You already know how to write an academic essay: you start with an introduction, throw in a thesis statement, find about three paragraphs’ worth of evidence, and wrap it all up with a tidy conclusion…
Now forget all that, because a successful college application essay is totally different.
Here's the thing: your college application essay needs to breathe life into your application. It should capture your genuine personality, explaining who you are beyond a series of grades, test scores, and after-school activities. But that’s not nearly as scary as it seems, because you get to choose what to share and how to share it.
After each group has shared, ask: How were these essays different from the excerpt with which we began? In what ways were they more effective? What is cliché? How did these essays avoid that trap? Is there a way to move the experience detailed in the opening essay beyond cliché? After considering these essays, what else should we add to our list about what college admissions officials are looking for in student essays?
Tell the “admissions committees” to imagine that each of these essay writers has applied for admission to their college or university. Each group is responsible for using the handout to evaluate the essay and decide whether to admit this student. They should assume that each student has a similarly strong profile in terms of grades, test scores, activities and recommendations.
Related | In on The Choice blog, Dave Marcus, author of offers advice for writing successful college essays and avoiding common pitfalls:
Take a minute and think about the college or university admission officers who will be reading your essay. How will your essay convey your background and what makes you unique? If you had the opportunity to stand in front of an admission committee to share a significant story or important information about yourself, what would you say? The college application essay is your chance to share your personality, goals, influences, challenges, triumphs, life experiences, or lessons learned. Not to mention why you're a good fit for the college or university—and why it's a good fit for you. These are the stories behind the list of activities and leadership roles on your application.
Admission officers realize that writing doesn’t come easily to everyone, but with some time and planning, anyone can write a college application essay that stands out. One way to do that is to work step-by-step, piece-by-piece. The end result should be a carefully designed, insightful essay that makes you proud. Take advantage of being able to share something with an audience who knows nothing about you and is excited to learn what you have to offer. Brag. Write the story no one else can tell.
Overview | What makes a college essay “work”? How can writers reveal themselves through writing? In this lesson, students explore sample college essays and then consider advice about what separates a great essay from a mediocre or ineffective one as well as essay-writing tips. Finally, they write essays based on the piece of advice that resonated with them.
By now you know exactly what you will write about and how you want to tell the story. So hop on a computer and get to it. Try to just let yourself bang out a rough draft without going back to change anything. Then go back and revise, revise, revise. Before you know it, you will have told the story you outlined—and reached the necessary word count—and you will be happy you spent all that time preparing!
Activity | Explain to students that they will now start developing personal essays for their college application packages, by evaluating and then capitalizing on advice on how to write effective essays.
Ask: What advice here seems most useful? Despite all of this advice, what don’t you know about writing college essays? What role does the reader play in determining what works and what doesn’t? How can you account for individual, unknown readers as you write?
Tell each student to choose one piece of advice they found most compelling and to craft a college essay that puts this suggestion into practice. They might, for example, take a risk, as Dave Marcus suggested, or as one reader advised.