Acing College Admissions Essays: What To Keep and Avoid

Posted a year ago
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When applying for a college in the US, your Common Application will include a personal statement essay, which provides schools with insight about who you are and how you came to be that way.

For many universities, you’ll also have to write school-specific supplementary essays, also accessible through the Common Application.

Some schools require one, some schools have many, and others do not have any, so be sure to check the requirements.

One thing is for sure, your admissions essays can play an integral role in whether you get accepted or not.

Supplementary essays are a chance to reveal your academic interests, and to demonstrate to your selected schools why you’d be a good fit for them.

While there’s no set formula to what makes admissions essays successful, there are some main elements admissions officers will look for when assessing yours.

1. Focus on your strengths, passions and aptitudes - show what makes you special.

The personal statement is the one window into your personality that admissions officers will see, so really get to the heart of your identity and narrative in whatever stories or anecdotes you select as your focus.

Ask those closest to you for ideas about a facet of your life that best illustrates who you are, and when you’re done writing, get feedback from them.

Touted as 'New Zealand's Smartest Teen', Soumil Singh’s college application essay narrates his experience playing cricket with kids in his hometown village in India, particularly focusing on one muslim child whose family was socially isolated in a hindu dominated community, and how cricket, the sport he loves, helped break down the social barriers.

By writing about this experience, Soumil was able to present some of his passions, playing cricket and travelling, and discussed these in a way that portrayed him as an understanding, compassionate, genuine, and empathetic person.

Soumil is currently in Harvard’s Class of 2020.

2. Don’t be generic, be unique!

Avoid the trap of resorting to quick cliches and generic statements and invest your time in writing a unique essay that lets your personality, values and past experiences stand out among the thousands of other applicants!

Describing an event concisely gives you a greater chance of writing in a unique way, as your experience is your own.

However, you must try to avoid telling a story without reflection.

Underpin your unique essay with a moral teaching or lesson learnt that highlights your wisdom and depth of character.

Many applicants can get carried away focusing on telling a good story rather than highlighting an understanding of why it happened and how the event in the story changed their beliefs, behavior and/or their understanding of the world at large.

Take for example, Jamie Beaton’s college application essay where he discusses his first part-time job, flippin’ burgers at a fast food joint.

Jamie vividly describes the smells, sights and sounds he experienced on his first shift and how he learnt the hard way about “humility, respect and the value of a good chicken tenderloin”.

Jamie went on to receive admissions offers from 25 of the world’s best colleges and universities - eventually choosing Harvard. Whether you’re discussing burger flipping or life saving, the content should offer self-reflection, concise description and avoid generic cliches.

3. If you’re applying for a college that requires a school-specific supplementary essay, make sure you do your research.

Being able to show specific details about the school you’re applying for such as courses and professors of interest to you, campus programs you could add value to, and college communities you would be a good fit for will position you as a valuable addition to the campus cohort.

However, be careful with oversharing; don’t just list a bunch of your interests, try to always speak to campus details with your specific goals, interests and passions in mind.

Most importantly, remember:

4. It’s never too early to start writing your essay!

Most colleges’ topics and questions are made public around mid-year (June/July), and while it’s easy to disregard the personal essay until after your final exams and secondary school is complete, it’s a good idea to start earlier rather than later.

This will also provide you with more opportunities to research each school, improve your essay and ultimately your college candidacy.

On top of this,

5. Always allow plenty of time to edit and polish.

The earlier you begin writing, the more time you provide yourself to edit, and the less likely you are to overlook avoidable slip-ups.

It’s also a good idea to get as many eyes on your essay as possible; share your writing with a trustworthy friend, a teacher or your parents and get their feedback before finalising and submitting.

Final thoughts

While these insights should give you an idea of what is expected of your supplemental essay, remember there is no sure fire, guaranteed set formula for writing a successful essay.

Try your best to stay true to yourself, trust your knowledge and have faith in your writing ability.

Good luck!

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