What makes an extraordinary college application essay?

Students often break into a cold sweat at the prospect of beginning work on their essay, troubled by one too many thoughts like “I haven’t done anything special that deserves a place in my essay”, or “will my essay make or break my application”, or “how can I write something that impresses the admissions officers at university X”, or “I am not a brilliant writer and what if my essay reflects that weakness”.

I personally feel that to create anything special requires time, energy and effort and so also is the case with the PERSONAL essay. So, the first cardinal rule is to START on time. Writing is all about Rewriting, so don’t be afraid to write multiple drafts of your essay till it all comes together and makes sense to you.

I often find myself telling students that I refuse to believe that there is nothing interesting about their personality that they would want to talk about with others. It could be that you are hardworking or persevering or caring or organized or positive or focused or curious or creative or humorous etc. So, the second cardinal rule is don’t underestimate yourself to think of that one great quality in you that really shines through in most situations that you have encountered in your life.

The challenge however is not in identifying these core qualities that describe you but in describing to the admission officers why you think these qualities define ‘who you are’. Next, think of real life examples of when you displayed this quality or you developed it or this quality was really brought to the fore. The best kinds of essays are the ones where there is a problem or challenge, which describes the problem and then how you overcame it and what you learnt from it. Colleges would love to see your RESOLVE in overcoming this situation and how constructively you deal with a challenge because that is an important life skill. Now again, it is not that this situation has to be extraordinary for you to make a mark. The problem could be anything a relationship issue, or some type of mistake you made or a phobia or an idiosyncrasy. The third cardinal rule is to remember that it’s not so much what you write about as what you have to say about the process. Pick a “small” subject and say something “big” about it. Works every time!

Ask yourself lots of questions as you go along…how did you feel, react, think, lift yourself etc. At this stage avoid generalizations and clichés. Like, rather than saying that you were upset, describe what you did when you were upset. Think…when you are upset do you prefer to be alone, or do your facial expressions turn blank, or do you tend to talk in a louder voice? Find places in your essay where you can describe your emotions or feelings, as this will really help the reader connect with you. Avoid generalizations like you love doing household work, instead, write something such as, “Be it keeping a sparkling clean kitchen or giving my mother a helping hand in taking care of her exotic plants, I thoroughly enjoy household chores”. A writer’s job is to make everything come alive. The fourth cardinal rule is to offer SPECIFIC and DESCRIPTIVE details.

The PERSONAL essay is about YOU and is an opportunity to introduce yourself to the admissions team. More than half of us tend to worry about what the other applicant is doing and then thinking of ways to outdo them. How much simpler it would be if we were to just focus on ourselves and compare ourselves to who we were yesterday. The fifth cardinal rule is to drop the veil of pretense and to be honest about your life, aspirations, where you come from and where you want to go to. The idea is to write more like you talk, so that you reveal yourself in a natural way and so that the admissions officer learns about what matters to you. Make your essay introspective and reflective…because the best essays spend significant time with self-analysis. Self analysis reflects maturity,thoughtfulness, critical thinking skills, all of which are the hallmark of a promising student. This is the reason why essays written about everyday topics tend to shine more because a student can really use this chance to show the admissions officer that they think deeply and learn a lot about themselves from ordinary occurrences in their life.

Besides the above points, be sure to look into the following as well…

Have an introduction, a theme, a development of that theme and then a conclusion and make sure that there is a good flow to your essay, with one thought leading to the next.

Be sure to stick to the word or character count, and don’t stray from the question being asked.
Your essay will be wonderful if the topic of the essay is important to you and if you are the only person who could have written that essay.

All the Best!