How to write a standout college application essay
As a parent, you’ve likely spent years preparing your teen for college—academically, emotionally, and spiritually. If you followed these tips for college application essays, you’ve already planned ahead by encouraging excellent communication skills.
By now, your teen has probably narrowed down her list of college choices, and she’s ready to start writing. If she wonders how a mere handful of paragraphs can properly introduce all her thoughtful, ambitious, diligent, and enthusiastic qualities, it’s time for her to think like a novelist. In other words, don’t tell your readers—show them!
A Strong Thesis Statement
A thesis statement in the first paragraph keeps an essay on track. Page limits will not allow high school students to include every childhood dream and future goal in their college admission essays. To avoid rambling, write a few introductory sentences to set the overall tone. Then follow with a thesis statement that answers the admission counselor’s question: Why should I keep reading?
Study the application carefully as you write your thesis statement:
- Does the admission staff want to see an essay about “Why You Are a Perfect Fit for Our College” or “How You Will Contribute to Our Campus Community”? Develop your answer with three to six key points.
- Now, write a thesis statement that includes all of these points (or, as my professor called them, “divisions of proof”). Each paragraph in your essay will build on one of these points, drawing from your life experiences for concrete examples.
Write in the Active Voice
After you develop a thesis statement and write a solid draft, go back and edit for active instead of passive voice. To find instances of passive writing, look for the red flags commonly known as “to be” words (is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been).
An essay in the passive voice sends subtle signals to an admissions counselor: This student follows and responds instead of taking the initiative to lead. You don’t want to send a message like that!
Consider the following statements:
- Passive: I was asked to join the drama team for my youth group during my sophomore year.
- Active: As a member of my youth group drama team, I volunteered to coordinate the elementary school outreach in the spring of my sophomore year.
- Passive: I have been commended by my teachers for my attention to detail in labs and my ability to motivate other students.
- Active: I always take the time to double-check details during labs, whether or not the teachers are watching, and I make a special effort to encourage lab partners who lack self-confidence in the sciences.
Using active voice also makes it easier to add more compelling details to a sentence. This lends an air of greater maturity to your writing.
Paint Captivating Pictures
A novelist does much more than simply ask readers to imagine a boy on a sailing ship or a girl in a small town. She helps us feel the runaway slave’s quickening heartbeat in a wild storm. She helps us hear the red-headed girl’s piercing song in the Main Street parade. Your job as a college applicant is no different. You must envision yourself living, breathing, and studying at your college of choice. Then, you must help the admissions staff see the same picture.
Write a vivid college application essay by avoiding conditional statements (“if/when this happens, I would/could/might do that”). Use a strong future tense instead:
- Weak: If accepted to your fall program, I would be a valuable asset to your school.
- Strong: At XYZ University, I will dedicate myself to carrying on a tradition of innovation and scholarship. Grateful for this opportunity, I will stand as a proud member of the 2018 freshman class.
What’s Your Story?
Author Richard Paul Evans offers this wisdom:
The most important story we will ever write in life is our own—not with ink, but with our daily choices.
In your college application essay, you have an exciting opportunity to demonstrate more than just writing skills. You can show an admissions staff that your life story is something they will want to invest in and become part of. What are you waiting for? Find a quiet spot and start writing!
Daniella Dautrich is a WriteShop alumna and a graduate of Hillsdale College. She and her husband fill their home with books on writing, literature, and computer science. They are the parents of a sweet little daughter.
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