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How to write your best college application essay

September 28, 2021
Graduation cap and crumpled paper to illustrate college application essay writing.(University of Rochester / Illustrations by Julia Joshpe)

University of Rochester dean of undergraduate admissions offers college applicants some dos and don’ts in writing the personal statement.

By Robert Alexander, the dean of undergraduate admissions, financial aid, and enrollment management for Arts, Sciences & Engineering, University of Rochester.

Many universities ask applicants to include a college application essay—usually a personal statement or similar essay—along with their application materials. With more students applying to selective colleges than ever, and with many of those colleges placing less emphasis on standardized test scores, the admissions essay can be a crucial component of the applicant’s file.

We’ve made that shift in emphasis away from testing at the University of Rochester. As a selective private research university with programs in the liberal arts, sciences, and engineering, the undergraduate college draws from a global pool of high-achieving students. Since nearly all of those candidates are at or near the top of their class, we use a holistic approach to select those with strong ethical character who align with our institutional values. So, as an applicant, how can you distinguish yourself?

One of the most important ways is through your college application essay.

Many students may dread this part of the process. Yet with the right attitude and strategy, you can write an essay that will improve your candidacy for admission. A good college application essay will not overcome poor grades for a student at the lowest end of a school’s applicant pool, but it can help a qualified candidate stand out from the crowd.

 

Pencil drawing graduation cap to illustrate choosing college application essay topic.

 

Tackle the college essay topic

The traditional college application essay usually requires an open-ended personal statement in response to broad or general prompts that might have you share a story, reflect on an event, or discuss a topic. The Common Application, Coalition for College Application, and other online college application forms typically provide a set of options from which you can choose.

Of course, some college and universities require you to respond to a specific prompt or question. In that case, you want to make sure to answer that prompt or question clearly and directly.

Whether the guidelines are open-ended or specific, the topic itself is less important than how you express yourself.

And above all: Don’t write an admissions essay about something you think sounds impressive or that you think the admissions officer wants to read. While it’s fine to look at college application essay examples, don’t simply mimic one. Write about something truly important to you.

Breadth versus depth?

  • Dig deep into one aspect of your topic instead of trying to cover many aspects superficially in your college essay. Be brief in explaining who, what, and where; leave plenty of room for why and how.

→ For example: If you’re writing about a life-changing trip, don’t spend six paragraphs on where you traveled, how long it took to get there, and the weather. We want to know why you went and why the experience was meaningful. How are you different now because of it?

Details bring your application essay to life

  • Be specific. It’s the details, rather than any general statements, that bring your essay—and hence, you—to life for an admissions officer who is reading hundreds of personal statements.

→ For example: If you’re writing about how much you loved playing your high school sport, tell a story about a specific game-winning play (or a devastating loss), how you felt, and what you learned.

 

Pencil with text 'do's and don'ts' to illustrate tips on writing college application essay.

 

Writing a college application essay: dos and don’ts

Here are a few guidelines for crafting a college application essay that effectively conveys who you are while also helping you stand out from the thousands of other applicants.

Dos:

  • Present yourself in a dimension that reaches beyond grades, recommendations, and test scores. Think of the things that built your character—maybe a special relationship in your life, your most meaningful extracurricular activity, or a class or idea that changed the way you think. We want to know what makes you tick, how you might fit into our community, and how your distinctive qualities and experiences would contribute to our interesting and dynamic campus.
  • Be sure your essay reflects you. Ask yourself: Am I the only person who could have written this essay? Or could everyone else in my senior class have written it?
  • Tell a story about yourself with a beginning, middle, and end. Hook the reader with a compelling opening paragraph—surprise us, teach us something we didn’t know, or share something vulnerable and make us curious to read more. Close with a clear ending that ties back to your opening or provides a captivating conclusion to your story.
  • Ask someone to proofread your essay or to offer feedback—but be sure your essay is written in your own voice and style. It won’t serve you well for someone else to write your essay for you!
  • Stay within the required—or suggested—length. Usually it is about 650 words. This shows that you can follow directions. Plus, good writers can adhere to a word limit and still get their point across.
  • Pay attention to formatting. If you compose your essay in a word processing software program (like Microsoft Word or Google Docs) in order to use spellcheck or other features, be sure to review it again after copy-and-pasting into the application itself. Some of the original formatting might be lost because different combinations of word processing and web browsers can cause errors. Double-check before clicking “submit”!

And a few don’ts:

  • Steer away from writing about anything fake, phony, or outrageous.
      • Humor and creativity can work, provided they are not taken to an extreme. Remember: You don’t know your reader’s sense of humor—and it might not be the same as yours.
      • Don’t be controversial or sensational for its own sake; but it’s OK to take a risk if you’re sharing a unique viewpoint or a particularly strong conviction that you hold dear.
      • You’re not writing a legal brief for the Supreme Court or trying to sway the audience to your side of an argument. Instead, you’re attempting to share something of yourself with the admissions committee.
  • Avoid using words that are not in your regular vocabulary. Again, be yourself.
  • Don’t repeat information available in other parts of your application, unless you’re using your college admissions essay to expand upon an activity or academic opportunity that was particularly meaningful to you.
  • Avoid regurgitating your resume or writing about your entire life’s history. Listing every award and semester you made honor roll is unnecessary, but sharing how you felt when a beloved yet demanding English teacher said you were his best student has more potential.

Ultimately, your college application essay is a chance to tell the admissions committee who you are and what is important to you. We want to know: What are your values?

At the University of Rochester, for example, we have a motto: Meliora, meaning “ever better.” So, it stands to reason that when we read an application essay, we want to know: How will you make yourself, your community, or the world better?

Tell us your story. This may be your best chance to come through as an individual, so make the most of this opportunity!


About Robert Alexander

Robert Alexander, the dean of undergraduate admissions, financial aid, and enrollment management for Arts, Sciences & Engineering at the University of Rochester, has more than 22 years of enrollment management experience in higher education. He joined Rochester in June 2020 and previously served in senior admissions, enrollment, and communications roles at Millsaps College, University of the Pacific, and Tulane University.


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