Are you starting to think about writing your college application essay?
If so, you need to know what makes a great essay to know how to start brainstorming and writing your own.
You can often recognize a “great one” when you read or hear it—but it’s more difficult to explain what exactly made it that way.
Here’s my attempt to list the features that comprise a great college application essay.
Unlike other essays, these have a very specific goal that you must always factor in when you write a great one: To help your college application land in the “Yes!” pile.
Many of the elements of an effective college admissions essay further that goal.
A GRRRREATTT college application essay:
1. “Grabs” the readers at the start. I believe one of the best ways to do this is to start with an anecdote (real-life incident). Something happens.
2. Usually is written in a narrative (story-telling/memoir-like/slice-of-life) style drawing off real-life experiences.
3. Reveals a specific core or “defining” quality (creative, resourceful, fierce, resilient, driven, etc.) about the writer, rather than trying to describe many qualities. This is how to focus the essay.
4. Showcases what the writer cares about and values; shows character. (Again, it shouldn’t try to cover everything the writer values, but focuses on a main point or two.)
5. Takes a risk. This means the writer tries to find a topic that is unique (includes The Unexpected or A Twist) and relates the story in a creative way. Narrative-style writing is creative.
6. Shows grit. If a writer shares “a time” she or he faced some type of problem (challenge, obstacle, change, mistake, etc.), the essay naturally will highlight the writers raw determination (eg grit). This is a highly prized quality by most colleges.
7. Reflects the writer’s individual voice or personality. The trick is to write these essays in a more casual style. Write close to how you talk.
8. Includes a “memorable” topic. Mundane (or everyday) topics usually work best for this, rather than topics that try to impress the reader.
9. Illustrates the writer’s ability (and passion) to think, reason, analyze, question and learn independently. This is what college is all about!
10. Connects with the reader. Sharing stories is the best way to relate with the reader, since they will want to know what happened, how you felt (the good and bad), what you did about it and how it changed you. Chances are, the readers has experienced something similar and will “get” you.
11. Makes you come across as likable. This doesn’t mean you have to only show your best side in the essay. Actually, writers who open themselves up in their essay, share their fears and flaws, end up the most appealing. Who likes someone who’s perfect?
12. Shows your command of the English language. Of course, make sure your essay is as free of errors as possible. Write “shitty” first drafts, but then go back and clean them up. Proofread like mad.
There are most likely dozens more of these elements that make good essays great. If you want to get a sense of what makes a great essay, read some samples. If one pops off the page and you really like it, take a minute to think about why it appealed to you. Use those same features in your essay!
Knowing what makes a great essay should help you write your own. Ready to start? Try this Jumpstart Guide.