A Few College Essay Tips

Tomas is in the middle of writing his college application essays, and as I’ve been going over them, it reminded me of a number of basics I think would help most people in the same boat. And since I assume many of my friends might be in the same boat, I thought I’d jot some of the ideas down here. As with any writing tips, take them or leave them. It’s up to you. Writing’s different for everyone, and some things work for some people and don’t work for others. That said, I’ve done a fair bit of writing and a fair bit of revising, so I’d like to think I have some experience in the area.

First off, I think the topic selection is huge. In many ways, I think most essay prompts are traps. Students are asked to write about a time they failed or a time they learned something important, and they inevitably want to go to the times that stick out first in their minds. That usually boils down to experiences that end up falling into the same categories. The Big Game is a great example. Students will write about the game or race or match that they ended up winning or losing, and then try to shoehorn as much meaning and Learning Experiences into it as possible. Hollywood is to blame for a lot of this, since it’s become such a well-established trope.

But think about it this way: a university can have thousands upon thousands of applicants. That means admissions staff are reading a whole ton of essays. Once you’ve read enough Big Game essays, they all start to blend together. There’s just not a ton of variation in what can happen in sports. They mean a lot to the people who are personally invested in them, but if you’re not? It’s hard to connect. That isn’t to say it can’t be done, but it’s very difficult to do well, and even more difficult to make your particular essay stand out.

So instead of going with the first topic that comes to mind, I encourage applicants to take the time to really think about things that have had a big impact in their lives. Events or activities that have a lot of meaning. Many times it’s the small things that change us the most, and the great thing about those small things is there’s a whole lot more variety in them. The time you went camping and almost fell off a cliff. The time you tripped in the middle of a marching band performance and crumpled your trombone. Tell a story like that, and you’ll both stand out because of the topic, and you’ll give a much better example of who you are as a person.

Next, there’s the time old adage of “show don’t tell.” If I tell you that I love my wife, it doesn’t mean much to you, even if it means a lot to me. On the other hand, if I talk about some of the specific things I’ve done that show that love, you will likely walk away thinking, “Man. He loves his wife.” Easier example: which is more impactful? “I hate carrots,” or “Every time I smell stewed carrots, I can’t eat for the next five hours.” When you read the second, not only do you understand the writer hates carrots, but you understand just how much he hates them.

This trickles down to all levels of an application essay. Read over what you’ve written, and mark down every time you’re telling something. Making a statement that someone who doesn’t know you would have no way of knowing. Remember: the application staff *don’t* know you, and when you make an unsupported claim, it’s easy to doubt it. “He says he loves his wife, but does he really?” You can get away with a few instances of telling, but not many. Use them wisely, and typically only after you’ve done enough showing to justify them.

Related to this is the recommendation to be specific. Provide specific examples of things, not generalized statements. If you’re going to talk about how hard football was at the beginning, talk about a specific time that exemplifies this. How it felt. Who was there. Where it was. You obviously don’t need a ton of details (since word count matters), but a few good specifics help ground the rest of the essay.

Finally, remember the real reason for the essays. They’re there to supplement the rest of your application. Don’t waste the opportunity by repeating something that’s already in your application elsewhere. You’re looking to give the applications committee more reasons to decide they need to have you come there. Vary the topics so you’re not saying the same thing in two different places.

Anyway. Pulling it all off can be tricky. I’m not here to say it isn’t. Doing all of this and making it fit the word length takes a lot of hard work. (Especially for BYU’s applications. 2,000 characters per essay? Are they insane??) But if you take your time and do multiple drafts, it’s very doable.

Good luck!


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