Your Application Essay: From Standard to Stellar

sb4Writing college application essays can be scary and nerve-wracking. Finding the perfect words to make a college admissions counselor put your application in the “yes” pile is no easy task. It is essential to not only make sure you have all the pieces – good grades, extracurricular involvement, leadership experience, etc. – but to write your essay in a way that will make you stand out among the (thousands) of other applicants.

Share Your Personal Story

An application essay should be a story, one that is personal with vivid descriptions of specific events. Anyone can say they’ll be a great addition to their college class because they have a solid work ethic. But it’s the student who explains what it was like to grow up on a dairy farm, waking at 4:30am every day to milk cows and do farm chores, that really shows an ingrained work ethic.

Be Specific

When writing, you need to be specific about your experiences, giving detailed accounts of your preparation for college.

Consider this example:

“As captain of my varsity football team, I learned a lot about leadership and teamwork.”

How many times do you think a college admissions officer has read a line like that? Imagine you had to read hundreds of students’ essays. Think about how reading that line above over and over again would not only be boring, but unmemorable.

Compare the first option to the second:

sb5“As our coach shared the news of our star player’s ineligibility, you could hear the collective gasp of the team throughout the dim locker room. Then it fell silent and all I could feel were the knots forming in my stomach. All I could see was the worry on my teammates faces. But I knew we could not let this stop us. We would need a new plan. I stayed late that evening to talk to coach about a new approach. We thought about how we could capitalize on each team member’s strengths in innovative ways. The next day I addressed the team, explained the new plan and emphasized how we did not get to this point because of one person but rather the whole team working together. This experience really taught me how to motivate others and think outside the box.”

Which is more interesting to read? While the second option is longer, it is by far more interesting. The reader can almost visualize the scene and learn more about how this candidate actually displayed leadership and teamwork skills in a real setting.

What will you offer?

Doing amazing things in high school isn’t enough. You have to be able to vividly describe specific moments, projects, scenarios and instances that demonstrate your skill set and help an admissions counselor see how you will make unique contributions on campus. A college admissions office wants to admit well-rounded students, but they also want a well-rounded incoming class, where individual students have a passion for one or two issues or activities. Those individual passions put together make for an interesting and diverse class.

Tons of employers use behavioral-based interviewing (BBI) techniques, where candidates must discuss specific examples from their past. The idea is that past behavior predicts future behavior. This same concept applies to college application essays. Show your dream university how you’ve actually used your skills in real life and do it in a way that shows you are a well-rounded candidate with a passion or a set of experiences that will make you a unique part of their incoming college class.


Kelly Cuene is a career advisor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She works with business students on all aspects of their career development. Connect with her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Related posts:

  1. Top 5 Items to List in Your Scholarship Essay
  2. Making the Most of the College Application Process
  3. College Admissions 2.0: Video Essay on YouTube

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