Admissions Writing AdviceAdmissions, Writing, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2005

Writing Impressive College Entrance Essays

More and more people are going to college these days right out of high school, so it goes without saying that making a stellar first impression is a necessity in order to stand out from the pack and get that coveted acceptance letter to your chosen university. With that in mind, writing an impressive college entrance essay that makes admissions personnel want to get to know you even better is the ideal way to get the attention you deserve.

Write to Impress

Whether your entrance essay is an open-ended work or directed toward answering specific admissions questions, the key to drawing in the reader and making him or her want to know more is a compelling, honest view into your life and what makes you unique, including your history, accomplishments, strongest traits, interests, extracurricular activities and, of course, grades. Since there is typically a word-count limit to adhere to, the idea here is to give the reader an interesting taste in each of these areas without inundating them with information.

The best way to do this is to write by example – from an intro that puts the reader right there next to you for one of your proudest or most challenging events in life to little nuggets of interest that demonstrate the positive traits you have and want to let shine. For example, instead of telling the reader all about yourself like so:

My proudest moment in life thus far was winning first place in the USAA Gymnastics competition for men's trampoline. I worked for two years training in the event and really wanted to win badly.

showing the reader by taking them with you to the moment is more effective:

As I stood in front of a crowded Anaheim stadium full of 30,000 people last July, my name echoed over the loud speaker and a rush of accomplishment and pride ran through me when I heard, "And in first place in men's trampoline, Scott Smith." The words were a culmination of two years of training at the gym – three hours a day on weekdays and five hours a day on weekends – for a goal I had set my sights on long before I had even had a driver's license.

When a writer uses this second method – showing, not telling – they take the reader to the moment with them, much like a good fiction writer draws in his or her readers. Whether the reader is a gymnastics enthusiast or not, chances are they have experienced the same sort of emotions when accomplishing something, too – pride and the payoff of hard work – and will relate to what they are reading better than simply being told by a writer, "I've worked very hard for things and am proud of myself."

The secret to showing, not telling, is to not show too much. No reader (especially busy admissions office personnel) has the desire or time to read two pages of every detail of the above gymnastic event. Therefore, your little tidbits should be just that – three to five sentences that give them a front-row seat at the event you describe. Of course, these all don't have to be life-altering events like winning a gymnastics championship. Showing the reader by example how you have some positive personality traits is also a sure way to make your college entrance essay stand out. For instance, rather than telling the reader you're involved in volunteerism and church functions like so:

I have participated in missions visits to third-world countries each summer since I was 12 with my church's youth group.

showing the reader this would read something like:

My summer vacations since I was 12 have been spent in an exciting variety of Central American countries where I worked on behalf of my church's youth group at teaching young children in Costa Rican, Guatemalan and Nicaraguan jungle villages some basic reading and writing skills. Not only was this experience fulfilling, seeing the children write their names for the first time in their lives and start to read simple words, but one where I made cherished friendships and realized some vital professional goals for my future in a possible career in social work.

The maturity, worldliness and ability to think outside of your high school's walls really shine through in this last paragraph. Showing how you have such positive characteristics by the things you have taken part in is a terrific way to demonstrate to a potential college that you have thought about more than just getting finished with your classes in high school. Other excellent, worldly traits to mention would be extensive travel (whether for work or pleasure), having numerous pen pals or connections to other countries (whether you were born in Korea or have extensive family in Greece) or even places you hope to visit one day and compelling reasons why (i.e., not just because they sound cool).

Making the Best of Grades

Of course, a college entrance essay wouldn't be complete without some mention of your high school grades, accomplishments and activities. Since not everyone is valedictorian or has a year of college already finished when they graduate from high school, it really depends on a writer's own grades whether to mention them a lot or not. If you were an A+ student in high school, of course that should be mentioned and touted; if you barely got by with Cs in most of your classes, play up the classes you did do well in or enjoyed most, and make little or no mention of the ones you didn't quite ace.

Contrary to popular belief, getting into college is not all about having a 4.8 GPA and being a National Honor Society contender. Of course, if you're trying to get into Harvard or other Ivy League institutions out there with straight Bs, you better have some outstanding stories of your other accomplishments in and out of school to impress them. But an average state university does put significant stock these days in the uniqueness of their students with less than perfect grades.

All the more reason to make sure your essay and the parts of your life you use in it to describe yourself make you stand out and get noticed. Your college entrance essay does not have to be a boring, form essay listing every trait you think a school wants you to have. Being yourself – and showing a college who that is with intimate, engaging stories – can make the difference between an essay that piques admissions interest or one that gets thrown into the growing pile of mediocre applicants.
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