Much of a student's college application revolves around numbers -- test scores, class rank, GPA. The essay, on the other hand, can add color to black-and-white statistics and breathe life into a static portrait. Particularly for students on the cusp of entry, a lot can ride on the college essay.
Follow the Prompt and Directions
Students should choose the prompt about which they feel most passionate or opt for “other” when available. Whichever path a writer takes, it’s imperative to stay on track by answering the query and backing it up with supporting evidence. Likewise, if the directions call for a 500-word maximum -- as they do on the Common Application -- applicants must adhere.
Hyperbole and bald-faced lies have no place on a college application. Admissions officers like stories of adversity, but a made-up illness or family calamity will result in swift rejection. Particularly in the global community of the 21st century, stories that sound larger-than-life are easy to verify or debunk.
Essays need to reflect a student’s solid academic ability. Use of constructive message development and college-level vocabulary demonstrates that a candidate is ready for postsecondary education. On the other hand, using vocabulary designed merely to impress will sound stilted and overreaching.
Thinking critically and making connections between current events, literature, history and a student’s personal involvement with a cause give colleges an inner glimpse to whom a candidate really is. When a student refers to her volunteer work at a rape crisis center and backs up a few anecdotal examples with national statistics, it demonstrates passion, drive and intelligence.
Don’t Repeat a Resume
College applicants should not merely repeat what is already clearly spelled out by their high school transcripts. It’s unnecessary and unhelpful to point out a student’s role on a team or in a club unless those roles speak to broader life lessons. For example, the 1972 rugby team that was stranded in the Andes would have had a compelling reason to discuss team membership in an essay.
With a typical limit of 500 words, being concise isn’t just good writing; it’s a required restriction. Brevity of words and an active voice can combine to send a powerful message.
Use Humor, but Sparingly
Those with a knack for the genre should go for it. The caveat attached to the effort, though, is better safe than sorry. A student needs to consider whether her humor will match her prospective college and the person reading her essay.
A few students find admission success by boldly including video addendums to college applications. Unless the college has a reputation for encouraging artsy innovation, however, students should forgo quirky and odd, in favor of intelligently creative.
Paint a Word Portrait
The adage of "show don’t tell" is never more apropos than in the college essay. Actions and anecdotes speak louder than scripted assertions. Rather than saying outright that he’s a good leader, a student might relate the time he led his Boy Scout troop safely through a stormy mountain path.
Edit and Ask Others
The best essays are thoroughly revised and well-edited. After self-editing, students should ask outsiders to read and offer objective critique to their essays. Parents, relatives, teachers, coaches and bosses can all offer a new perspective.
Linda Emma is a long-standing writer and editor. She is also a digital marketing professional and published author with more than 20 years experience in media and business. She works as a content manager and professional writing tutor at a private New England college. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northeastern University.