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How to Write a College Admission Essay: the Basics

As the deadline looms for Early Action and Early Decision college applications (November 1), you may now be finally getting around to penning your admission essays. While it may seem like the admission essays are an added bonus to your college application, they actually hold incredible weight in the admission decision. Your GPA, class rank, and SAT/ACT scores are all important, no doubt, but the admission essays give your college application a personal touch that allows admissions officers to read between the lines of your resume and academic standing. In other words, you should not throw down a few paragraphs within an hour and call it a day. The essays should be drafted, re-drafted, edited, and polished for absolute clarity. Sounds like a daunting task, right? Well, if you saved writing the admission essays until the last minute, you definitely have some catching up to do, but writing a perfect essay is not entirely out of reach. By following these guidelines, you will be well on your way to crafting a quality college admission essay:

1) Treat the college admission essay like a story, not an essay.

Whenever you see the word “essay,” you probably think of English class and analyzing some famous text like Romeo and Juliet. Maybe you even learned the strict five-paragraph format. For college admission essays, you will take some of the key elements of an essay, such as the introduction paragraph (including the thesis statement) and the conclusion paragraph (including re-stating thesis and key points). However, beyond these elements, you must treat the rest of the “essay” like a story. After your introduction, your essay should have a beginning, middle, and end in the same way a piece of fiction or creative non-fiction does. Once the story finishes, then the traditional essay conclusion appears. Of course, in your conclusion, you also want to reflect on how your experience will be useful in college and in your future career. Here is an outline: Introduction with thesis, story beginning, story middle, story end, conclusion with re-statement of thesis and key points.

2) The story in the college admission essay needs to focus on you.

This point may seem like a no-brainer, but students are surprisingly good at talking about everything but themselves when writing the admission essay. College admission officers want to know about something you experienced, not information about a scientific concept or a controversial issue. Don’t think that writing at length about something like gravitational forces or income inequality will be enough to reveal your passion for the subject. You should be the central character. You should be able to show how you learned something new, got passionate about a subject or idea, or overcame an obstacle. While your specific scenario might not be quite the same as the ones listed, just know that all great central characters go through change and growth. This is what the admissions officers want to see.

3) Avoid topics that are cliché, controversial, or too negative.

When choosing the best story for your admission essay, make sure that you are as unique in content as possible. This can be challenging, because many students share similar experiences, but do your best without getting too wild. For example, a lot of first-generation students will write an “immigrant story” essay. The story isn’t necessarily bad, but when so many people write it and come to the same conclusions, it is hard for the admissions officers to distinguish differences among the students. Also, do not write about religion or politics. These topics may be very important to you, especially religion, but it is better not to offend or make the admissions officers uncomfortable. There are ways to mention religion, however, without it being a problem. You can identify your beliefs, but try not to quote scripture or go too far into making your beliefs the main topic of the essay. Last but not least, avoid topics that are too negative, and if you do write about something serious, try to write about it in a positive way. For example, don’t write an entire essay about your parents’ divorce and complain how it ruined your life. Or if you talk about cancer in the family, don’t focus on all the bad aspects; show how you learned or gained something from the experience. These serious topics can reveal your maturity or immaturity, depending on how well you treat the subject matter.

4) Write more than the maximum word length and then cut out unnecessary information.

If you are provided a word (or character) maximum, write your initial draft past this length. You should get as much information down as possible, and then when you create subsequent drafts, you can eliminate unnecessary wording or ideas. If there is no specified length, then aim for 800-900 words. You want enough space to really show your personality but not so much that it bores the reader. If you find yourself often writing below the word length, evaluate how in-depth your essay really gets. Of course, for shorter responses, this can be hard, so don’t sweat it if you can’t stuff all your ideas into a 150-word supplemental essay.

5) Have at least one other person read your responses to improve clarity and remove typos.

Your family members are great resources for proofreading your admission essay and should give you honest feedback. If you have time, also try to get a teacher or school administrator to read it. While it may seem like a hassle to ask people to read your response, it will give you some peace of mind and make you feel more confident in what you have written. Berkeley2 Academy also has essay services that you can use if you want professionals to review your essays. Don’t undertake this task alone!

Wherever you may be in your college admission essay process, use these guidelines to help streamline the process and produce a quality essay. Even if you are not applying Early Action or Early Decision, these tips can be used even for the regular deadlines. Remember, you want an essay that shows your personality in the best possible way. Sell yourself to the admissions officers just like someone might in a job interview. The essay is your firm handshake and your confident hello.

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