College Prep Guides: Writing an A+ Admissions Essay
It is natural to feel stressed about submitting college applications. The information included in the application will play a major role in deciding the future path of your life. However, unlike most other components of the application that offer numbers and statistics, the essay is your chance to show a different side of you as a person. The college application essay is where you can bring your personality to life for college admissions officers. Here are some important tips to help you get started:
Use Your Voice and Natural Language
Using a thesaurus to throw in unnecessarily large works often ends up looking rather clunky and awkward. This is especially the case if they are words that you do not normally use. This does not mean that you should write very casually, but do let your own voice come through in the writing. Make it easy for the other person to read and relate to your writing.
Make it Interesting
For a moment, imagine that you are an admissions officer. Think about the piles and stacks of essays that you might have to read. Try to choose a unique angle. Each of us is different. What makes you different from other students? One of the most powerful strategies is to use an opening sentence that hooks the reader’s curiosity. For example, instead of simply stating, “I have always loved sports since I was young,” put the reader right there with you on the sports field by writing something like, “Everyone held their breath as I threw the ball towards the basket in those last crucial seconds.”
Show Versus Tell
There is major difference between telling someone that you are talented and proving it. Instead of saying that you are proficient at playing the piano, why not prove it by discussing the certificates, awards, or teaching and volunteer experience that might have resulted from it? These are personal details that make your experience more real for the reader. By including such details, you transform a subjective statement to an objective one.
Beware of Wordiness
Don’t be afraid to be concise in your essay. You don’t have to fill up pages and pages. A short sentence can be digested by readers much more easily than one that runs on for four lines. Think you can succinctly and accurately present yourself in half a page? Why not try it and ask your teachers and parents to read it over? Less is often more when writing college admissions essays.
Slang and Jargon
While you do want to use natural language in an admission essay, you should steer clear of jargon and slang. There are plenty of words in the English language that express all shades of meanings. Use care to pick good words that convey your meaning. This shows that you have put thought and care into your essay, along with the fact that you are a competent writer.
Sentence Length and Transition
A common error that many writers (not just students!) make is that they end up with sentences that are all the same length. This repetition makes it boring for the reader. To avoid this, use different styles and lengths of sentences. Use conjunctions and other tools to keep things interesting. Don’t start ever sentence the same way, but instead use transition words to introduce new ideas.
Active Voice is Better Than Passive
Active voice verbs and phrases generally sound much more energetic and dynamic than the passive voice. For example instead of saying, “Several students were tutored by me after school,” you might say, “I tutored fifteen students every day after school.” This makes a much stronger impact and helps the reader to identify your strengths and achievements.
Ask for Opinions
Before submitting your essay, ask a few people to read it and give you their thoughts. You could ask teachers, friends, coaches, family members, a guidance counselor, or even your boss. Simply borrowing a fresh pair of eyes can help identify things that you may never have noticed about your own essays. Ask them if they might have any suggestions to help improve it, or if there is anything that should be omitted.
Pay Attention to the Provided Question
Most colleges provide a question that they want students to answer in their essays. While you do need to reveal information about yourself, your achievements, and your personality in the essay, make sure you answer the question, too. After writing, run through the whole essay to pick out sections that are irrelevant.
Writing in general is a process of revisions and fine-tuning. Don’t be dismayed if one of your proofreaders comes back with a list of suggestions. The more you revise the essay, the better crafted it will be. Think of it like a sculptor chiseling a statue: After the main form is created, there is still plenty of cutting and carving needed to make it perfect.
Want more help? The following are some great online resources to use in preparing your own college application essays:
- Common Application Essay Advice - Three tips for writing a Common Application essay that admissions officers will remember.
- Uniqueness in an Essay – Watch a video on how to make your admissions essay stand out from the others.
- Common Essay Questions – Find some quick answers to common questions that students ask about the admissions essay.
- Representing Yourself – This guide explains how to help your personality shine through in the essay.
- Crafting the Admissions Essay – Learn how to carefully shape and perfect an admissions essay so that it represents yourself well.
- A Look at Admissions Essays (PDF) – This slideshow illustrates what admissions officers are looking for in application essays and how to write for them.
- Video Essays – What is a video admissions essay and what should you include in it?
- Admission Essay Tips – This list of the tips covers all the key points for writing a strong admission essay.
- Subject Ideas (PDF) – Browse through a list of essay topic ideas, along with further tips and resources.
- A Guide to Video Essays – Learn about video essays and watch a few different examples.
- What Colleges Want to Hear (PDF) – This quick guide breaks down the main points and areas that colleges want to discover in students’ admission essays.
- Application Essay Do’s and Don’ts (PDF) – Find out which topics to avoid in your essay, and what to do to strengthen it.
- Essay Readers Chime In – College admission staff who sift through thousands of letters have compiled a list of essay-writing tips for students.
If you are having trouble figuring out why these sentences are similar, try underlining the subject in each. You will notice that the subject is positioned at the beginning of each sentence—John and Amanda, the car, students. Since the subject-verb-object pattern is the simplest sentence structure, many writers tend to overuse this technique, which can result in repetitive paragraphs with little sentence variety.
Naomi wrote an essay about the 2008 government bailout. Read this excerpt from Naomi’s essay:
This section examines several ways to introduce sentence variety at the beginning of sentences, using Naomi’s essay as an example.
Starting a Sentence with an Adverb
One technique you can use so as to avoid beginning a sentence with the subject is to use an adverb. An adverb is a word that describes a verb, adjective, or other adverb and often ends in –ly. Examples of adverbs include quickly, softly, quietly, angrily, and timidly. Read the following sentences:
She slowly turned the corner and peered into the murky basement.
Slowly, she turned the corner and peered into the murky basement.
In the second sentence, the adverb slowly is placed at the beginning of the sentence. If you read the two sentences aloud, you will notice that moving the adverb changes the rhythm of the sentence and slightly alters its meaning. The second sentence emphasizes how the subject moves—slowly—creating a buildup of tension. This technique is effective in fictional writing.
Note that an adverb used at the beginning of a sentence is usually followed by a comma. A comma indicates that the reader should pause briefly, which creates a useful rhetorical device. Read the following sentences aloud and consider the effect of pausing after the adverb:
Cautiously, he unlocked the kennel and waited for the dog’s reaction.
Solemnly, the policeman approached the mayor and placed him under arrest.
Suddenly, he slammed the door shut and sprinted across the street.
In an academic essay, moving an adverb to the beginning of a sentence serves to vary the rhythm of a paragraph and increase sentence variety.
Naomi has used two adverbs in her essay that could be moved to the beginning of their respective sentences. Notice how the following revised version creates a more varied paragraph:
Adverbs of time—adverbs that indicate when an action takes place—do not always require a comma when used at the beginning of a sentence. Adverbs of time include words such as yesterday, today, later, sometimes, often, and now.
On your own sheet of paper, rewrite the following sentences by moving the adverbs to the beginning.
- The red truck sped furiously past the camper van, blaring its horn.
- Jeff snatched at the bread hungrily, polishing off three slices in under a minute.
- Underage drinking typically results from peer pressure and lack of parental attention.
- The firefighters bravely tackled the blaze, but they were beaten back by flames.
- Mayor Johnson privately acknowledged that the budget was excessive and that further discussion was needed.
Please share with a classmate and compare your answers.
Starting a Sentence with a Prepositional Phrase
A prepositional phrase is a group of words that behaves as an adjective or an adverb, modifying a noun or a verb. Prepositional phrases contain a preposition (a word that specifies place, direction, or time) and an object of the preposition (a noun phrase or pronoun that follows the preposition).
Table 7.1 Common Prepositions
Read the following sentence:
The terrified child hid underneath the table.
In this sentence, the prepositional phrase is underneath the table. The preposition underneath relates to the object that follows the preposition—the table. Adjectives may be placed between the preposition and the object in a prepositional phrase.
The terrified child hid underneath the heavy wooden table.
Some prepositional phrases can be moved to the beginning of a sentence in order to create variety in a piece of writing. Look at the following revised sentence:
Underneath the heavy wooden table, the terrified child hid.
Notice that when the prepositional phrase is moved to the beginning of the sentence, the emphasis shifts from the subject—the terrified child—to the location in which the child is hiding. Words that are placed at the beginning or end of a sentence generally receive the greatest emphasis. Take a look at the following examples. The prepositional phrase is underlined in each:
The bandaged man waited in the doctor’s office.
In the doctor’s office, the bandaged man waited.
My train leaves the station at 6:45 a.m.
At 6:45 a.m., my train leaves the station.
Teenagers exchange drugs and money under the railway bridge.
Under the railway bridge, teenagers exchange drugs and money.
Prepositional phrases are useful in any type of writing. Take another look at Naomi’s essay on the government bailout.
Now read the revised version.
The underlined words are all prepositional phrases. Notice how they add additional information to the text and provide a sense of flow to the essay, making it less choppy and more pleasurable to read.
Unmovable Prepositional Phrases
Not all prepositional phrases can be placed at the beginning of a sentence. Read the following sentence:
I would like a chocolate sundae without whipped cream.
In this sentence, without whipped cream is the prepositional phrase. Because it describes the chocolate sundae, it cannot be moved to the beginning of the sentence. “Without whipped cream I would like a chocolate sundae” does not make as much (if any) sense. To determine whether a prepositional phrase can be moved, we must determine the meaning of the sentence.
Overuse of Prepositional Phrases
Experienced writers often include more than one prepositional phrase in a sentence; however, it is important not to overload your writing. Using too many modifiers in a paragraph may create an unintentionally comical effect as the following example shows:
The treasure lay buried under the old oak tree, behind the crumbling fifteenth-century wall, near the schoolyard, where children played merrily during their lunch hour, unaware of the riches that remained hidden beneath their feet.
A sentence is not necessarily effective just because it is long and complex. If your sentence appears cluttered with prepositional phrases, divide it into two shorter sentences. The previous sentence is far more effective when written as two simpler sentences:
The treasure lay buried under the old oak tree, behind the crumbling fifteenth-century wall. In the nearby schoolyard, children played merrily during their lunch hour, unaware of the riches that remained hidden beneath their feet.
Writing at Work
The overuse of prepositional phrases often occurs when our thoughts are jumbled and we are unsure how concepts or ideas relate to one another. If you are preparing a report or a proposal, take the time to organize your thoughts in an outline before writing a rough draft. Read the draft aloud, either to yourself or to a colleague, and identify areas that are rambling or unclear. If you notice that a particular part of your report contains several sentences over twenty words, you should double check that particular section to make certain that it is coherent and does not contain unnecessary prepositional phrases. Reading aloud sometimes helps detect unclear and wordy sentences. You can also ask a colleague to paraphrase your main points to ensure that the meaning is clear.
Starting a Sentence by Inverting Subject and Verb
As we noted earlier, most writers follow the subject-verb-object sentence structure. In an inverted sentence, the order is reversed so that the subject follows the verb. Read the following sentence pairs:
- A truck was parked in the driveway.
- Parked in the driveway was a truck.
- A copy of the file is attached.
- Attached is a copy of the file.
Notice how the second sentence in each pair places more emphasis on the subject—a truck in the first example and the file in the second. This technique is useful for drawing the reader’s attention to your primary area of focus. We can apply this method to an academic essay. Take another look at Naomi’s paragraph.
To emphasize the subject in certain sentences, Naomi can invert the traditional sentence structure. Read her revised paragraph:
Notice that in the first underlined sentence, the subject (some economists) is placed after the verb (argued). In the second underlined sentence, the subject (the government) is placed after the verb (expects).
On your own sheet of paper, rewrite the following sentences as inverted sentences.
- Teresa will never attempt to run another marathon.
- A detailed job description is enclosed with this letter.
- Bathroom facilities are across the hall to the left of the water cooler.
- The well-dressed stranger stumbled through the doorway.
- My colleagues remain unconvinced about the proposed merger.
Please share with a classmate and compare your answers.