6 Tips for Writing a College Admissions Essay

By Hieu Van Do 

(English Literature, English Language, TOEFL, SSAT, English Builder Tutor at The Edge Learning Center)

Inspired school boy writing essay or examWhile writing an admissions essay might seem like a daunting task, it can be a good opportunity to recount and reflect on your past experiences. The college admissions essay is your chance to showcase an aspect of yourself that would be an asset to your future school. It’s your one chance to show the schools something that they can’t obtain from grades and a list of extracurricular activities.

You might think that your life is boring and your experiences are dull compared to other candidates, but let me share some words of advice from Ernest Hemingway: “No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure.” For example, a narrative essay about growing your own garden could just be as insightful as an experience climbing Mt. Everest. Your experiences are entirely unique, so it’s up to you to articulate them into words to catch your reader’s interest and stand above other applicants.

The following 6 Strategies will help take your essay in a different and more profound direction.

  1. Set Time Aside for Prewriting

Far too many people rush the writing process. This leads to an incoherent mess that transitions poorly and loses a sense of direction. Spend time dissecting your writing prompt and prewrite.

First, brainstorm for ideas. Reflect on experiences that taught you something, problems you want to solve, or events that helped you grow as an individual. These prompts have a strict writing limit so I recommend focusing on one idea and elaborating on it.

Next, connect these ideas together and ask further questions about them, focusing on the why and how.

Last, try to hone in on the message the reader will take away from your essay. What’s the message you are trying to convey? Perhaps you want to show that taking risks lead to meaningful experiences. Maybe you want to express how you overcame adversity through perseverance. Whatever the case may be, make sure that your ideas are fully supported with evidence.

Once, you feel like you have enough material from prewriting, begin drafting your essay.

High School Students Taking Test In Classroom

  1. Start Strong

Lure the reader in with something intriguing or thought-provoking in your opener. Don’t restate the prompt in the opening lines. Experiment with different opening lines. Begin with an anecdote, question, or stimulating fact.

Consider these examples:

“One event that really made me grow as a person was when I trained with a table tennis Olympian.” – Although the experience playing with an Olympian sounds interesting, this opening line is boring. It restates the prompt without engaging the reader. This is telling, rather than showing.

“How many hours of practice did my coach train to execute a precise shot like that? I couldn’t even begin to fathom how much work ethic was placed into his training regiment until I joined in his table tennis sessions.” – These opening lines are interesting and engaging. They reveal some intriguing details without elaborating too much. It pulls the reader in and makes them want to continue reading on.

  1. Show, Don’t Tell

Very cliché advice, but it is effective nonetheless. The best stories and essays build up towards something greater. They are layered with details that make the narrative come alive.

Avoid writing an essay that just summarizes events that you have experienced. A lack of details leads to a monotonous read that is uninteresting and forgettable.

Go through your essay and try converting your telling phrases/sentences into showing ones. Be specific with your details. Include sensory details; think about what you saw, heard, tasted, smelled, and felt.

Consider these examples:

“Volunteering at my local animal shelter was a life-changing experience. I learned a great deal from spending time with these animals.” – This is telling. There aren’t any specific details. What did this individual do there? Why was it life-changing?

“Although the scratches and callouses from bathing and walking new adoptees remained engrained on my palms, I have never regretted devoting my weekends for the past two years to the Hong Kong Paws Foundation.” – These details show how much work and time this individual sacrificed to better the lives of animals. These lines give us a glimpse of the work ethic of this applicant.

Words have power

  1. Select Your Words Carefully

Use the appropriate word choice. Overly formal vocabulary, slang, and derogatory language should be avoided. While use of slang or curse words can add to the validity of a narrative, it is quite difficult to execute properly without making your tone off-putting.

Refrain from using the thesaurus to change your words to match the words found in the SAT. Your essay will sound strange and artificial. Keep it simple, and write how you would speak.

Another way to strengthen your essay is to change the verbs in your essay. Look through your essay and change the weak/passive verbs into more active ones. This also requires you to play around with your sentence structures.

  1. Seek Out Effective Essays

Look over some of the example essays that have worked. There is a reason why world-class athletes review tapes of their predecessors. They do so to study their techniques and adopt/elevate them, to become better and successful as well. Adopt this mentality and apply it to your essay.

Analyze some of these model essays and compare them to your own. What makes these essays so engaging? Look at their structure and work choice. Are your details as specific as theirs?

  1. Spend Time Revising. Then Revise Again

Revision doesn’t mean check for grammar or spelling mistakes. Revision involves examining your essay’s structure, organization, thesis, and evidence.

Do your ideas flow fluidly or are they blocky and transition poorly? Is your thesis clear and supported with evidence? Are there details that go off-topic and can be eliminated?

Take advantage of a writing center near you if one is available. A writing center is an undervalued resource that is available at most universities and some high schools, usually free of charge.

If a writing center is out of the question, ask friends or teachers to look it over. Having a fresh set of eyes reading over your work could help you identify overlooked mistakes and areas that need more support.


About The Edge

The Edge Learning Center is Hong Kong’s premier Test Preparation, Academic Tutoring, and Admissions Consulting services provider. Founded in 2008, The Edge has helped thousands of students improve their ACT and SAT scores as well as their IB and AP grades. The AC team has just finished off another successful period in which student gained acceptance to schools such as Columbia, MIT, University of Chicago, and more! Check out the rest of our 2018-9 Admissions Results!

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