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7 Tips to Make Your College Essay Stand Out

7 Tips to Make Your College Essay Stand Out

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You only get one chance to make a first impression. The Student Writing Coach offers her top 7 tips to make you stand out.
Hillary Kessler, The Student Writing Coach

Hillary Kessler, The Student Writing Coach

Hillary Kessler is known as The Student Writing Coach. She has been writing and editing for more than 25 years, crafting copy that has resulted in stories in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, Christian Science Monitor and elsewhere. Her skillful editing and writing for numerous organizations have helped them develop leading voices in their fields, while her coaching of students has resulted in college admissions essays that stand apart from the crowd.

Hillary has a B.A. in English and American Literature from Brandeis University and a M.S. from the Columbia University School of Journalism. She is the mother of three, and specializes in pushing her children to write to their potential and use a thesaurus.

1. Start strong

You only get one chance to make a first impression. So now is the time to put aside much of what you’ve learned in high school about essay structure and grab the reader from the get-go. Your job is to keep the admissions officer reading, not because she has to but because she wants to. But don’t sweat it if you get stuck on the opening. Start telling your story and you can always come back to the opening — and it might even be better coming later, as you’ll know that you need to connect it to the body of your essay.

2. Stake out a strong position

If you play it safe, college admissions officers will see someone who may or may not uniquely contribute to their school’s community. If you show them your true colors, they will see a vibrant personality who will enliven class discussions and spark campus discourse. Don’t write what you think they want to hear. Express your voice — that’s what they want to hear. Personal example: At my suggestion, my daughter wrote about a potentially controversial topic. At the last minute, her guidance counselor had second thoughts that it might be too inflammatory. My daughter and I decided that the essay was well-written, cogent, and showed her strong personality and beliefs. She was accepted to just about every school to which she applied, and received a generous merit scholarship from the school where she is now a content sophomore.

3. Less is more

When there’s a limited word count, you want every word to count. Don’t worry at the beginning about staying in the word count, but after you’ve written the first draft, put it away for a few days and then look at it with fresh eyes. Chances are, you can tighten up and eliminate some of the language, especially anything that sounds repetitive. Get rid of some of the flowery prose in favor of concisely and convincingly telling your story.

4. Show me, don’t tell me

You’re telling a story. And the best way to do that is by using anecdotes, examples, and events. Did you learn about the value of hard work by waiting tables or working on a construction site? Great. Don’t tell them that your eyes were opened; write about specific experiences that demonstrate how you grew and, most importantly, relate to the main theme of your essay.

5. Answer the prompt question

This may sound basic, but a college admissions officer may think that if you aren’t able to answer an admissions essay question that you won’t rise to the standard of college-level writing. Again, write the story you want to tell, and you can always reverse-engineer it to fit one of the prompt questions. Once you’ve begun writing, you may also discover that your topic actually fits a different question than you originally chose.

6. Read your essay out loud

Once you’re near the end of writing your story, read it aloud. It’s a great way to catch run-on sentences, repeated ideas, and awkwardly phrased sentences.

7. Proofread! 

Yes, this also sounds elementary. But even if you use Grammarly, etc., some mistakes are going to fall through the cracks. And with the ability today to correct documents quickly, there is just no excuse for misspelled words, run-on sentences, and punctuation mistakes. The most captivating story may not compensate for carelessness, and wouldn’t it be a shame for all that work to be overshadowed by rudimentary mistakes?

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