Some of the best advice I got from my high school English teacher had nothing to do with our actual course, but with tackling the Common Application early in my senior year. One of our first assignments was to write a first draft of one of the prompts and turn it into our teacher for evaluation. You’ll hear a truckload of tips and tricks for writing a memorable essay that will make colleges clamor to get you enrolled. Some of the most common nuggets of knowledge include: “write something unique,” “make it stand out,” and other beautifully vague statements that don’t help much.
I interpreted such advice the way I sense most college applicants do: I figured I needed to pick a defining moment in my past and recount the dramatic turning point when I had a blinding revelation of the meaning of my life. That would surely show both who I am as a person AND catch my reader’s attention! Unfortunately, I was wrong. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the structure I was using was the go-to genre of essay for just about everyone. When the teacher handed back our graded first attempts at putting our identities on paper the first thing he said was, “Okay, a lot of you are going for the ‘this big even happened and it changed my life’ approach. You can do better.” Whether or not he was directing that statement at me, it sure felt like he was. I needed to start from scratch.
I have, of course, come to terms with the truth of my teacher’s advice since then. The life-changing-moment scenario can definitely be done well in a way that does stand out from the thousands of essays an admissions officer reads, but it occurs in such abundance that only the truly outstanding subjects will make an impact. There are other ways to be impressive with a more subtle flair.
Show off your skill as a writer, not whatever events have happened in your life.
While big events often come around by the powers of fate or chance, whichever you choose to believe in more, how well you can represent yourself in words is a skill that admissions officers look for and can readily attribute to a student’s competence and hard work. This is the too-frequently forgotten purpose of the CA essay. Sure, it works as a supplement to your activities, résumé, and accomplishments, but it’s really about how effectively the words are strung together. It’s difficult to give advice about how to maximize this strength. Each person writes in their own way, so there is not much better advice, or more universal advice, than to urge all college applicants to have as many people they trust to read and review their essay as possible (AND CATCH THOSE TYPOS as they can happen to anyone).
Other specific tips I can give include utilizing rhetorical devices and staying away from common clichés. A professor of mine used to say every time he gave back one of our many essays that semester, “If you have a chance to use alliteration, do it!” He had a soft-spot for alliteration that might exceed others’, but he had a point. Any piece of writing, no matter the genre, automatically has an greater effect on the reader if it sounds nice. Be rhetorically conscious. Likewise, stay as far away as you can from repeating any phrase that you might hear on a daily basis in any conversation. Clichés and common sayings such as “pale as a ghost,” for example, show the opposite of creativity. Try to make sentences that you think no one has ever written before. Impress your teachers and college of choice with your personal style!
Take notice of any little part of your life that makes you feel something, however small and whatever the feeling.
So often students looking to amaze underestimate the power of the little, significant moments that explain who they are rather than define them. For instance, you may have in your awards and honors that you won a math award at your school. You begin to write an essay about the ceremony when you accepted the award and how amazing it was to be recognized by the teachers you so admire. That’s fantastic, but your résumé already tells colleges that you got the award. Writing about it in your essay doesn’t share much more about you. What else makes you feel great? Maybe you’re a hiker and the rush you get from reaching the top of a mountain and seeing the small, serene world around you is one of your favorite things in the universe. Write about it. Make the reader feel what you feel. That will tell them much more about what kind of student they would be inviting to their school should they move to accept you.
The subject can be something seemingly insignificant in the big picture. I’ve seen great essays about fishing trips, ice cream, even just going to the movies. Whatever is special to you will be something you can write about with passion. Remember to show, not tell.
I’m going to say that again: Show, don’t tell.
I’m not saying that’s an easy thing to master. It’s a skill that I struggle with and am nowhere near mastering. For that reason I think it deserves extra emphasis. I know I forget about it way too often and my style suffers for it. We all need to be a bit more artistic and less matter-of-fact once in a while—this is one of those times. That doesn’t mean that if you’re not the “creative type” that you need to despair over writing a short 600 word essay (for context, this article is around 1000 words). If this applies to you, don’t think of it as a creativity problem. This essay is non-fiction and about your own life. No one is a better expert on it than you, as no one else exists who is you. Let your essay reflect that.