Breaking Down Your College Essay


No matter how impressive your grades, test scores, or extracurriculars, the college essay is your only opportunity to personalize your your college application and stand out from the crowd. Think of the essay as a chance to highlight abilities or interests not represented on your report card. Your essay gives life to your application, and you are already an expert on the subject: yourself.

Should be easy, right? But how do you fit everything that makes you YOU into 650 words?

You don’t.

Instead, find one thing about yourself, show how this has affected your path in life, and then connect it to what you want to do in the future—specifically, at that particular college. Connecting your interest with a certain program or activity creates a link between you and the college, and it shows that you are not applying on a whim.

When deciding exactly what to write about, ask yourself how you spend your time. Have you been dog sitting regularly for the last year? Write about your entrepreneurial spirit and what you’ve heard about the school’s annual start-up fair. Do you love finding new uses for your iPhone? Write about your passion for tech and connect it with the school’s state-of-the-art library.

Brainstorm by writing a list of possible topics, including examples. The most detailed item on your list is a good place to start. Once you have your topic, describe what it is and why it’s important to you. Then reflect on what this says about your personality and interests. Finally, show why this is important for your future and how it connects you with the college. This format may seem familiar to you—likely you have written a character analysis before in your English class. This time, instead of writing about how Hamlet’s mother is really the smartest character in the play and then proving with textual evidence, you are illustrating your individuality and ability to reflect.

Not to be overlooked is your ability to write. Do not underestimate the importance of rewriting and editing. If a sentence doesn’t sound right, rewrite it in three or four different ways; this gives you more options and gets your brain thinking about what you want to say. You want your essay to stand out in a good way, so avoid grammatical errors, repetitive sentence structures, and typos. Read your essay aloud to catch missing words and to check your flow of information. Have at least two other people read through your essay—it’s hard to self edit, and another set of eyes is likely to catch small mistakes you may have skimmed right over. Do not rely only on spell check for this. Spell check does not know what you’re trying to say and further, it doesn’t care. Get feedback from people who want to help you succeed and who know you well enough to make applicable suggestions.

Your essay is just a snapshot of who you are, so make it a snapshot of something special, memorable, and most of all, something very you. Keep in mind the immortal words of Dr. Seuss, “There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” The essay is the “tell us a little about yourself” portion of the application process, and you have all the answers.

Jack Neimark