Meghan Daniels is the Associate Editor at Knewton.
Trying to get a jump-start on your college applications by starting your college essay, but find yourself staring a blank computer screen for hours on end instead? We’ve all been there.
College essays are tough. The topics are vague. There’s pressure to be smart and funny, to avoid cliche, to write about something groundbreaking.
If you’re using the Common Application, you’ll be given a list of topics and a minimum word count of 250 words. The essay topics all ask you to consider something in relationship to yourself — an experience, an issue, a person, a character. And the last essay topic? “Topic of your choice.” Nope, they’re really not going to tell you what to do.
With that in mind, here are Knewton’s top 10 tips to ace your college essay:
1) Be yourself. If you can find humor in everything from calculus to Catullus, don’t feel like you have to rein the jokes in for your essay. Be appropriate, but let your wit shine through. On the other hand, if your writing style and personality are more serious, write a serious essay. Colleges want to gain insight into your real personality, not some manufactured version of yourself.
2) Write about something that’s important to you. If well-done, an essay about your family’s trip to Mexico could be just as meaningful as an essay about climbing Mt Everest solo before the age of 10 (although, just to put it out there, if you climbed Mt. Everest solo at age 9… write about that). Try to think outside the box, but don’t worry so much about being unique that you feel paralyzed before you’ve even begun.
3) Tell them something they don’t know. The admissions officers have seen your grades, read your recommendations, and taken note of your SAT scores. The college essay should NOT be a glorified resume. Use your essay to give admissions officers a better idea of what makes you tick – beyond grades and test scores.
4) Avoid cliches and platitudes. Even if the underlying theme of your essay is that everything happens for a reason (which is fine), don’t begin your essay with, “Everything happens for a reason.” Don’t just tell me that swim camp was “life-changing”; instead, describe the effect it had on you using vivid, interesting details. Also, avoid overused quotations. You know what I’m talking about: “It ain’t over ’til it’s over”;Â “Two roads diverged… and I took the one less traveled by”; etc etc etc.
5) Stay away from controversy. Save the provocative opinions for op-eds in the college paper; after you get in, you can stir the pot as much as you’d like. As a general rule of thumb, steer clear from sex, drugs, drinking, and rock ‘n’ roll (well, the last one might be okay). If you really want to write about your involvement in a divisive cause, shine the spotlight on your personal growth, rather than the movement itself.
6) Be confident. Don’t preface all your sentences with “I think,” “it seems,” or “in my opinion.” This is your essay; we know it’s from your point of view.
7) Make it fun. Your essay doesn’t have to read like a legal brief. Be creative; let your voice shine through. A few (appropriate) jokes will show colleges you have a sense of humor, and don’t take yourself too seriously.
8) Narrow down your topic. You only have a limited amount of space. Don’t take on too much. In other words, rather than writing an essay about how every one of your 12 aunts has influenced you in different ways, pick one (and don’t send your essay to the other 11!).
9) Write. Write. Write some more. Suffering from writer’s block? Spend a couple of hours brainstorming potential topics. Don’t judge them prematurely. There are no stupid ideas! Then, sit down at the computer every day, and force yourself to type something. You won’t hit gold every time, but if you keep at it for long enough, you’re bound to churn out something useful.
10) Edit. Proofread. Repeat. Once you have a pretty solid draft, ask for feedback from someone you trust. Don’t expect that person to tell you, “It’s perfect, you’re done, send it in” – and if they do, find someone else to look at it.Â Edit your personal statement for content, style, and grammatical correctness several times. Once you’ve put the essay through the wringer, don’t be afraid to put down the (metaphorical) pen and send it in. You’ll know when it’s time.
In conclusion, when it comes to the college essay, I think Shakespeare said it best: “To thine own self be true.”
P.S. Do not end your essay like that.