiences.

Get to the heart of the question. Read the question several times, underlining what you are being asked to do. Be careful to determine what is being asked, address the question directly, and elaborate with interesting experiences. The question choices are offered so that admissions officers can get to know you better, but you must be specific in your approach. Do not educate the reader on the importance of human rights issues if the question asks how volunteering has changed you or impacted the person you have become. Be specific in tackling the question so that your experience can speak for you.

Start rough and then refine. First, organize your thoughts around your topic and outline important points. Start with a draft that captures your feelings and images, and then edit to make it lucid and refined. Revising for content, making changes, and reorganizing your thoughts will enhance the quality of your writing, so be sure that your essay includes:

  • an introduction with a clearly stated thesis that answers the question;
  • body paragraphs with key points to support your thesis;
  • a solid conclusion that does not simply restate your points, but also leaves a compelling image in the reader's mind.

Reduce, reuse, recycle. It's okay to revise one essay for more than one school. Some essay topics and questions are flexible enough that you can tailor your essay for more than one application. Just remember that the essay is your chance to communicate your reasons for wanting to attend a particular school. Reflect not just on who you are right now, but on who you wish to become through your experiences at this school.

Don't forget the finishing touches. Type the essay. Check the spelling. Correct the margins and punctuation. After you have read and reread your essay, you may feel too close to it to catch any missing commas. Show it to some objective observers, like counselors, parents, and teachers, who will see it with fresh eyes. They will see it for the first time, just as an admissions officer will.