How to write an incredible college admissions essay.

How to write an incredible college admissions essay.

How to know what to write, and the way to write it.

Ryan Derenberger is a freelance journalist, a Journalism and AP English teacher at Whitman HS in Bethesda, MD, and the founder of 'The Idea Sift.'

November 24th, 2021 at 7:17 pm EDT

You made it. You’re a junior or a senior preparing to take the plunge into higher education. Only a few more obstacles stand in your way. The most conquerable? Your college admissions essay. Despite all the fear the word “essay” may call to mind, writing one does not have to be the hardest part of this process. As a college admissions exam and essay tutor, I can tell you the most important thing to remember when drafting your essay. It’s obvious: Admissions officers are human.

Let’s take a look at what the office chair does to a person, and figure out how we can use that understanding to our advantage. Admissions readers are…

TIRED | so add sentence variety.

Admissions officers have a lot to read, and if they’re even an eighth human, they may grow tired of reading itself. Writing with a variety of different sentence structures is the equivalent of playing chords and different notes — awakening — rather than hitting the same sleepy piano key over and over again.

Sentence variety can quickly help. It might express as a sudden, shorter sentence amidst many long ones, and it may even appear as a fragment. Powerful. Singular.

Even budding writers tend to speak with greater variety than they’d ever think to type. Consider recording yourself answering each essay question, as if you were having a conversation with a trusted friend or family member. Transcribe the recording into text on the screen, or use an app to do so. Delete each “like” or “um.” What you’ll find is that you’re already quite the engaging writer, when you’re not writing.

CYNICAL | so avoid clichés.

Even if they never grow tired, admissions staff have to read many, many applications and may become cynical about common writing tricks students use to tug heartstrings.

I tell my students to have an allergy to heavy imagery. Openings with “palm-sweating,” “shaking,” or “taking deep breaths” may elicit eye rolls. Those common imagery-heavy choices at the top of essays appear more often than they don’t. Stand out from the crowd, instead. Start elsewhere in your story than the time the “sweat was dripping.”

UNFOCUSED | so zoom in.

I’ve never read a college admissions essay that was too “zoomed in,” but I’ve read a thousand too “zoomed out.” Soccer seasons chronicled in three paragraphs probably aren’t that intriguing, the equivalent of reading the very top of Wikipedia entry, instead of engaging with a page from a journal that you kept throughout a time in your life.

When figuring out an event to write about, pick an hour. Not a day, not a month — an hour. Even that advice, I sometimes worry may be too wide of a time. I’ve seen successful, stand-out essays about the first 30 seconds from picking up a peach to taking the first bite. The benefit of picking an hour is that it forces you to tell a story, as opposed to summarizing what could be 100 stories from that soccer season.

How interesting can you make your family’s perfect cookie recipe? Or that time you put together an Ikea desk? The “hour” rule is an invitation to do more with less, and a command to every bewildered reader, to “listen up.”

RUSHED | so organize predictably.

Admissions officers often feel short on time. Their rush is partly artificial. Admissions staff know well that there are a finite amount of applications submitted each year. Once the stack’s done, the work ends for a whole another year.

It’s only human to begin to think, “The sooner I get this done, the sooner I can go home.”

Coping with the rush, whether real or imagined, they may learn to skim essays and direct their attention to where the most important areas typically fall. The basic structure of the college admissions essay, then, is nothing to shy away from, even as we encourage creativity elsewhere. That means that the first few paragraphs should read like a story, often including dialogue, and the last one or two should offer clear takeaways.

Knowing that admissions staff may skim will place a location-based burden of responsibility on the writer, too, to come up with takeaways genuinely eye-catching and a bit more interesting than “I learned the value of hard work.”

EFFECTIVE | so give them a reason to say “yes,” not every reason.

Admissions officers are ultimately effective at their jobs, especially vets of the system. They look to put together a class of students that will work well together. If their freshmen class will be 5,000 students, they don’t want 5,000 SGA presidents. They want some, but they also want those who are more thoughtful and extremely selective about when they speak.

Think of yourself as a character in a game, and at the character selection screen are maybe seven stats or so. As a player scrolls through, deciding whom to pick, the stats hop up and down based on the character. No one expects the clever character to also be a perfect student. Likewise, the creative artist probably isn’t the best leader, even if they’re highly sought-after for group projects.

Pretending you have somehow maxed out all of your stats at age 17 or 18, and are already the perfect human, assumes that college admissions officers are bad at their jobs and naive, that all they do is look for the same, best student, always. That’s not what’s happening. Aware and at least somewhat effective, they try to set up a class of students as coaches would with a field of players talented at different positions. Lean into what’s unique about you. Be honest about the stat rows you feel you’ve mastered, and about those you have yet to.

EXCITABLE | so offer a surprise.

A surprise confession, a genuinely funny situation, a joke — break up the day for a fellow human working in college admissions. Like anyone, admissions officers like to be charmed and loosened up. Lean into that hibernating desire if the move matches your personality. There’s nothing wrong with serious applications at all, but every classroom needs someone to dial down the stress.

BIASED | so frame mental health stories with your desire to help.

Application questions often ask about important times in students’ lives. For many who have been through trauma or braved mental illness, sensitive moments immediately come to mind. If you choose to move forward with your story, do so knowing that admissions staff, like many people, are biased against mental illness.

Some in admissions might even argue that they have to be biased: being good at their jobs, they’ll say, requires that they avoid admitting all at once too many students who are living with mental illness. It’s discriminatory. It’s also a real practice, and horror stories about the bias have surfaced.

You don’t deserve to have to deal with it, and you have every right not to bother. If you feel it’s honest to add, too, showing how you can help others who go through similar times will turn the bias on itself and beat the system.

If you’ve gone out of your way to do some research here on what it takes to elevate yourself with your essay, chances are you’re more than up to the challenge of higher education. You deserve every leg up you can get. Remember: there is nothing strange about the people on the other side of this exchange. They are human, with all the flaws and chances for enchantment that come with every standard-issue human body, and every standard-issue human brain. Knowing them is knowing yourself. Happy writing.