1. Put yourself at the center.
Make sure your essay is about you. Even if you’ve chosen to write about an idea or place or person, you’re really writing about why that idea, place, or person matters to you. For example, if you’re writing about an influential person—like Shakespeare or Rachel Carson or Michelle Obama—then explain how that person influenced you and changed your perspective on the world.
2. Write with your own voice.
“If the essay could be written by anyone else with a similar experience, then it’s probably not personal enough,” advises Stanford University’s Admissions Director, Shawn Abbott. The college essay is a place to write more personally than the traditional academic papers you’re used to writing in school. Write with the first person “I” and let your true self shine through, rather than the pumped-up, artificial voice of someone trying to impress readers.
3. Zoom in.
Imagine you’re photographing your topic, zooming in on one point of focus. Most college essays must be shorter than 650 words, so write specifically about one experience rather than generally about multiple ones; go deep rather than broad. Instead of telling the story of your entire road trip across the country, focus on one telling moment—the waitress you met at a diner in Kansas, whose question is still lodged in your mind.
4. Take a Fresh Approach.
There are certain topics that admissions officers read about again and again: winning a sports tournament, nerves before a big recital, a volunteer trip, the death of a loved one. While each of these is a rich experience in itself, the sheer number of essays focusing on these topics makes it extra challenging to write about them in an interesting, personal way that admissions officers will remember. Before choosing to write about such a topic, think about how you could take a fresh approach.
5. Don’t overlook the ordinary.
Many of the best college essays are about seemingly mundane topics: an after-school job, a relationship with a family member, a conversation, a walk to school. The key is to write about the experience with specific and personal details that bring it to life for the reader. Oftentimes it’s writing about an ordinary, everyday, and familiar experience that allows your true voice to ring through.
6. Offer a new window.
Tell admissions officers something new instead of rehashing what you’ve already said in other parts of your application. Your college essay should serve as a portal into a particular experience, not as a resume or laundry list of accomplishments.
7. Know your main idea.
Ask yourself: “What point do I want to make? What idea do I want admission officers to remember?” Make sure to clearly communicate this take-home message. Rather than a list of experiences (“this happened, then this happened, then this…”), the details in your essay should build to a main idea.
Focus on the “why” of an experience, as well as the “what.” In addition to describing an event, an idea, or an experience, explain its significance. If you write about battling weeds and snails in your community garden plot, make sure to also explain how the experience has changed the way you think or what you’ve learned to appreciate as a result.
9. Build a bridge.
If you write about an experience from your distant past, or even from a couple years ago, make sure to connect that experience to today—schools want to know who you are now! Let’s say your essay revolves around your decision, at age nine, to stop eating meat. Build a bridge to the present by explaining how that experience has shaped who you are today, or influenced your plans for the future.
10. Leave time to revise.
We can’t emphasize enough the importance of returning to your draft with fresh eyes… more than once. To find its truest and strongest form, writing has to mature over time. Step away from your draft and return to it a day or two later; you’ll find that a fresh perspective often leads you to what you wanted to say all along! Leaving some breathing room before your deadline also allows you to ask a peer, mentor, or family member to review your work and gives you time to incorporate that feedback into your final draft.