5 ways to make your college admissions essay go from good to great

Student writing on a laptop

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College admissions essays, the dreaded “personal essay,” are often the most stressed over part of a college application. You send in your test scores, transcripts, and extracurriculars—check, check, check—but then you need to write something uniquely “you.”

“The personal essay is the beating heart of the application,” says Susan Hillmann de Castañeda, director of international and transfer admissions. “It’s the one point in the application where we hopefully get to see the student’s spirit and soul.”

“The personal essay is the beating heart of the application. It’s the one point in the application where we hopefully get to see the student’s spirit and soul.”

Susan Hillmann de Castañeda, director of international and transfer admissions

With reduced travel during these days of COVID, the essay may be the only chance for admission staffs to “meet” the applicant, so it may be even more important to an application. Speaking of COVID, the essay may also be used to explain how the pandemic influenced a student’s academic or other efforts in high school.

“If there are extenuating circumstances that have affected the student’s academics,” says Hillmann de Castañeda, “the essay can explain other parts of the application that might be concerning.”

Here are some ways to set yourself up for success when writing your personal essay:

1. Give yourself plenty of time to write it.

Write your essay, let it sit and then read it again. Be willing to make changes. “Just write,” Hillmann de Castañeda says. “Then you can go back and edit, and think about word count.”

Have a few people look at it, but not rewrite it. Ask them, “Is the message clear?” 

2. Think about your audience and motivation.

Your audience is an admissions counselor, and your motivation is getting into college. Keep that in mind as you choose a subject or lens. Ask yourself, “Is this what I want to say to the readers?”

3. Make sure it’s personal and uniquely you.

“It needs to get to the ‘why’ level, never just description,” Hillmann de Castañeda says. If you’re just describing what has happened—“This happened and then this. Then something else.“— you may not be telling a very compelling story. Your purpose may be hidden if you don’t also relate the personal impact.  “Some things get trite pretty quickly if you just narrate it,” says Hillmann de Castañeda. “Always bring it back to you and how you’ve grown.”

Here is good litmus test, she says: “Imagine that you wrote your essay and dropped it on the floor of your school. Your name isn’t on it. Would someone know that you wrote it? It should be that personal.”

4. Do something that makes you laugh before you sit down to write.

“It sounds weird, but laughter gets rid of a lot of tension,” Hillmann de Castañeda explains, “but it also reminds you of the joy of being exactly who you are.”

5. Get creative.

Hillmann de Castañeda’s favorite essays from over the years have been creative because they reveal so much about the writer. They also stand out from the rest.

For example, you can use an interest as a lens to tell your story. “There was one student who wrote about her life through the lens of novels,” she remembers. “The fact that she understood the books in a way that applied to her life let me know that she could be successful at Earlham.”

Another option is to draw your reader in with an interesting opening line. An opening line that still stands out to Hillmann de Castañeda is, “I have had 17 birthdays, but only three birthday wishes.” This opening line also gives you a unique perspective from which to write.

“Write within your comfort level. If you’re willing to take the risk to be creative, that helps us because we read a lot of these. Just make sure you’re being authentic.”

Ultimately, your essay will shine because of the writing skills and life experience you already possess. “Have fun with it. You’re getting to share who you are. Celebrate yourself.”

Editor’s note: This story was written by Somer Eckert, an Earlham College graduate from the Class of 2017.

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