Nearly all colleges rate application essays as either important or very important in their admissions process. A poorly executed essay can cause a stellar


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Nearly all colleges rate application essays as either important or very important in their admissions process. A poorly executed essay can cause a stellar student to get rejected. On the flip side, exceptional application essays can help students with marginal scores get into the schools of their dreams. The tips below will help you win big with your essay. Also be sure to check out these tips for the six personal essay options on the common application, these nine tips for improving your essay's style, and the sample essays.

Avoid the List

Many college applicants make the mistake of trying to include all of their accomplishments and activities in their application essays. Such essays read like what they are: tedious lists. Other parts of the application provide plenty of space for you to list extracurricular activities, so save your lists for the places where they belong.

The most engaging and compelling essays tell a story and have a clear focus. Through carefully chosen detail, your writing should reveal your passions and expose your personality. A thoughtful and detailed narration of a difficult time in your life tells far more about you than a list of competitions won and honors achieved. Your grades and scores show that you’re smart. Use your essay to show that you’re thoughtful and mature, that your personality has depth.

A Touch of Humor (but just a touch)

While it's important to be thoughtful and mature, you don't want your college application essay to be too heavy. Try to lighten up the essay with a clever metaphor, a well-placed witticism, or a little self-deprecating humor. But don't overdo it. The essay that is filled with bad puns or off-color jokes will often end up in the rejection pile. Also, humor isn't a substitute for substance. Your primary task is to answer the essay prompt thoughtfully; the smile you bring to your reader's lips is just a bonus (and a tear can sometimes be effective too). Many students have been rejected for failing to take the prompt seriously and writing essays that end up being more foolish than clever.

Tone, Tone, Tone

Not just humor, but the overall tone of your application essay is remarkably important. It's also difficult to get right. When you are asked to write about your accomplishments, those 750 words on how great you are can make you sound like a braggart. Be careful to balance your pride in your achievements with humility and generosity towards others. You also want to avoid sounding like a whiner -- use your essay to show off your skills, not to explain the injustices that lead to your low math score or failure to graduate #1 in your class.

Reveal Your Character

Along with the essay, most colleges rate "character and personal qualities" as extremely important in their admissions decisions. Your character shows up in three places on the application: the interview (if you have one), your involvement in extracurricular activities, and your essay. Of the three, the essay is the most immediate and illuminating to the admissions folks as they read through thousands of applications. Remember, colleges aren’t looking solely for straight "A"s and high SAT scores. They are looking for good citizens for their campus communities.

Mechanics Matter

Grammatical problems, punctuation errors, and spelling mistakes can hurt your chance of being accepted. When excessive, these errors are distracting and make your application essay difficult to understand. Even a few errors, however, can be a strike against you. They show a lack of care and quality control in your written work, and your success in college partly depends upon strong writing skills.

If English isn't your greatest strength, seek help. Ask a favorite teacher to go over the essay with you, or find a friend with strong editorial skills. If you can't find expert help, there are many on-line essay services that can provide a careful critique of your writing.

The first step to writing a stellar personal essay on your college application is to understand your options. Below is a discussion of the six essay options from the Common Application. Also be sure to check out these 5 Application Essay Tips.

Option #1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

Note the key word here: evaluate. You aren't just describing something; the best essays will explore the complexity of the issue. When you examine the "impact on you," you need to show the depth of your critical thinking abilities. Introspection, self-awareness and self-analysis are all important here. And be careful with essays about the winning touchdown or tie-breaking goal. These sometimes have an off-putting "look how great I am" tone and very little self-evaluation.

Before responding to the first essay option on the common application, be sure to consider the 5 tips below. Option 1 asks: Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

1. "Evaluate" -- Make Sure Your Response is Analytical


Read the prompt for option #1 carefully -- you need to "evaluate" an experience, achievement, risk or dilemma. Evaluation requires you to think critically and analytically about your topic. The admissions folks are not asking you to "describe" or "summarize" an experience (although you'll need to do this a little). The heart of your essay needs to be a thoughtful discussion of how the experience affected you. Examine how the experience made you grow and change as a person.

2. A "Significant" Experience Can Be Small


Many students shy away from personal essay option 1 because of the word "significant." Many students feel that they are just 18 years old and nothing "significant" has ever happened to them. This isn't true. If you're 18 years old, even if your life has been smooth and comfortable, you've had significant experiences. Think about the first time you challenged authority, the first time you disappointed your parents or the first time you pushed yourself to do something outside of your comfort zone. A significant risk can be choosing to study drawing; it doesn't have to be about rappelling into an icy chasm to rescue a baby polar bear.

3. Don't Brag About an "Achievement"


The admissions team gets a lot of essays from students about the winning goal, the record-breaking run, the brilliant job in the school play, the stunning violin solo or the amazing job they did as team captain. These topics are fine for essay option 1, but you want to be very careful to avoid sounding like a braggart or egoist. The tone of such essays is critical. An essay that says "the team never could have won without me" is going to rub your reader the wrong way. A college doesn't want a community of self-consumed egoists. The best essays have a generosity of spirit and an appreciation of community and team effort.

4. An "Ethical Dilemma" Doesn't Need to be Newsworthy


Think broadly about what can be defined as an "ethical dilemma." This topic doesn't need to be about whether or not to support war, abortion or capital punishment. In fact, the huge topics that dominate national debate will often miss the point of the essay question -- the "impact on you." The most difficult ethical dilemmas facing high school students are often about high school. Should you turn in a friend who cheated? Is loyalty to your friends more important than honesty? Should you risk your own comfort or reputation to do what you think is right? Tackling these personal dilemmas in your essay will give the admissions folks a good sense of who you are, and you will be addressing issues that are central to being a good campus citizen.

5. Reveal Your Character


Always keep in mind why colleges require admissions essays. Sure, they want to see that you can write, but the essay isn't always the best tool for that (it's obviously easy to get professional help with grammar and mechanics). The main purpose of the essay is so that the school can learn more about you. It's the only place on the application where you can really demonstrate your character, your personality, your sense of humor and your values. The admissions folks want to find evidence that you will be a contributing member of the campus community. They want to see evidence of a team spirit, humility, self-awareness and introspection. Essay option #1 works well for these goals if you thoughtfully explore the "impact on you."

Option #2. Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.

Be careful to keep the "importance to you" at the heart of your essay. It's easy to get off track with this essay topic and start ranting about global warming, Darfur, or abortion. The admissions folks want to discover your character, passions and abilities in the essay; they want more than a political lecture.

1. Be Sure to "Discuss"


Be sure to read the question carefully. The common application is not asking you to "describe" or "summarize" an issue. So, if the bulk of your essay is describing the terrible conditions in Darfur, you are not answering the question. To "discuss" something you need to think critically and write analytically.

2. Focusing Close to Home is Often Better


The admissions office gets lots of essays on big, newsworthy issues like the war in Iraq, the fight against terror and U.S. dependence on fossil fuels. In truth, however, these giant and complex issues often don't impact our immediate lives as much as more local and personal issues. Since colleges want to get to know you through your essay, be sure to focus on an issue that will actually teach them something about you.

3. Don't Lecture Your Audience


The admissions officers don't want to be lectured on the evils on global warming or the cons on world trade. Save that writing for a paper in your college Political Science class. The heart of an essay on option #2 needs to be about you, so make sure your writing is as much personal as it is political.

4. Give Emphasis to "The Importance to You"


The end of the prompt for option #2 asks you to discuss the issue's "importance to you." Don't short change this essential part of the question. Whatever issue you discuss, you want to make sure that it truly is important to you and that your essay reveals why it is important to you. A good essay on this option reveals the person behind the writing.

5. Show Why You'd Be a Good Choice for the College


Trust me -- the common application doesn't include option #2 because colleges want to learn about world issues. Colleges want to learn about you, and they want to see evidence that you will add value to the campus community. The essay is really the only place in the application where you can highlight your convictions and personality. As you discuss an issue, make sure you reveal yourself to be the type of thoughtful, introspective, passionate and generous person who will make an ideal campus citizen.

Option #3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.

I'm not a fan of this prompt because of the wording: "describe that influence." A good essay on this topic does more than "describe." Dig deep and "analyze." And handle a "hero" essay with care. Your readers have probably seen a lot of essays talking about what a great role model Mom or Dad or Sis is. Also realize that the "influence" of this person doesn't need to be positive.

1. Push the Language in This Option


I've never been a fan of the wording of essay option #3, for if you followed the guidelines too literally, you would end up with a bland essay. The words "indicate" and "describe" suggest that your essay does not need to demonstrate any critical thought. However, a good response to #3 does far more than "describe" a person's influence on you. You should examine why the person was influential to you, and you should analyze the ways in which you have changed because of your relationship with the person.

2. Think Twice About Essays on Mom or Dad


There is nothing wrong with writing about one of your parents for this essay, but make sure your relationship with your parent is unusual and compelling in some way. The admissions folks get a lot of essays that focus on a parent, and your writing won't stand out if you simply make generic points about parenting. If you find yourself making points like "my Dad was a great role model" or "my mother always pushed me to do my best," rethink your approach to the question. Consider the millions of students who could write the exact same essay.

3. Don't Be Star Struck


In most cases, you should avoid writing an essay about the lead singer in your favorite band or the movie star who you idolize. Such essays can be okay if handled well, but often the writer ends up sounding like a pop culture junkie rather than a thoughtful independent thinker.

4. Obscure Subject Matter is Fine


Be sure to read Max's essay on option #3. Max writes about a rather unremarkable junior high kid he encountered while teaching summer camp. The essay succeeds in part because the choice of subject matter is unusual and obscure. Among a million application essays, Max's will be the only one to focus on this young boy. Also, the boy isn't even a role model. Instead, he's an ordinary kid who inadvertently makes Max challenge his preconceptions.

5. The "Significant Influence" Need Not Be Positive


The majority of essays written for option #3 are about role models: "my Mom/Dad/brother/friend/teacher/neighbor/coach taught me to be a better person through his or her great example..." Such essays are often excellent, but they are also a bit predictable. This essay, however, is about a "significant" influence, not necessarily a "positive" influence. Max's essay focuses on a kid who is explicitly not a role model. You could even write about someone who is abusive or hateful. Evil can have as much "influence" on us as good.

6. You Are Also Writing About Yourself


When the prompt asks you to "describe that influence," it is asking you to be reflective and introspective. While an essay for option #3 is partly about the influential person, it is equally about you. To understand someone's influence on you, you need to understand yourself -- your strengths, your short-comings, the areas where you still need to grow. As with all the essay options, you need to make sure a response to #3 reveals your own interests, passions, personality and character. The details of this essay need to reveal that you are the type of person who will contribute to the campus community in a positive way.
Student Teacher

Anthony was neither a leader nor a role model. In fact, his teachers and his parents were constantly chastising him because he was disruptive, ate too much, and had a hard time staying focused on a task. I met Anthony when I was a counselor at a local summer camp. The counselors had the usual duties of keeping kids from smoking, drowning, and killing each other. We made God’s eyes, friendship bracelets, collages, and other clichés. We rode horses, sailed boats, and hunted snipe.

Each counselor also had to teach a three-week course that was supposed to be a little more “academic” than the usual camp fare. I created a class called “Things that Fly.” I met with fifteen students for an hour a day as we designed, built, and flew kites, model rockets, and balsawood airplanes.

Anthony signed up for my class. Anthony stood out from my other students for many reasons. He was larger and louder than the other middle school kids. He was also the only African American in the class. The camp was located in a well-to-do and predominately white neighborhood. In a questionable effort to promote economic and racial diversity, the camp organizers developed a strategy of busing inner-city kids out to the burbs. But despite the best efforts of the organizers and counselors, the inner-city kids and suburbanites tended to stick to their own groups during most activities and meals.

Anthony was not a good student. He had been kept back a year at his school. He talked out of turn and lost interest when others were talking. In my class, Anthony got some good laughs when he smashed his kite and threw the pieces into the wind. His rocket never made it to the launch pad because he crumpled it in a fit of frustration when he couldn’t get the fins to stay on.

In the final week, when we were making airplanes, Anthony surprised me when he drew a sketch of a sweep-wing jet and told me he wanted to make a “really cool plane.” Like many of Anthony’s teachers, and perhaps even his parents, I had largely given up on him. Now he suddenly showed a spark of interest. I didn’t think the interest would last, but I helped Anthony get started on a scale blueprint for his plane. I worked one-on-one with Anthony and had him use his project to demonstrate to his classmates how to cut, glue and mount the balsawood framework. When the frames were complete, we covered them with tissue paper. We mounted propellers and rubber bands. Anthony, with all his thumbs, created something that looked a bit like his original drawing despite some wrinkles and extra glue.

Our first test flight saw Anthony’s plane nose-dive straight into the ground. His plane had a lot of wing area in the back and too much weight in the front. I expected Anthony to grind his plane into the earth with his boot. He didn’t. He wanted to make his creation work. The class returned to the classroom to make adjustments, and Anthony added some big flaps to the wings. Our second test flight surprised the whole class. As many of the planes stalled, twisted, and nose-dived, Anthony’s flew straight out from the hillside and landed gently a good 50 yards away.

I’m not writing about Anthony to suggest that I was a good teacher. I wasn’t. In fact, I had quickly dismissed Anthony like many of his teachers before me. At best, I had viewed him as a distraction in my class, and I felt my job was to keep him from sabotaging the experience for the other students. Anthony’s ultimate success was a result of his own motivation, not my instruction.

Anthony’s success wasn’t just his plane. He had succeeded in making me aware of my own failures. Here was a student who was never taken seriously and had developed a bunch of behavioral issues as a result. I never stopped to look for his potential, discover his interests, or get to know the kid beneath the facade. I had grossly underestimated Anthony, and I am grateful that he was able to disillusion me.

I like to think that I’m an open-minded, liberal, and non-judgmental person. Anthony taught me that I’m not there yet.
Option #4. Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.

Here as in #3, be careful of that word "describe." You should really be "analyzing" this character or creative work. What makes it so powerful and influential?

1. Don't Do Too Much "Describing"


Although option #4 begins with the word "describe," description in its own right isn't very interesting. If you spend most of the essay describing the accomplishments of George Washington or the movements of a Beethoven Symphony, you will have created an essay that fails to demonstrate higher-level thinking skills. So, be sure to keep the mere description to a minimum, and keep the focus on analyzing the character, historical figure or creative work and its relationship to you.

2. Keep the Focus on the Word "Explain"


This is related to the above point -- while you'll want to keep the "description" to a minimum, you should really do a lot with the final part of the prompt ("explain that influence"). The explanation is where you will present a thoughtful discussion of yourself and the things that influence you. The explanation is what reveals your passions, interests and personality. It's this part of the essay that has the most value for the college admissions folks.

3. Watch Out for Predictable Choices


When option #4 is handled correctly, your essay won't sound like a dozen other essays. Thus, it's often wise to shy away from predictable figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Albert Einstein. Try to identify a character, historical figure or creative work that is a bit less predictable and that connects clearly with your passions and interests.

4. Be Careful with Fictional Characters


You should be wary of choosing a trivial, humorous or cartoon character for this option. If you do, you run the danger of looking like you don't take the essay requirement seriously. The college admissions folks want to get to know you through your writing, so make sure your writing isn't shallow, facetious or dismissive. While it might be fun to write about a South Park character, does such an essay really create the best portrait of you for the admissions officers? At the same time, a skillful writer can make almost any subject matter work.

5. Don't Write About Your Favorite Contemporary Song


Music can certainly be a good focus for this essay, but the admissions officers get tired of reading hundreds of essays about songs by students' favorite bands. For one, the lyrics of most popular music really aren't that profound, and you also run the danger of having a reader who doesn't share your musical tastes.

6. Approach the Word "Creative" in Broad Terms


The phrase "creative work" in the prompt often makes us think of things like poetry or painting. However, every field -- engineering, science, psychology, mathematics, religion, medicine -- depends upon creativity for its advancement. The best scientists are great creative thinkers. Some of the best essays for option #4 focus on creative works outside of the arts. For example, a novel technique for attacking the AIDS virus is a "creative work."

7. Keep Much of the Focus on You


Spend a bit of your essay explaining the "influence on you." The admissions folks don't want to learn about the influential work or character as much as they want to learn about you. The essay is a tool for helping a college figure out if you'll be a good match for the campus community. If your essay doesn't reveal your interests and personality, you haven't succeeded in responding to the essay question.

Option #5. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.

Realize that this question defines "diversity" in broad terms. It's not specifically about race or ethnicity (although it can be). Ideally, the admissions folks want every student they admit to contribute to the richness and breadth of the campus community. How do you contribute?

1. Diversity Isn't Just About Race


The prompt for option #5 explicitly states that you should define diversity in broad terms. It isn't just about skin color. Colleges want to enroll students who have a diverse range of interests, beliefs and experiences. Many college applicants quickly shy away from this option because they don't think they bring diversity to a campus. Not true. Even a white male from the suburbs has values and life experiences that are uniquely his own.

2. Understand Why Colleges Want "Diversity"


Option #5 is designed to give you an opportunity to explain what interesting qualities you'll bring to the campus community. There are check boxes on the application that address your race, so that isn't the point here. Most colleges believe that the best learning environment includes students who bring new ideas, new perspectives, new passions and new talents to the school. A bunch of like-minded clones have very little to teach each other, and they will grow little from their interactions. As you think about this question, ask yourself, "What will I add to the campus? Why will the college be a better place when I'm in attendance?"

3. Be Careful Describing Third-World Encounters


College admissions counselors sometimes call it "that Haiti essay" -- an essay about a visit to a third-world country. Invariably, the writer discusses shocking encounters with poverty, a new awareness of the privileges he or she has, and greater sensitivity to the inequality and diversity of the planet. This type of essay can too easily become generic and predictable. This doesn't mean you can't write about a Habitat for Humanity trip to a third-world country, but you want to be careful to avoid clichés. Also, make sure your statements reflect well upon you. A claim like "I never knew so many people lived with so little" can make you sound naive.

4. Be Careful Describing Racial Encounters


Racial difference is actually an excellent topic for an admissions essay, but you need to handle the topic carefully. As you describe that Japanese, Native American, African American or Caucasian friend or acquaintance, you want to make sure your language doesn't inadvertently create racial stereotypes. I've seen a lot of essays in which students simultaneously praise a friend's different perspective while using stereotyping or even racist language.

5. Keep Much of the Focus on You


As with all the personal essay options, #5 is asking about you -- what diversity you will bring to campus, or what ideas about diversity you will bring. Always keep in mind the primary purpose of the essay. Colleges want to get to know the students who will become part of the campus community. If your entire essay describes life in Indonesia, you've failed to do this. If your essay is all about your favorite friend from Korea, you have also failed. Whether you describe your own contribution to campus diversity, or if you talk about an encounter with diversity, the essay needs to reveal your character, values and personality. The college is enrolling you, not the diverse people you've encountered.

Option #6. Topic of your choice.

Sometimes you have a story to share that doesn't quite fit into any of the options above. However, the first five topics are broad with a lot of flexibility, so make sure your topic really can't be identified with one of them. Also, don't equate "topic of your choice" with a license to write a comedy routine or poem (you can submit such things via the "Additional Info" option). Essays written for this prompt still need to have substance and tell your reader something about you.

1. Make Sure Options 1 Through 5 Aren't Appropriate


I've rarely seen an admissions essay that doesn't fit into one of the first five Common Application essay options. In truth, it probably doesn't matter much if you write your essay under option #6 when it could fit elsewhere (unless the fit with another option is obvious) -- it's the quality of the essay that most matters.

2. Don't Try Too Hard To Be Clever


Some students make the mistake of assuming that "Topic of Your Choice" means that they can write about anything. Keep in mind that the admissions officers take the essay seriously, so you should too. This doesn't mean you can't be humorous, but you do need to make sure your essay has substance. If your essay focuses more on a good laugh than on revealing why you'd make a good college student, you should rethink your approach.

3. Make Sure Your Essay Is An Essay (No Poems, Drawings, etc.)


Every now and then a budding creative writer decides to submit a poem, play or other creative work for essay option #6. Don't do it. The Common Application allows for supplemental materials, so you should include your creative work there. The essay should be an essay -- non-fiction prose that explores a topic and reveals your character.

4. Reveal Yourself


Any topic is a possibility for option #6, but you want to make sure your writing fulfills the purpose of the admissions essay. The college admissions folks are looking for evidence that you'll make a good campus citizen. Your essay should reveal your character, values, personality, beliefs and (if appropriate) sense of humor. You want your reader to end your essay thinking, "Yes, this is someone who I want to live in my community."

Personal Essay

CHARACTERISTICS

• focuses on a single topic or thesis

• usually first person “I”

• uses supporting evidence in the form of examples, anecdotes, statistics or documented events

• uses descriptive, persuasive language to convey writer's opinion

• a consistent mood or tone

• variety of sentence structure relevant to the topic and tone of essay

• usually written in present tense to convey writer’s POV and sometimes past for examples

• Clear beginning, middle, and end

• Sometimes uses extended metaphor to balance overall structure
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