Admissions Writing AdviceAdmissions, Writing, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2009

Writing College Entrance Essays

PrecisionEdit

For most students, the first essay they write as a college requirement is also the most important one. The college entrance essay is a daunting task that requires as much candor as it does nuance, and the formula-driven essay assignments in high school language arts classes are a far cry from what admissions committees typically expect. In addition, competition for admission into the nation's top universities is steadily tightening. As students, parents, and guidance counselors recognize the necessity of obtaining a respected degree in today's job market, applicants wisely vie for the slots that will give them the greatest chances in competing for the best career opportunities.

So is it possible for the average student to stand out when writing college entrance essays? And how important is it to focus a great deal of time and effort on this endeavor? The answer to these questions is… very! In many cases, a student's college entrance essay overshadows his or her grades, extracurricular activities, and academic achievements. Admissions committees want to know who a student is as a person; all the impressive numbers and name-dropping do not necessarily reveal that. The college entrance essay is most often the only chance that committees have to see students for who they really are, know their individual struggles and intent, and connect on a personal level with them.

Often students ask, "How do I know what to write?" A 500-word limit doesn't allow a lot of room for ineffective and unnecessary information, and the process of weeding out what is important and what isn't can be overwhelming. That word cap is placed for a reason: committees don't want to read your life story, they simply want a type of written snapshot of your past, present, and future. Think of it as a first impression—the kind of introduction that does not come with a lot of detailed information. With this in mind, the easiest way to begin a college admissions essay is to ask yourself: "What first impression do I want to make?"

When you introduce yourself to a stranger, do you divulge a lot of information about your childhood experiences? Do you get on a soapbox about politics and world peace? Do you make a lot of excuses or offer lengthy explanations about possible faults on your academic record? Or, do you use clear and straightforward tactics to show that you are professional, to demonstrate that you have a sense of humor and self-worth, and to clearly outline what you hope to achieve from the meeting? Hopefully, you choose the latter, and this is exactly what you should do when writing a college entrance essay.

The most common mistake that students make when writing college entrance essays is saying too much about what is unimportant and not enough about what is most important. When a student uses two paragraphs of a 500-word count essay discussing his or her academic achievements, it is a waste of opportunity. Such achievements are generally noted on your application and reference letters, and do not need excessive reiteration. A sentence or two highlighting the greatest of your achievements is sufficient; any more, and you run the risk of being repetitive.

Academic achievements, classes taken, grades, and community service are typically included in your transcripts and application itself, and should be given limited space in a college entrance essay. However, there are pieces of information that are not always shown in the actual application or transcripts. Such information could include why you chose a particular college or career path, who influenced you the most and why, and positive qualities about yourself that will make you a successful college student. These are all questions that the admissions committee will have about you, and questions that will reveal a lot to them about your goals, your motivation, your personality, and your intent.

Admissions committees also like to know how serious you are about becoming a part of their school. They like to think that if they are turning down another student in order to give you an open slot, it is because you really want the opportunity to attend their school. This is why it is key to include clear reasons why you chose a particular school, and how it stands apart from the rest in your search. Never let an admissions committee know that you have applied to several schools, and that they are simply one of the many on your list. A vast majority of universities still embrace exclusivity, tradition, and loyalty in their decision-making process, and seek students who will be proud of being a part of the campus body.

Finally—and most importantly—you should seek to show personality and human-ness in your writing. Often, students assume that the admissions essay should reflect their scholastic ability, and make the mistake of being overly pretentious and academic in their approach to writing. While a college entrance essay should certainly be free of grammatical and structural problems, it is never advisable to talk "down" to your audience, or write as if you are preparing a dissertation before you even begin your university studies. Humor, in small doses, is an excellent approach to counter the tendency to be excessively academic—as is carefully considered candor. Such writing will create a personal bond between the essay writer and audience, keeping him or her in the position of being a memorable applicant.

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