When others come to me for advice on college essays, I share these 3 tips for what I think students should know before writing.
TIP #1: Understand that sometimes saying less is more.
I’ve read many college essays where students tried to fit every single detail or realization from one experience into one essay.
By doing this, the students dilute the strength of their essay by trying to cover too much. Sometimes sharing just one story or one realization makes an essay much stronger than sharing two or three ideas because it allows the reader to focus on one message, and it allows the students to dive deeper into the topic of their essay, which is what college admission readers are looking for in a personal statement – quality over quantity.
College essays normally have word limits for a reason – it forces the students to produce quality writing and the admission readers simply don’t have time to read a four-page essay. So, don’t fall into the trap of trying to say too much just because you’re trying to impress the application readers. For example, if you have an exemplary list of activities that you have led or participated in, don’t simply list them all in your essay. Instead, it is better to choose one that is the most meaningful to you and describe that experience in a way that shows what you have learned and how that has changed you. The overall tone of the essay should have only one focus: YOU.
It is important not only to use your experiences to describe who you are but who you want to become. Unless all of your activities are related, no one wants to see a list of all of the activities you did over the course of a school year or summer. In fact, listing too many activities in an essay can show indecisiveness. Instead, it is better to pick the activity you are most passionate about and that says the most about who you want to become as a person and focus on that.
TIP #2: Have a few people read your essays and be selective of who they are.
When I was writing my college essays, I had several people providing me with feedback including my mentor who holds a Master of Education from the University of Washington, my business mentor who graduated from Harvard and who at the time was a Product Marketing Manager at Microsoft, a close friend’s parent who graduated from Stanford University with a bachelors in English and who is a Marketing VP of one of the world’s leading tech companies and another close friend’s parent who has years of experience working within Seattle’s philanthropy community.
Not only were these people experienced writers but they also had invaluable insight into the topics that my essays focused on. For example, many of my college and scholarship essays in some shape or form discussed my academic journey and my views on education, my future career aspirations in business and philanthropy, or community service work. As you can see, it is important to find application readers that are great writers and that can relate to what you are writing about. So start networking well before you begin writing your college essays.
Building your network of application readers early also gives you more time to build a personal relationship with them so they will already have a understanding of who you are as a person while reading your college essays.
When I wrote my college essays I spent an entire month writing and revising. I personally work better in longer blocks of time so I set aside entire days to work on my essays. I found that it was easier for me to write my entire first draft through without worrying about the word limit, structure or grammar – I just focused on producing a quality draft. After finishing my first draft, I would come back and revise and cut down as much as possible then send it to my readers for feedback. When I received feedback from all four I would revise my essays again and then send them back for a final round of comments.
When writing your college essay and asking for feedback, it is important to respect your reader’s time and effort by sending them quality work and allowing them ample time to respond. Furthermore, understand that you don’t have to implement or agree with all of the feedback you receive – at the end of the day it is your essay. If you have multiple people providing feedback on your essays, you will have to carefully filter the feedback that you receive. So start your essays early, give yourself and the people providing you feedback enough time to do a good job.
Lastly, plan for multiple revisions and even rewrites.
TIP #3: Tell your unique story, showcase your strengths and describe why you are a great fit for the school.
Writing college essays is a long process and you will develop a structure that works for you as you begin to brainstorm and revise. I started my essays out with an anecdote, and then I showed readers what I learned or how I was impacted from that experience, and lastly ended on a note that helped the reader see me as a student of that school. I made my essays unique by showing what I learned from the experiences and more importantly how it shaped me into a better person. I wrote my essays as if the person was sitting there with me and that this was my one and only interview.
When writing your college essay always try to choose something you care about and that you are sure very few people, if anyone else, could have experienced or written about. Then understand that chances are your story alone isn’t going to make you stand out. Let me explain: relaying details and facts no matter how unique or interesting isn’t going to tell the reader who you are. However, sharing your thoughts and showing how an experience impacted you and the way you see the world around you will. How you analyze and think critically of your experiences and how they impact your life is your best way of showing an admissions reader who you are and why they should let you into their school. Remember that it’s not about the facts but rather how you tell your story.
Telling your story can be challenging if you don’t have a clear understanding of who you are or what values are important to you.Colleges want to see that you’ll be worth the investment if they give you the opportunity to come to their school. They want to see your willingness and ability to add value to their community, so having a good understanding of what your strengths are can help you formulate a clear college essay that shows the admissions reader exactly how you will add value to their school. Furthermore, being able to clearly articulate your passion or career vision shows them that you are confident and driven. That’s why programs like Youth Career Compass are great for preparing for college. Being able to articulate your goals and strengths are important because if you can’t show that you have ambition, why should a school use resources to foster and cultivate an individual who won’t utilize what is given to them.
Christopher Trinh is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of a non-profit called the Youth Ultimate Project and a Gates Millennium Scholar. Gates Millennium Scholars are offered full ride scholarships up to their doctorial degree in select fields at any U.S. accredited university. His senior year of high school Chris was choosing between attending the University of Washington where he was accepted into the Honors Program, Seattle University’s Sullivan Leadership Program which offered him a full ride merit scholarship based on academics, global engagement, and service and leadership, and the University of California, Berkeley where he is currently an intended Business Administration Major.