1. Reel the reader inEvery application season, the members of college admissions committees are overwhelmed with thousands of applications, each of which is accompanied by a personal essay. Imagine how many pages of personal statements admissions counselors must review and how little time they have to do so. In light of this time constraint, your goal should be to reel in your reader as soon as possible; given the brevity of personal statements, this means you should aim to grab your reader’s attention from the very first line. One effective way to lure in a reader is by starting off with a unique quote or saying. You can choose a cultural proverb—“The craft fears the craftsman”—or a mysterious line from a poem so that your reader is led to think, “Hmm, where is this going?” Whatever you decide to start with, the goal is to keep your reader interested and for your essay to stand out from the thousands of others with which admissions counselors are flooded.
2. Mind your punctuationWhile it is certain that admissions counselors do not have time to read each college essay carefully, they are likely to pick up on glaring punctuation errors. Each punctuation mark has a very specific function in language, and they should not be used interchangeably. If you are unsure about the difference between a comma and a semicolon, for example, refer to The Chicago Manual of Style or another reliable grammar resource such as the Purdue OWL. At this point in your education, it is expected that you have a sound understanding of basic writing conventions. On the other hand, clever use of the more unusual punctuation marks could earn you some extra points. A well-employed semicolon, which is meant to separate two closely related sentences, can look smart and professional (e.g., “Poor diet is a leading cause of type 2 diabetes; meals high in fat can contribute to the disease’s development”). Then there is the em-dash, a versatile and underrated punctuation mark that can serve a dramatic effect (e.g., “He believed he had finally solved the notorious murder case—however, his work had just begun”). Get creative with punctuation, but remember that improper usage can work against you.
3. Show off your vocabularyAll those English vocabulary quizzes and hours of SAT prep were not in vain. Your college essay is a pristine opportunity to showcase your repertoire of interesting words. A few tactfully placed three-syllable words can give your essay a mature, intelligent tone. Do you have a fondness for the words “acerbic” or “clandestine”? Great — if you can find a good spot for them in your college essay, include them. Even one or two of these types of words can leave an effect on your reader. However, similarly to the recommendation on punctuation, proper usage is key. An inappropriately used word is likely to get your reader’s attention for all the wrong reasons. You should verify an uncommon word’s definition before you decide to put it in your essay. Also, bear in mind that including an excess of sophisticated words is equally counterproductive, as it may come across as pretentious and cloud your statement’s purpose. You can impress with your college essay without reinventing the wheel. Just a few minor touches — a well-placed semicolon, a fancy word or two, etc. — can give your essay the fire it needs to be unique. Don’t discount the small stuff!
Tiffany Sorensen is a professional tutor and contributing writer with Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement.