Formula for the Perfect College Essay

Is there a correct way to write an essay?

By Kathryn Knight Randolph

November 10, 2016

Formula for the Perfect College Essay

The college admissions essay is seemingly the most daunting piece of the application. While filling in the blanks, gathering letters of recommendation and taking standardized tests can be time-consuming, the process is pretty straight-forward. Essays, on the other hand, aren’t so cut and dry.

They’re oftentimes open-ended with a prompt like: tell us about yourself or your achievements or an obstacle you’ve overcome. Others are a little more creative – or complicated, depending on your perspective. Schools like the University of Chicago are notorious for being imaginative with their essay prompts by allowing current students to come up with them. For example, one prompt this year reads: “What is square one, and can you actually go back to it?”

The formula is…there is no formula.

The essay is the component of the college application that allows for some freedom. There is no need to write a formulaic essay with an introduction, three-point body and conclusion. Rather, you can do with it what you want. You could even compile a video essay.

This is your opportunity to showcase your personality. What makes you who you are – was it a struggle in the past? The instrument that changed your life? Your first athletic practice or game? A person that you admire? Your desire to attend the school to which you are applying?

Grab their attention.

Once you’ve figured out a topic, start off your essay on the right foot. Admission officers read countless essays, and yours is sure to stand out with an attention-grabbing first sentence or paragraph. Start with a quote, a striking fact or an interesting story. Your options are endless…almost. Whatever you do, don’t start the essay with: “My name is ___________, and I really want to attend XYZ University. “

Stay within word limits.

The word limits for essay prompts exist for a reason: admission officers have thousands of applications to look over. They can’t devote an hour to each application reading lengthy essays. If there is a word limit, stick to it. If not, be courteous in the length of your response.

With that, don’t try to fit too much into the word limits. Read and reread your college admissions essay with a fine tooth comb. Ask whether or not every sentence, or every detail, is necessary to the point you’re trying to make.

Don’t regurgitate your resume.

Admission committees will have just read through your application; the last thing they want to do is read another form of your information, achievements and extracurricular involvement. The essay is a supplement and it should act as such. Use it to add to your application by showcasing another side of yourself.

In the event that there is something on your application that you do need to explain, your essay is the perfect place. If your transcript reflects a poor sophomore year – with improvement during your junior and senior years – talk about why you struggled that particular year.

Be yourself.

Don’t be too formal – or too reliant on a Thesaurus. Use a conversational voice. After all, this component of the essay is all about your personality. Don’t try to impress the admissions committee with your knowledge or verbiage; impress them with who you are.

It’s ok if you’ve never experienced hardship. Don’t write about circumstances and embellish just to have a sad or serious essay. It’s ok to have fun with this. However, if you have had to struggle with an illness, loss of a loved one or other difficult experience, discuss how you have or are working to overcome it. What has it shown you about yourself?

If you need inspiration, check out this student’s admissions essay. It got him into Harvard, MIT, Yale, Columbia and the University of Virginia. It’s beautifully crafted, fun and reveals more about the student than an application ever could, which is exactly the goal of the college admissions essay.

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