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Tips for Writing your College Application Essay

Originally published in the February/March 2018 issue of Frederick’s Child magazine available online here.

By Bill Brown, vice president for enrollment management

Your child has narrowed down the list of colleges to apply to and now comes the all-important college essay. No subject is more anxiety-inducing than the essay. It’s not enough to count on the high school transcript; college admission counselors are using the essay to get to know your student and their personality, a sense of who they are and whether this college is the right fit. It will capture who your student is beyond grades, test scores and co-curricular activities.

I have read thousands of essays on topics about winning—or losing—the big game, about bullying, about taking an interesting trip and many, many more. Really, the topic almost doesn’t matter. What does matter is how the student uses the essay to talk to me about who they really are and how this thing, this experience, has influenced them in some way.

From my 30-year career in higher education, I’ve compiled these tips to share with your student.

Start with a brainstorming session.

You shouldn’t sit down and try to write the essay straight away. This essay is going to convey who you are as a person, so you should start by jotting down ideas, examples and fragments that might form an essay. Write about what matters to you.

  • What do you want to achieve in life and how do you want to achieve it?
  • Why is going to college important to you?
  • How did you solve a problem?
  • Describe a person you admire.
  • What is a book you love?

Create an outline.

Develop the arc of your essay with an introduction, body and conclusion. Be specific and use examples from your own life. Provide some details to help the reader see the setting and understand you better as a person. From the perspective that you have gained in life, discover the message or story line that is unique to you.

Be genuine in your writing.

In writing the essay, think about how you can distinguish yourself. Don’t write what you think the admission counselor wants to read. Be honest and use your true voice. Think about how your individual perspective can be brought into the essay. Admission counselors are interested in your perspective on life. Through what lens or influences do you view life?

  • Ethnicity
  • Culture
  • Spiritual
  • Geographic
  • Social / Economic

Be concise.

Even though the Common Application has a suggested minimum of 250 words and no upper limit, admission counselors are reading through stacks of essays. Can you say what you need to in fewer words? Be sure to tell the whole story; do not leave the reader with too many gaps to fill in. Writing concisely expresses to the admission counselor that you are able to organize your thoughts and that you respect their time.

Proofread and get feedback.

Spelling counts, as does grammar. Nothing can ruin a good essay like a bad typo. Have a couple other people read the essay for typos and coherence. Does it sound like your voice? Is it accurate? Is it genuine? Is there consistency in your tenses? Put the essay down and read it with fresh eyes. Try to imagine the impression the reader will have of you.

Celebrate finishing!

Write a college essay takes time and effort. Once you’ve completed it, you should feel accomplished.

I’m not the only one reading college essay, so I’ve asked a couple of the Hood admission counselors for their best tips.

Whitney Yount: “I love reading essays that show me something about the applicant that I wouldn’t learn from reading the rest of their application. The best essays I’ve read are the ones that show me something a student is truly passionate about—if you’re writing about something you love, it will be much easier for you to write, and it will be a lot more enjoyable for your admission counselors to read!”

Ryan DiGirolamo: “Tell us your story! Your application only truly shows us one side of you, and the essay gives you a chance to show us that extra dimension–the thing that makes you stand out. Every single college applicant has a unique story to tell, and the best essays I’ve read harp on those unique experiences and showcase talent, hardships or passions from that individual’s perspective. The college essay is so much more than just making sure you’re able to write well–it’s an opportunity for colleges to get to know who YOU are.”

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