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How to Write College Application Essays that Really Work

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How to Write College Application Essays that Really Work

Your application essays play a unique role in the admissions process, one that cannot be achieved with an extra 100 points on your SAT or a couple of decimals on your GPA. Application essays—both the 650-word personal statement and supplement essays are opportunities to speak directly to the admissions officers, to show who you are as a person and who you will be as a member of their community.

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This fall, at a panel on college essays at the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, several admissions directors emphasized this unique role played by the essays in the admissions process. Margit Dahl, Yale’s Director of Admissions said, “Start with the question: What do I want this college to know about me? The story and not the topic is what will make the essay.”

Valerie Gregory, the Associate Dean of Admission at the University of Virginia, agreed vigorously: “We want to get to know the applicant,” she asserted. “Your essays do that.”

It’s not just Yale and UVA. In a Story To College survey of admissions officers from a wide range of New York state private colleges, said that they look for three things in application essays: unique perspective, strong writing, and an authentic voice.

Let’s look at these three aspects of a successful admissions essay more closely:

1. A unique perspective reveals how you see the world and the difference you have made in it.

To find moments that demonstrate your unique perspective, brainstorm eight or more moments when you learned a key lesson, changed in a fundamental way, struggled, or made a difference in the lives of others. These can be simple moments, like a family meal or late night conversations with friends. You are looking for how you have changed and grown, not what you have achieved.

[Go on a gap year or volunteer to gain a unique perspective.]

2. Strong writing is about the story you tell.

You might think admissions officers are looking for essays with a strong argument. Not so! Successful college admission and scholarship essays are based in stories, not arguments. For most students, personal essays require new skills. Your brain already knows how to do this, but you need to step outside the framework of critical writing and tell stories from everyday life—stories that draw the reader in, reveal how you have changed and grown, and leave the reader wanting to know more.

At Story To College, we call the beginning, middle and end of your essay Magnet, Pivot, and Glow to emphasize the story arc you create for your reader. You can learn how to write them and write your own using our free online toolkit, Story2 (www.story2.com).

[Do you need more experiences before you go to college? Try a summer program abroad.]

3. Your authentic voice is the voice you use when you are talking to your friends.

To draw on your personal voice in your writing, I recommend that you tell your stories out loud into your phone or computer. If you can gather a group of friends and tell your stories to one another, that’s even better.

Pay attention to how you and other people talk. This is the seed of your authentic voice. Are you dry and direct? Let yourself be: your writing will sound as powerful as you really are. Do you speak rapidly, your sentences piling on each other, because you have seven points to make at once? Let your descriptions unfurl with the types of details you use when you speak.

Storytelling builds a powerful emotional bridge between you and the people who read your college applications. But telling your own story in your own authentic voice is about much more than getting into college: stories reveal who you are and what you believe in; they give people a window into who you are that is honest and vulnerable and real.

So remember: you will get lots of advice about how to edit your essays (from teachers, parents, advisors), but avoid the temptation to make everyone happy and over-edit your essays into something generic. Get feedback, and check the grammar, but remember: your essays are your one chance in the college process to reveal your unique character and voice. Tell the stories only you can tell, as only you can tell them.

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