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How to Write the College Admissions Essay

By Stacie Heaps
Professional Writer and Editor

It is probably safe to say that, up to this point in your life, the college admissions essay is the most important document you will have written. Therefore, you should take your time and do your very best work. Fortunately, the main topic is one that you should know plenty about—you!

Whether you are applying for undergraduate or graduate studies, most universities require that you submit with your application a college admissions essay (also referred to as a personal statment or statement of purpose). As colleges and universities become more and more selective, it becomes more and more difficult to get accepted to the college of your choice. Consequently, the personal essay becomes even more important to help you stand out and show your accomplishments and abilities.

The purpose of the admissions essay is to give a glimpse of who you are to the admissions committee. It is the opportunity to tell about some of your hopes, dreams, goals, and values—but it isn't meant to tell your whole life story. Rather, show the reader why you should be chosen to attend the university. Above all, the admissions essay is a personal essay, so as you draft your essay, be personal.

Before Writing Your College Admissions Essay

Before you write your admissions essay or personal statement, do your homework. If you haven't already done so, thoroughly research the university that you plan to attend, and more specifically, the program that you are applying to be a part of. Find out their mission statement or objectives, their main areas of interest, and so forth. Do some research about the career you plan to have, as well. Then, when you write your essay, relate your experiences, goals, and so on to the mission and objectives of the school or program to which you are applying and to the career field you plan to pursue.

Before you begin writing your essay, it is essential that you read, and then reread, the instructions for writing the essay. They will tell you what information to include in your essay, and often, what format to use. Even if the instructions do not explicitly state the format required, knowing the main points that you are supposed to include will allow you to organize your statement of purpose effectively. Some instructions are very specific and give detailed information about what to include, and others are not as specific. Either way, ask yourself these questions before you begin drafting your essay to help guide you in the writing process.

  • What experiences have I had (personal or family challenges or achievements, for example) that have helped make me who I am and that can help me stand out from other applicants?
  • Do I have any personal traits or characteristics (such as dedication, drive, honesty, ambition, being personable, being a great leader, being a hard worker, being an effective communicator, and so forth) that have helped or will help me to succeed?
  • How did I choose the field that I plan to study? What are my career goals?
  • What can I offer to the university or program?
  • Why should I be chosen out of the many potential applicants to be admitted to this school or program?
  • Is there any information that appears in the rest of the application that I should explain in my essay? (For example, low SAT or GRE scores, low GPA, marked inprovement in my grades over time, interruption in my education, and so forth.)

Drafting Your College Admissions Essay or Personal Statement

As you begin to draft your admissions essay, be specific; use personal experience and concrete examples. Overgeneralizing won't give readers an accurate picture of who you are, and worse yet, it will bore them. Make sure that you find something that lets you stand out and that will make your essay unique. Pick a topic that interests you, and show your enthusiasm about that topic.

Keep your essay focused on what it is that you are trying to accomplish—that is, getting accepted to the university or program of your choice. Include relevant experiences you have had or classes you have taken, internships or jobs you have had relating to your field, workshops or seminars you have attended, and so forth. On the same note, keep irrelevant information out of your essay. For example, you generally shouldn't include information about your religious or political beliefs in your college essay.

The personal statement or essay portion of your application should also be distinct from the rest of your application materials. Generally, you shouldn't repeat information that is found in other sections. Rather, use the essay to tell information that is important but that does not fit elsewhere in your application.

If you are applying to more than one school, make sure that you cater each application letter to the particular school it will be sent to. Of course much of the information can be the same, but you need to tailor each essay to the mission and objectives of the different schools and programs.

Format for Your College Admissions Essay

If the instructions for the admissions essay give a proscribed format, then of course follow it. But many will not. Nevertheless, the wording of the instructions will generally give you a good idea of the information you should include in your essay. Then, as you plan out your essay, make sure it is well organized. A good way to do this is to create an outline where you identify the main ideas (and even examples or experiences) you want to include in your document, and then you can arrange them in the most logical order. As you begin writing your actual draft, follow these guidelines:

Begin with an interesting opener. You want to grab the reader's attention right at the start, so take the time to write an excellent introductory paragraph that gives an idea of your personality or values and that gives a hint of the information that is to follow.

Strive for cohesion. As you write your essay, use adequate transitions so that your sentences and paragraphs flow from one idea to another easily and smoothly, without losing or confusing the reader.

Use stylistic techniques, if desired. You can use stylistic elements such as bold headings or bulleted or numbered lists, if desired, to help highlight information and make text easier to read, but don't overdo it.

Leave the reader with a memorable closing.As you did with your introduction, take especially great care when crafting your conclusion. Make sure you leave your reader with a lasting impression so that you will be remembered when it comes to the applicant selection process.

Revise Your College Admissions Essay

Once you have written your essay or statement of purpose, set it aside for a day or two. Then, review it carefully, and revise as needed. Eliminate repetition and tighten wordy passages, reword anything that may be unclear, add or polish transitions between sentences and paragraphs, and so forth. Also eliminate irrelevant information that does not clearly relate to or support the main point or points of your essay. For more information on revising your work, see the article "Revising Your Writing." Ask someone else to read over your essay, as well, and make revisions based on the person's feedback.

After you have thoroughly revised your document, carefully proofread your document for any typos, spelling or punctuation errors, and the like. Make sure that your essay is as good as possible.

Other tips for writing a successful college admissions essay:

  • Give yourself plenty of time. Procrastination is a formula for failure.
  • Be original and avoid cliches. You should also avoid famous quotations and proverbs, as a general rule.
  • Let your individuality and personality shine through.
  • Avoid jargon and slang.
  • Don't give a life history; keep your statement of purpose or admissions essay focused and direct.
  • Focus on the positive, rather than the negative. If you choose to write about a trial or problem you have faced, tell how it has made you better or stronger or what you have learned from the experience. Also, don't include unnecessary negative information, such as the fact that you're applying to this school because you didn't think you would get accepted to your first-choice school or because you won't have to take as many math and science classes.
  • Don't use big or flowery words in an effort to sound sophisticated or intelligent. Rather, use clear, concise words and phrases that readily convey your ideas.
  • Do feel free to use a thesaurus, but don't use words you don't understand—you run the risk of sounding foolish if you use a word incorrectly.
  • Clearly and confidently state your accomplishments, but don't exaggerate or brag.
  • Don't include any controversial statements about religion, politics, race, or the like.
  • As you revise your paper, delete any generalizations or generic statements such as "I want to be a nurse because I really enjoy helping other people." Rather, show your dedication to your chosen course of study by including personal experiences, for example.
  • Identify some of the challenges you might have in your desired program or field, and indicate how you will overcome those challenges.
  • If any part of your application is weak or requires explanation (for example, if your GPA is a little low or if you are returning to school after being out of school for many years), address the matter simply and sincerely, without blaming or whining.
  • Don't exceed the word limit.

Conclusion

Writing the college admissions essay takes hard work and a substantial investment of time. You'll need to write, revise, and revise some more. But if you write carefully and well, the end result will be a well-organized, clear, interesting, and memorable essay that will help you to get accepted to the school of your choice.


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