Not too long ago, I too was stressed with my college application, but it was not as stressful as it is now. Back then, I only had to make sure that I had good grades balanced with extra-curricular activities. My college application essay was a reflection on an experience that helped shape who I was. I wrote exactly what the prompt asked me to, but not without making a pass at telling them that the person I have become is perfect for their school. Apparently, that is a stifling mistake that many students are still making.
Here’s what I discovered from years of experience: admissions officers are tired of reading how awesome you are. They only want to know who you are as a person.
Nowadays, with the help of the Internet, of articles like this, and of English teachers, students are hyper-aware of factors that could make or break their college application. It doesn’t help that college application essay prompts are also more complex and not straight-forward. Don’t be disconcerted by the fancy words; keep in mind that the purpose of college common application essays is to give the admissions officer a snippet of who you are as a person.
Show, don’t tell
Many college application essay examples tell you to prove to the admissions officer that you are perfect for their college, that you can bring something to the table, that you are a hard-working, talented student. While this is a logical suggestion, the resulting essay is a standard, if not bland, solipsistic essay where you brag about your accomplishments—and that is not the best way to stand out among thousands of applicants.
Just think of it this way: they already know if you’re a good student or that you’re the president of the debate team from your application, so you need to show them something that they didn’t already read there. Many admissions officers say that the college application essays that worked are those that didn’t strictly follow the prompt.
Successful college application essays should tell the reader about you without flooding the paper with I’s. Of course, you can focus your writing about how hard-working or talented you are, but simply stating this or enumerating your accomplishments is a sure way to make your college application essay boring. This is not to say that “I” statements are absolutely forbidden in college application essays, though. Keep in mind the old writing adage: show, don’t tell.
Write about anything but yourself
Commonly, when you write about yourself, you present yourself in the way you want others to perceive you. It doesn’t help that you are probably convoluting yourself into what you think colleges are expecting. And that’s not the most genuine way to get to know anyone. So, my advice: don’t write about yourself. In fact, write about anything but yourself.
The secret to showing the reader who you are without telling them is by writing about anything but yourself. Your personality isn’t limited to your grades and extra-curricular activities—you are so much more. More telling are your interests outside of school, what or who you admire, how you see others, your sense of humor, and the things that matter to you. This is what makes successful college application essays. Make it more like a custom essay – personalized and unique. It should be a glimpse of your own person, what and how you think, and see things.
Don’t be afraid to write about things other than yourself because whatever you write about, it inevitably becomes about you. When you write about a child you babysit, for example, you inevitably paint this child based on things you notice and like about them. Consequently, your college application essay will also reveal that you care about this child even though you’re being paid to take care of them. It shows that you value and care for the people around you, and it could tell something about your work ethic.
Just write about yourself
The prompts for College Common Application essays are not rules or questions that have right or wrong answers, rather they are starting points for topics or ideas you may already be exploring on your own. College application essays need not to be like research papers with strict topics and structures; neither do they need to showcase your intellectual prowess.
All of this is just to say that you shouldn’t overthink your college application essay. You can absolutely write about anything you want, however, you want. You don’t need to present yourself as someone perfect or who has everything figured out—because you don’t. You’re about to enter college, and at this point, what’s most important is your openness to learn and explore.