College Essay Fundamentals

So you’re applying to college; you’ve probably got some personal essays to write. If we could tell you how to improve your score on your college admissions essay, we totally would. Sadly, that’s just not how it works. When it comes to navigating that minefield of college essay faux pas and clichés, formulas and strategies are pretty much laid to waste. Unlike an AP® Language synthesis essay, there is no grading rubric for your college essays. There’s no one right answer, and there’s no clear-cut wrong answer (although there are some fairly obvious DON’TS!). Because of the open-ended, and (surprisingly) personal nature of the personal essay, many college applicants find it one of the hardest parts of their college admissions process. Though most college essay prompts come in all different shapes and sizes, they are ultimately all there to ask the same fundamental question: ‘Why should we accept youand specifically YOU?’

In theory, this should be an easy question to answer—after all—nobody knows you better than you… right?! Seriously though—however easy or hard you find it to talk about yourself, your hopes, your dreams, your passions, remember that you are the best person qualified to do so. Let that sink in for a moment. Relish the thought that your college essay is the one thing you were born to write…even if it is the only thing. Sure, get deep with that thought if you want. The more ‘meta’ the better. It’s not about having the best spelling and grammar—it’s about projecting yourself through prose with as much personality as you can summon onto a page, using that essay prompt as your guide.

Often, a helpful way to get started is to interview a handful of supportive teachers, friends or relatives about what qualities they see in you. We don’t suggest taking direct quotes, but sometimes it helps to get an outsider’s perspective to help you shape your own thoughts. Don’t be afraid to talk about your strengths or successes—just make sure that they’re relevant to the colleges you’re applying to. Let’s say you rescued a box of puppies from a burning building. Awesome. There are certainly a lot of animal lovers at Marco who would appreciate your heroism. But you’ve still got to come up with a reason that this heroic rescue makes you the right candidate for the college of your choice.

By this point, we all know that the college essay is a little more than a personal statement. It’s not an invitation for you to list off the names of your favorite uncles. You have got to play the game a little. There’s a reason the list of personal essay cliches grows longer every year: It’s not like college admissions officers get subbed out on an annual basis. Instead, they grow ever weary of reading the same one-liners and sentiments over and over again. Some of them have been reading college essays for decades and simply need some extra razzle dazzle to get them to sit up and pay attention. Don’t we all?!

But don’t write something offbeat for the sake of it! So many students fall into the trap of trying to sound SO quirky that their college essays end up sounding cryptic or convoluted or contrived and more often than not, almost entirely irrelevant to the question at hand. Don’t feel bad if you find yourself tempted. It’s a hard trap not to fall into. We’ve all heard a story or two about kids who wrote magical, weird essays about a plastic spoon or something, and got into the college of their dreams. It’s hard not to want to write a similar, magical essay, but trust us; no college admission officer wants to read your nonsensical ramblings about disposable cutlery if said cutlery never meant anything significant to you in the first place.

Having a college essay that stands out doesn’t mean you need to have done anything newsworthy or bizarre, it just means giving your college essay a personal stamp and some extra flair. Being genuine and extraordinary are by no means mutually exclusive! If you’re writing anecdotally, pick out specific details that might enhance your storytelling. If you’re arguing a point with conviction, think about the counterarguments as well. Make sure to write honestly and with confidence, and that whatever it is you’re saying is something you believe in. Once you’ve laid that foundation, you can layer in whatever funny/clever/poignant/whacky toppings you want (that make sense). As long as it is inherently YOUR essay, you’re on to something good.