1. Don’t try to impress the admissions officer— just tell the truth.
Being impressive is a good thing. But when you try too hard, you write the same stories as thousands of other students (it’s hard to overstate how many essays I read about the valuable lessons learned from sports, community service, or leadership positions). If you really want to stand out, tell the truth. Do you love your 1992 Dodge Dart more than life itself? Do you work weekends at a hamburger stand and claim to make the best burger in a 50 mile radius? Those things are interesting. Share them. The colleges want to know.
2. Make ordinary stories unordinary.
You don’t need to have scaled Everest or invented plutonium to tell a story nobody else could tell. Your experience playing basketball or taking art classes or working at a shoe store are not the same as other students’ experiences. So, tell the parts of the story that are uniquely yours. Inject as much detail as you possibly can. And keep asking yourself, “Could someone else applying to college tell the same story?” If so, do one of two things—add more detail, or pick a different story.
3. Don’t repeat information from the rest of your application.
I know you’re proud of what you listed, but the essay is your chance to share something new about you. If you listed football in your activities section, don’t write an essay explaining what it means to be on the football team. You can write about something you’ve already mentioned but share the parts your reader doesn’t know about yet. That keeps the material fresh and your tired reader interested.
4. Sound like you.
You’re not writing an essay for your English class. The college essay is an informal piece of writing. It should sound like you. If you would never say, “Hence, my winning of elections has become quite an inveterate occurrence,” please don’t write it in your essay. No quotes from famous people. No words you can’t define, spell or pronounce. I’m not suggesting you should compose something that reads like a text message. But colleges want to get to know you better. Let them hear your voice through your writing.
5. Parents, steer clear of the essays.
Parents are often the worst judges of their kids’ essays for the best of reasons—you love your student too much to be an impartial observer (the American Medical Association’s “Code of Medical Ethics” advises against doctors treating their own children for similar reasons). Colleges want to read the stories from the perspective of the teens who experienced them. And it was always obvious to me and to my colleagues when too many of the ideas came from Mom or Dad.
Kevin McMullin founded Collegewise in 1999. He is the author of If the U Fits: Expert Advice on Finding the Right College. A graduate of UC Irvine with majors in English and History.