How to Write Successful College Application Essays
Your college application admission letter or essay is one of the most important documents you will ever write. I want to show you how to write yourself to the head of the pack. To do that I need to first explain to you the concept of Stump Speeches, which are often used by politicians. Regardless of the question a politician is asked they will try to answer it in a way that lets them talk about a few areas where they are strong. One guy will always come back to talk about cutting taxes. Another will always come back to talking about economic growth because they know, from their research, that when they talk about these specific things, people like them more.
I’m going to tell you what to say in your college admission letter (or college admission essay) so that the readers at Stanford or Yale will want to choose you over everyone else. The people who are going to be reading your letter want to see that you tick certain boxes. So you need to think about these people as your market. You are trying to sell yourself to these essay readers at Harvard, Columbia or UC Berkley. So you’ll want to answer the essay question in a way that let’s you touch on the Four Traits every top college wants to see in their new students. The good thing is that once you’ve developed your letter for one school you can use much of the same content as a Stump Speech, to use (slightly modified) for another college’s admission letter. Below I describe the four traits (that the readers of your essay are generally looking for) and explain how you can show that you have these traits.
The four traits:
1 Show them that you are hard working. Provide evidence of this. Hard working doesn’t just mean good grades. They want to see real evidence that you will stick with something even if you aren’t good at it at first. Try to tell a story to make it clear how hard working you are. You stuck with a hard subject until you mastered it. You did an overseas working holiday in Cambodia, where it was hard, but you worked through it.
2 Show them that you know about their specific college. Tell them details about the college and even the specific program. This shows that you’ve done your homework about the place, which will make them think that:
a) You are the kind of student who does their homework.
b) You are taking the decision seriously, and
c) You appreciate and value the school. Everyone wants to be told that their university is great. I went to Queen’s University in Canada and I love hearing great things about it. By valuing the school you’re subtly telling them that you would fit in there. You are Queen’s University material.
Also (if this is true) you may want to convey the idea that you have been interested in this school for a long time. You have always admired professor so and so and the way he has used the study of whatever to help develop the such and such. All of this should be true, of course.
3 Show evidence of contribution to the community. Show you have a conscience, that you care about other people. Universities really do care about this. They want to see themselves and their students as helping the world. So show them, using real-life examples, that you like to do your part to make a real difference.
4 Finally, explain your vision for yourself in the future and how LSE or Princeton fits into that plan. Here is where you can really grab them. Even if you aren’t completely sure yourself yet about what you want to do in the future, you’ll still want to paint a picture for the reader of where you see yourself in 15 years. And again it should be clear why you need to take this specific program in order to achieve that vision. For example, you might say that, “My dream is to work for the World Trade Organization, helping raise the health standards of children in developing countries.” If you aren’t sure, pick something that you think you might like and go with that. You are allowed to change your mind later, but the reader of your essay will enjoy feeling like they are playing a part in making your dream come true (especially if this dream is about helping people).
Those are the four traits. However, I’d like to touch on two other things you should keep in mind.
How to Use Evidence to Strengthen Your College Admission Essay
You notice that I keep using the term “evidence”. By evidence I mean specific details about what you did: locations, number of people involved, the amount of money you raised. Basically I'm saying provide details.
So don’t just say:
“I raised money for charity.”
Instead say, say,
“I worked in a team of 5 students to raise $800 for the Japanese Red Cross Society’s Tsunami Relief Campaign.”
Do you see how that second sentence is a million times better than the first one? Specificity and detail makes it much more compelling and convincing? Of course, as always, these things also need to be true as well.
How to Use Stories to Strengthen Your College Admission Essay
Stories are brilliant ways of gripping your reader. You won’t have time to tell a whole story of course, but you can use the small version of a story, an anecdote, to reveal aspects of yourself. (The 20 second story explains how anecdotes make you and your message memorable). Stories are powerful. And they also work as evidence because it's hard to tell a convincing story about yourself that isn't true. Also people can relate to them, so they start to feel like they know you. So they are a great tool that you should take advantage of. You might want to tell us, for example, about when one of your personal heroes did something that made a difference in your life and what this experience taught you. So try to tie-in a real life story of when you had an experience which helped you to develop the Four Traits.
I just got this advice from a friend of mine, who is an Academic Advisor. It provides some more insight into how you should approach the UCAS essay (UK) and a US university application essay differently: -The UCAS essay should focus on why you will be a good fit for that course (i.e. Economics, Biology, Medicine). So while mentioning ECAs or volunteer activities is great, using that as evidence for why you should be admitted to the course is important. -In a US college essay, the questions they want you to answer can be a lot more "squishy", something like "discuss a character from literature that has influenced you and why". They may just want to know you can write and show are a creative thinker, even if you are applying to Engineering. So while evidence is important, how the evidence is used is crucial. Also, as one interviewer from Oxbridge I heard speak said, UK universities often are looking for "pointy" students who are good at a particular thing and really want to study that subject, because they will be studying it intensively for three years. Whereas, the US, in particular smaller and more selective colleges, are looking for more well-rounded students who are a good "fit" for their campuses. So a student who gets in to Oxford may not necessarily be a good candidate for Yale or Stanford.
The single most memorable line we read this year came from an essay by Carolina Sosa, who lives in Centreville, Va., and will attend Georgetown University. In writing about her father’s search for a job, she described the man named Dave who turned him away.
“Job searching is difficult for everyone, but in a world full of Daves, it’s almost impossible,” she wrote. “Daves are people who look at my family and immediately think less of us. They think illegal, poor and uneducated. Daves never allow my dad to pass the first round of job applications. Daves watch like hawks as my brother and I enter stores. Daves inconsiderately correct my mother’s grammar. Because there are Daves in the world, I have become a protector for my family.”
Vanessa J. Krebs, assistant director of undergraduate admissions at Georgetown, who reads about 1,400 essays year, told me that when she first received my interview request, the phrase “the Daves” immediately jumped out of her memory bank.
Though Ms. Sosa might easily have become embittered by her encounters with the Daves, Ms. Krebs said that she was moved by the fact that the essay concluded with the desire to pursue a career in public service, even if she wasn’t exactly sure where that desire would take her.
“This is a starting point, and she is still figuring that out,” Ms. Krebs said. “A lot of people think they need to have all the answers already. Or they feel like they do have it all figured out.”
Other memorable moments emerged in an essay by Martina Piñeiros, a Chicago resident who will be attending Northwestern University.
“Fatigue and two jobs had ruined who both my parents used to be, and I began to value the little time I had with my mother more than ever before,” she wrote. “This little time could not make up for the time I spent alone, however, nor could it assuage the envy I had of the little girl my mother looked after. She, though not my mother’s daughter, had the privilege of having my mother and her delicious cooking all to herself; I would always get the leftovers. She also had the privilege of having my mother pin her silky blonde hair into a pretty bun before ballet classes while my dad wrestled with the hairbrush to pull my thick brown hair into two lopsided ponytails before dropping me off at the bus stop. But I couldn’t blame the girl for depriving me of my mother; her parents had also been consumed by their jobs.”
It is rare that any teenagers write well about what it is like to have more money than average. Most don’t even try, for fear of being marked as privileged in a world where some people resent those who have it or are clueless about it. Yorana Wu, who lives in Great Neck, N.Y., and will attend the University of Chicago, wrote about her father, who spends much of the year in China, where he opened a canned fruit factory when Ms. Wu was 8 years old.
“That was the first year a seat at the dinner table remained empty and a car in the garage sat untouched,” she wrote. “Every dollar comes at the expense of his physical distance.”
While she has her tennis and music lessons (and expresses mixed feelings about the affluence that allows for them), she speaks to him in five-minute phone segments when he is away.
“He is living the American dream by working elsewhere,” Ms. Lythcott-Haims, my fellow reader, observed. “There is a cost to this choice.”
We published a pair of essays about what it means to navigate two worlds simultaneously. One, by Annabel La Riva, who is also the subject of a video feature, discusses the distance (in more ways than one) between her Brooklyn home and her Manhattan church choir, where her love for singing began.
In another, Jon Carlo Dominguez of North Bergen, N.J., discusses his choice to turn right out his front door, toward the prep school he attends, instead of left, toward his neighborhood school. When the two schools meet on the football field, he writes, some of his classmates shout, “That’s all right, that’s O.K., you’ll be working for us someday.” His response is to tutor his local friends with his used test-preparation books, share guides to lucid dreaming and pass on tips he learned from Dale Carnegie.
“Every single day he is making a choice, and he is conscious of the costs and the benefits on both sides,” Ms. Lythcott-Haims said. “The way that he addresses it is beautiful. He’s trying to bridge that world and be that bridge.”
One of the 10 or so essays that Mr. Lanser, the associate dean of admission for Wesleyan, read about work this year was set at a Domino’s Pizza store in Forestdale, Ala. Adriane Tharp, who will attend the university in the fall, is the author, and her rendering of the lineup of fellow misfits who were her colleagues there is something to behold.
There is the pizza maker from Pakistan who looks like Bob Dylan and sings folk songs from his homeland; the part-time preacher who also delivers pies; and Richard, the walking “Star Wars” encyclopedia. One woman has worked for pizzerias for over 25 years and is about to apply to college.
“The point of the essay is not to tell us that she needs work or doesn’t,” Mr. Lanser said. “What she wants us to learn from this is that she is able to embrace difference and learn quite a bit from those differences.”
I offered him the opportunity to disabuse overeager parents of the notion that admissions officers at competitive colleges devalue work experience, and he laughed. “We think there are valuable life skills and people skills to be gained in the workplace,” he said, adding that he personally believes that everyone should work in the service industry at some point in their lives.
Rob Henderson’s service was to his country, and his essay was ultimately about what the United States Air Force did for him.
Of his time as a foster child, he wrote, “I was compelled to develop social skills to receive care from distracted foster parents.” He was finally adopted, but his parents quickly divorced (the adoption came up in arguments before his father cut off ties) and eventually found stability with his mother and her partner, at least until her partner was shot. An insurance settlement led to a home purchase, which ended in foreclosure.
After high school, he enlisted. Eight years later, he’s still deciding where he’ll attend college in the fall. “I’ve accomplished much over the last seven years because the Air Force provides an organized setting that contrasts with the chaos of my upbringing,” he wrote.
Ms. Lythcott-Haims felt herself rooting for him, and she added that his essay was a good reminder that the United States military is a beacon for many young adults, even with the high risks that may come with their service. “This is one way you make a life in America,” she said. “It’s more common than we realize. And he is self-made.”Continue reading the main story