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What's a Great Application Essay?

Are you working on your essay this summer?

Every admissions professional, every admissions book, every guidance counselor gives the same advice: it needs to be great. But what IS great? Do you need to sound like Hemingway, provide a unique insight into the Trump administration, or explain how you single-handedly led your team to the state championship?

It’s almost easier to explain what’s not great (and, for the record, no, no, and absolutely not). The essay is meant to give admissions officers an idea of who you are. Period. Do anything else with your essay, such as explain why Elton John is the greatest entertainer of all time, or why the life of Mother Teresa was inspiring, and you’ve blown your chance. Because schools are cutting back on interviews, and because of the record numbers of students applying to college, an essay that provides a glimpse of you is more important than ever.

Check the Common Application Teacher Recommendation form to get some ideas about content. The qualities they ask your teachers to rate you in are the ones they're looking for overall! Find a story about yourself that highlights at least a couple of those qualities. And then take a magnifying glass to that story, narrowing the focus.

Here are some examples:

  • My volunteer position at the hospital: instead of a wide-ranging description of all the good you do (and the danger that poses of sounding conceited), zero in on a positive interaction with one person, or one aspect of your position.

  • My love of long distance running: ditch the cross-country team victories and defeats—they’re not as personal as a description of what you see on your favorite route, what you listen to, or how running helps you stay centered.

  • My award-winning photography series: the award is already mentioned elsewhere on your application (as is the volunteer position and the cross-country team). Take this opportunity to show what you’ve learned by looking through the lens of your camera. Get specific—clichés are as much wasted opportunities as content that tells a story that’s not yours.

The narrower your focus, the more unique your essay. Keep in mind everything that’s already been revealed on the application—there is no need to reiterate any of it. Use the essay to give admissions officers a reason to connect with you.


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