How to Make Your College Essay Stand Out: Essential Tips

Your Personal Statement for the Common Application—the classic “college essay” that you’ve been hearing about since freshmen year—is the biggest piece of individual storytelling in the college application process, and it has only continued to grow in importance for college admissions officers. Now, with the number of applications to top US colleges surging higher, writing an essay that distinguishes you from the pack has become tougher than ever.

The challenge of the college essay might seem straightforward: 650 words about what makes you… well, you. If you’ve looked over the Common App Personal Statement prompts, you’ve noticed that they aren’t too intimidating. Maybe you even started writing a response to one for your English teacher, and hey, it went fine!

That’s all well and good, but anyone who takes the assignment lightly is dooming their application for failure. Because the truth is, despite the neat prompts and hundreds of models and outlines, there is no one formula for the perfect personal statement

Snatching an outline from the internet or reading over dozens of college essay examples from former admits are habits that will hurt your process, rather than help it. When you’re overloaded with information, it’s easy to end up in a state of analysis paralysis. This can make you hypercritical of your own stories and experiences, even though they are authentic to who you are. It can also lead to procrastination and imposter syndrome.

So before you go back over that draft you scribbled out in class months ago, or gobble up every daring college essay you can find on the web, take a moment to reimagine the challenge of the piece. Then, use our essential tips below to make your college essay stand out from the crowd—not through clever wordplay, name dropping, or mimicking examples found online, but by tapping into your own motivations, staying rooted in your own story, and launching into writing confidently.

Start with you, not the essay prompt

Writing about yourself is hard. Writing about yourself in the context of a high-stakes application can be excruciating.

Many of us would prefer to write about anything other than ourselves. That’s why so many college essays become stories about inspiring figures: grandparents, teachers, Elon Musk. But none of these people are the person who the essay should be about, so these essays fall flat.

When you start your college essay with the belief that you must write for a prompt, you’ve already constrained your opportunities. You will make artificial rules out of your interpretation of the prompt, then second-guess your most original ideas. You’ll write for your audience rather than for yourself. And this is one of the worst traps you can fall into.

That’s why, when brainstorming your college essay, you should resist the urge to look at prompts, read examples, or borrow templates.

Instead, focus only on yourself. 

What do you most love to do in your free time? What behaviors do you detest? What small mistake have you never forgotten? What about yourself do you have trouble understanding or accepting?

You must get comfortable making everything about you in order to get to the heart of your personal story. These are examples of questions that can push your reflection in the right direction, but there are countless others. And the most effective way to approach such questions is through a conversation.

Rather than generate and respond to intense personal questions yourself, arrange to have a conversation about them with someone close to you. This person should be a trusted confidante you’ve known for years, but shouldn’t be a parent, sibling, or anyone bringing too much emotional baggage into the conversation. They could be a family friend, an aunt or uncle, a coach, teacher, mentor, or college counselor—but it’s best if they are not a peer.

Have an open conversation focused only on your own life stories, values, and motivations—and record it. Keep a record of every word you say in your discussion. Encourage the other person to dig deeper into topics they find intriguing or unclear, no matter how uncomfortable this might be for you. If you’re surprised by something they find fascinating, make a note of it.  

Reflecting on and listening over this conversation is the surest way to discover the memories and parts of your identity that matter most.

Establish a regular writing routine

As you move from generating ideas into drafting, you’re likely to encounter some roadblocks. Actually expressing the story that’s clear in your mind may turn out to be surprisingly frustrating. You may be unsatisfied with each attempt you make. You may hear extraordinary stories about exceptional people and doubt whether your idea is any good in the first place.

In order to make the writing process less daunting, focus on getting into the habit of simply putting words down on paper, instead of expecting yourself to produce brilliant content. The most important thing is that you do this every day for at least five days a week. Here are some keys for making this routine work:

Over time, a cycle of honest conversation and regular writing practice will produce results. Trust in this process and stick to your plan: you will likely end up with even more juicy content than you can possibly fit in your college essay—and this is great! You can often re-work stories and stances into your shorter, supplemental college essays, and almost always share them in interviews or networking conversations. The process itself will help you become a more compelling person overall.

Trust your instincts & keep it simple

Admissions officers are all too used to reading college essays written in a style or voice that seems forced. These essays are littered with complex clauses and semicolons. The words that fill them are unwieldy and questionably used. Metaphors, analogies, and grand claims abound.

These mistakes make sense: if personal creative writing doesn’t come naturally to you (as it doesn’t to most people), it’s understandable that you’d want to elevate your language. You are, after all, applying to selective colleges that expect whip-smart high school students.

But writing can be overdone. And overdoing your college essay is a pitfall you must avoid. 

As a student, you’re bombarded daily with writing: you may read snippets of a novel, a magazine, a history textbook, a philosophical discourse, and a chemistry paper—all on the same day. It’s all too easy to lose track of what you actually sound like amidst all those voices in all those texts.

And in the worst case scenario, this causes you to write like you’re thumbing through a thesaurus. Case in point: the compulsion to replace each usage of the word “use” with “utilize.”

To avoid this, whenever you are drafting, rely on your instincts. As the ideas pop into your mind, write them in the exact phrasing in which they appear. If you lose your train of thought, go back over the recording you made of your conversation, and listen again to what you said when you weren’t thinking about an essay. Perhaps you used slang, or a pet phrase; perhaps there was an unexpected moment of sarcasm, and you can tap back into that humorous state.

Most importantly, keep it simple. Remember that sentences do not need to be long in order to be engaging, and that a story is best presented plainly enough that it allows a reader to do some interpreting. If you attempt to explain every detail of your story, you will spend the entire essay explaining rather than actually telling the story itself. 

In order to preserve your natural voice and keep your writing simple and meaningful, get in the following habits:

Remember that you are writing to a normal person

As you go through the intense process of assembling your application package, it can begin to feel that you are performing, to some extent, for an admissions committee shrouded in mystery. These admissions officers hold your fate in their hands, and given the acceptance rates at top colleges, it’s hard not to assume that they are cold-blooded critics looking for any excuse to kill your application in the water. Most students who make this assumption automatically go on the defensive, doing whatever they can to cover up potential red flags and appear flawless. 

And this approach does them no good.

No 17-year-old is perfect, and the admissions officer reading your application will be eminently aware of this. They are not looking for perfection, but for authenticity. They want to bring students to their university who could genuinely benefit from and contribute to the learning experience on campus. If you come across as someone who believes they’ve already mastered everything life can throw at them, will you sincerely challenge yourself and grow while in college? It’s doubtful.

Let the other parts of your application speak for themselves. Your goal in the college essay is not to impress an admissions committee, but to connect with them. This means you need to come across as a human. To do this, think of creating a casual encounter with the person reading your essay. Imagine that you are at a party, and you’re sharing a story with someone you just met. What does this mean?

Don’t have too many readers

It’s more likely than not that you have several people interested in reading your college essay and giving their opinion on it. When you do feel that you’ve fleshed out a story and you see its shape coming together, it is useful to seek some outside perspective. After all, admissions committees are made up of multiple personalities, all of which will contribute to the decision of whether to accept or deny your application. 

But be careful not to have more than two or three other people give you feedback on your personal statement. If you show it to your counselor, your teacher, your soccer coach, your piano instructor, your mom, your aunt, and your cousin… you are going to be overwhelmed by competing opinions, each with their own biases.

If you’re not working closely with a consultant or counselor, the first person to read your college essay should be the same person who had that original brainstorming conversation with you. They will come into the reading with a sense of what makes you special, but without too much bias related to their personal feelings on your character. Have them read the essay without you present, first. Then meet, and ask them:

There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, but asking them will help you to gauge whether your story communicates what you want it to about who you are.

Following these guidelines will enable you to set your sights in the right direction for your college essay and launch your writing process with confidence. Check back in soon for part two in this series: we’ll be sharing an article on the next steps for editing your Common App Personal Statement into its most compelling final state.

More Help on the College Admissions Process

Have these tips helped you brainstorm or draft? Are you interested in personalized advice for planning your own personal statement, extracurricular activities, school list, and more? Tell us about your goals and what you’ve been doing using our college admissions calculator, and we’ll get back to you shortly with tips for just your profile. Or, skip straight to a free phone consultation to discuss your application strategy with our expert college admissions consulting team.

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