1. Tell the truth. Admissions counselors have to sift through thousands of essays every year. They know how to tell who’s lying and who’s being genuine. You don’t need to have some incredible life story to write an incredible college essay. You can write about getting dressed in the morning, doing your homework–anything, as long as it shows who you are.
2. Don’t regurgitate your resume. They have seen your application. They know about the fact that you were soccer captain or state champion in scholar’s bowl. It’s okay to write about why those activities mean so much to you and how they have shaped your life, but don’t ever just list your accomplishments.
3. Limit outside interference. Never have more than two or three people help you edit your essay, ESPECIALLY anyone you think will try to change your message. Colleges want to hear your voice. It sounds cliché but they really do.
4. Show don’t tell. Don’t say things like, “I love skiing.” Try something more like this instead: “I felt my heart beating faster as my skis tore through the icy snow. The wind whipped past my face and I felt that euphoria overtake me, the kind I only ever got from racing down a mountain at break-neck speed.”
5. Be yourself. If you’re funny, be funny and tell jokes. If you’re not, don’t. If you use words like “plethora” and “gregarious” in everyday speech and you’re very comfortable with the definitions, use those. If you’re not, don’t. Please don’t use words like this or reference technical terms in order to sound smarter. It doesn’t work; it just sounds awkward and out of place. Your friends should be able to pick your essay out of a lineup without a moment’s hesitation.
6. Don’t be scared to be vulnerable. Colleges want you to use metaphor and example to tell them exactly who you are. Oftentimes this means recounting moments of emotional vulnerability, or times you recognized a deep flaw in yourself and corrected it. It could be anything from the death of a loved one to an incident of bullying from middle school to any struggle in your life that helped make you who you are. That being said, don’t overshare. Writing about your sex life or other highly personal details would be inappropriate.
7. Overarching metaphor. While not a requirement, using a single metaphor for the thesis of your essay can help tie it all together as well as show off writing technique. For example, I read an essay once that centered around a girl who was having trouble learning to tie a knot at a bakery. The author used this to demonstrate her perseverance in the face of difficulty, as well as several other positive attributes.
8. Edit, edit, edit. Submitting essays with run-on sentences, grammar errors or misspellings is going to immediately make a worse impression on any admissions officer. Reading it out loud and backward helps catch errors, as does having someone else read it solely for grammar. A good way to do overall edits (tone, thesis, aesthetics of language etc.) is to write the essay and forget about it for a couple of weeks before rereading it with fresh eyes.
My Common Application Personal Essay
I love untangling knots. As I work through slinkies compressed into indecipherable tangles of silvery metal loops or gently pull at snarls of bright blue yarn, I feel the meditative satisfaction wash over me as I follow the lines to their sources, tugging on one to see how it affects the others. Eventually, I feel the small tingle of exhilaration as I pull just the right piece to solve the puzzle.
Pulling that piece isn’t so easy when it comes to tangles between people. Empathy is the best tool I’ve found; reservation of judgment the next. It took a long time for me understand these sorts of knots. I used to shout when my sister took my clothes or my brother didn’t want to hang out with me. I held a grudge for years against a girl who told me she didn’t want to be my friend anymore. I didn’t understand them, didn’t even try. When my grandmother died, I began to wonder about other people, and asked why. I saw how grief made my parents act strangely. My dad became quieter; my mother, angrier and less patient. For the first time, I didn’t blame them. I understood the pain and its connection to their actions. These tangles were much more difficult than the ones I was used to, but more rewarding to solve.
The newfound, complex web of threads connecting my friends and family led me to see the jumbles of my own motivations: shiny silver loops of caring, burnt black strings of anger, and the brown twine that pulls me through the slog of everyday life. I learned how to tug at the black ones, softly repositioning the strands to see what lay underneath—usually sadness or fear. That was easier to deal with, easier to control. I stopped blowing up at people as much. Now I try to listen instead, searching for the right threads to pull.
Threads are the reason I love Math and Chemistry and English; they are made up of problems, small tangles I can work at until they fall apart in my lap. Here are the tools in your toolbox. Here is a problem. Go. It’s always surprised me that people who enjoy STEM are expected to hate analyzing literature, because the process is so fundamentally similar. The small tangles in books, tracing the meaning of symbols and unraveling characters’ motivations, the small problems of math and science, those you work out on a sheet in graphite or black ink– they are the same. Even the big ones like philosophical commentary about the futility and joy of life go hand in hand with cracking the mathematical codes that describe our universe.
A few years ago, I became dissatisfied with what I was learning in most of my classes, and so, out of boredom, I started watching astronomy videos. I was hooked. I eagerly devoured videos describing the formation of stars made totally of neutrons, laughed out loud in incredulous joy at the idea that time and space switch places at the edges of black holes and that particles exist as probability waves rather than concrete objects. It shattered my worldview. I began coupling these realizations with what I was learning in chemistry, thinking about atoms vibrating every time I laid my hand on the desk, feeling myself breaking hydrogen bonds as I crushed ice in my fist. I was captivated by my first piece of real understanding and I’ve refused to let it go. I’m addicted to thinking about my surroundings in terms of its connections, threads traveling from person to person, between atoms and galaxies, and within myself. Seeing the strands of the web just makes me want to jump in and find the knots that other people, other scientists and authors and friends haven’t yet solved and pull them apart, leaving the connections between strong and, for the first time, clear.
Disclaimer: I am not a college counselor; I am just a student who got into a conventionally “elite” college, which takes a lot of luck as well as hard work in multiple areas. However, much of the advice I’m giving has been given to me by college counselors and admissions officers at top schools. This is what’s worked for me and other people I know. It may not work perfectly for you.