Start Your Success Story: Tried and True Tips to Ace the College Essay

Ian Sonia

It’s that time of year for thousands of high school students around the world. Stress levels begin to rise, family members inquire about your interests, and you start furiously making lists. No, it’s not the holiday season. It’s time to apply to college!  Never fear, we are here to give you some tips and pointers on how to effectively start this process and help you tackle your college essay.

Don’t Fear the Brainstorm!

Often, figuring out where to begin is the most challenging part of the college essay process. First and foremost, don’t think of the brainstorming process as intimidating and daunting. Think about it as a way to reflect on meaningful moments, events, people, or times in your life. Here are a few tips to get you started.

Seek advice from those who know you best – It can be difficult to recognize the characteristics in ourselves we feel are worth putting on paper. Consider asking your friends or family members to share if there’s a quality they admire in you, or if there was a situation that demonstrated your character or resiliency. Hearing what others have to say about YOU will also keep you from comparing yourself to others.

Take notes – Use lists to write down your ideas. Keep your phone or a notebook handy, so you’re able to jot down your ideas as they arise. Who knows, your next big idea could come to you in the middle of the grocery aisle, or right before you fall asleep for the night!

Narrow it down – Your college essay should not be your life story. Give yourself the space to truly explore a singular memory, accomplishment, loss, interest, or lesson learned. What does your chosen topic say about you? Small stories may lead you to a larger idea. Don’t be afraid to dig into the details!

Get Real

The best essays are the ones that tell a story and provide us with information about your personality, interests, likes, dislikes and goals. The application essay is a way to leave the structured rigor of the typical application requirements, so avoid re-telling or summarizing what can be found in your application.

Ordinary can be Extraordinary – Once again, the college essay is not a time to compare yourself to others. When writing your essay, avoid judgement on yourself. We understand not everyone has trekked the Andes, started a nonprofit in their hometown or competed as part of the Junior Olympic fencing team, and that’s OK! Your journey is uniquely your own, and everyone’s journey has value!

Focus on your Growth – At Emmanuel, we know that each and every student contributes to our community in a real and substantive way. Your essay is an opportunity to demonstrate how you will fit into a community, so counselors are especially interested in your response and reaction to a certain situation, as well as how you grew from it.

Bring it Back to the Basics – Your five senses are an excellent tool to help shape your writing. If telling a story about your favorite place, describe the setting in detail as best as you remember. What details stick out as important? If you are outside, how does the air smell and feel? If you are telling a story about your favorite food, how does it taste?

Polish Up

Colleges are looking for students who can express their thoughts clearly and concisely, and polishing your essay shows that you care about producing high-quality, college-level work.

Use Your Words Wisely – Most essays will have a word limit. As you’re writing, don’t be afraid of putting it all on the page. Once you are done drafting, you will know which pieces are essential to telling your story, and which are just backstory or anecdotes. Cutting unnecessary adjectives and adverbs (truly, certainly, really, basically, possibly, etc.) and using active voice will also sharpen your writing and keep your word count in check.

Watch your Tone – Your essay should always be a reflection of you. Being overly formal or overly casual can already be red flags to admissions counselors, but will be especially off-putting if these tones don’t match your personality or the subject of your essay. Make sure the tone of your essay remains consistent from beginning to end.

Don’t Skip The Spell Check – Perfection is a lot of pressure, of course, but the grammar, spelling and punctuation in your admission essay should be as close to perfect as possible. After you’re done writing, read your essay, re-read it a little later, and have someone else read it too, like a teacher, friend or family member—they may find typos or inconsistencies your eyes were just too tired to see.

Of course, essays aren’t the only way to showcase your individuality to admissions counselors. Check your chosen college’s website for their visit opportunities, and schedule an interview to speak one-on-one with an admissions counselor. We’re always thrilled to get to know our prospective students better!

Ian Sonia
Ian Sonia

Ian Sonia is the Senior Associate Director of Admissions Marketing at Emmanuel College. After attending college in the Virginia Beach area Ian returned to his home state of Massachusetts several years ago. When Ian is not creating content for the Office of Admissions he can be found catching a Red Sox game at Fenway or enjoying one of the many amazing restaurants in the neighborhoods of Boston. He holds a BS in Economics from Christopher Newport University.