It is impolite to talk yourself up, they say. Not if you have to write your undergraduate college essay, all 650 some words worth of self-promotion, albeit subtly. And that is an art. Or rather a skill that comes with a truck load of reflection and restraint.
Undergraduate college essays are unique in the sense that there is significant freedom in choosing the topic (though within the bounds of the essay prompt, if provided) and the story you want to narrate.
However, as some superhero’s uncle once was known to have said, “with great power comes great responsibilities,” you can run the risk of sharing too little or too much.
It is this art of sharing just enough to convey your personality is what makes college essays challenging and at the same time the personal ticket to college admission.
How do you write a good college essay? This doesn’t have a very objective response. Unfortunately, you can never provide a known recipe for writing a personal essay. But a lot can be said about the approach to writing one.
A good, impactful college essay is…
Essays that are not original have a tendency to get sniffed out by the highly experienced admissions committee members.
Plagiarism is a big no-no in college application essays and applicants who fail to adhere to coining their own original essay story, can get royally dismissed for their lack of basic ethics.
Uniqueness is thus a must with college essays, a quality that is automatically taken care of as long as applicants refrain from duplicating someone else’s.
When presented with a word limit, many applicants run the risk of getting lost in the motive of their essay.
The loss mainly occurs at the point when the narration either doesn’t tie in with the beginning of the essay or the pace becomes rather undulating in the interest of saving words.
Nevertheless, as long as the essay flow is not smooth and the narration doesn’t have a consistent beginning, middle and end, it tends to be rather uninteresting.
Also, it doesn’t help much in building the personality profile of its author.
An incoherent essay seems to suggest lack of effort or at the very least a lack of articulation which can play negatively into the adcom’s perception of the applicant.
Along with the requirement of being unique and coherent, a college essay should work itself up to a memorable status.
Adcoms are known to read thousands of these. If your essay is engaging and unforgettable, you can be assured to have made an impression. Even a dash of sense of humour can be greatly appreciated – if you can position it well.
With these three main aspects in mind, let us explore how to begin writing your college essay.
Most universities suggest certain essay prompts to help them gauge your personality through specific situations. Often these prompts may seem repetitive and mundane.
However, it is prudent to understand them and explore your story within its purview – What is the intent of the prompt? What personality trait do they want to explore? And why do they want to explore it?
Once you have an understanding of the motive of the prompt, you need to reflect back on your own life for a relevant response.
Look back to explore situations that back the personality trait the prompt, and/or school, desires.
Think of more than one such circumstance and write down your thoughts on each.
Begin to work on a rough draft on each, or some, to get a feel of how the essay would shape up in the end.
Don’t try to set a limit on the word count yet. Remember this is just to get a grip on the narration – whether you can build a coherent story with a beginning and a relevant end, whether the message is clearly conveyed through the essay, and whether it reads as a clear response to the essay prompt.
Just stick to a clear outline for each narration – introduction, story body, conclusion tied to the introduction.
Don’t set out to list all your accomplishments. Self-bragging is not what the personal essay about. You should aim to narrow down your objective and only create a story with that in focus.
Read this Q&A with a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania to find out what admissions officers are trying to gauge from reading college essays.
The next step is to go back and re-read each story to make a choice for the most impactful, most relevant, and certainly most engaging one.
Follow it up with shaving off unnecessary details to create a concise, complete, and coherent, story polished to the word limit.
Go back and proof read for any grammatical errors. Beware of sudden changes in narrative style – no tense changes or shifts from the point of view or the person in which the essay is being written (first, second, or third).
Don’t lose touch of your individual voice and try to keep the mood conversational, as if you are directly speaking to the admission committee in the same room.
Different universities may have a different approach to undergraduate admissions. This includes the word limit, prompt questions or free topic essays, etc. As a collective, though, each will expect you to follow a similar outline, as below.
Begin with a captivating introduction. This could be an event to lay the foundation for your story to hook the reader into what is coming next.
Expand on the intro. Develop the story, keeping the pace consistent – whether talking about how your interest developed over the years or how your character found expression (facing an obstacle etc.) within the timeline of the story, even if it is a rather short one. Build the momentum till the point where your response satisfies the question prompt or in the case of a free topic essay, satisfies the point you have set out to make.
Wrap up the narration staying true to the word limit and yet not rushing to the end zone. Tie the ending to the opening statement and come back full circle to create a complete essay story.
We don’t advocate getting too inspired by existing college essays (Read why sample essays won’t work for you). Create your original story…always.
However, there are the ones that do give us an impression of what a good essay may shape up to be like. So, here are a few links to successful college essays accepted by various universities.
Johns Hopkins University has listed its successful essays from the class of 2022 here. Notice the mood of the essays and the way they have been introduced, developed, and wrapped up, making for a neat outline representing the author’s thoughts.
Some more examples can sought at Tufts University past essays, Connecticut College essays that worked, and Hamilton College essays that worked.
Don’t rush your essay. Take your time. Understand and reflect on your past experiences after you recount them.
Good luck and drop us a line at info[at]mbacrystalball[dot]com for your college admissions consulting help.
Here are some additional links
– Best universities in the world for Undergraduate studies
– How to get into the top universities in the world for your Undergraduate studies
– Common Application for Undergraduate admissions in USA
– Common Application Essays for Undergraduate College admissions
– SAT vs ACT. Which one is better?