Write a College Essay That Stands Out

My college essay students ask me the same question every year: “How do I write an essay that stands out to admissions?”

In a recent Forbes Article, What’s The Most Popular College Application Essay Topic?, author Maureen Sullivan wrote:

Nearly half of the college applicants who used the Common Application this year submitted an essay about their “background, identity, interest, or talent.” Only 4% of applicants using the Common App wanted to dig deep on the question of challenging a belief or idea.

This is the college application essay prompt 47% of students chose:

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

I run into this same phenomenon in my coaching business. The college essay topics that work come from students who have a lot to say about their experience, background, and history. Almost all of my students have really fascinating histories when they uncover their unusual interests, qualities, and skills.

Inevitably, the college essay topics that stand out (or what gets the admission reader’s attention) have a clear point of view from the writer. 

A specific, insightful, and nuanced point of view is what makes your story scintillating…or not. 

I find that having the curiosity to question your own experience works wonders on content and tone. It can take the mundane into uncommon territory — even philosophical. What notions of life have you had to re-evaluate because of a specific event or experience? Sometimes, just asking the right questions works in an essay. You don’t have to have all the answers. It’s enormously valuable to simply pose a thoughtful question.

Some of the best essays I’ve read often introduce conflict between parts of a students identity, history, beliefs and experiences. Conflict between parts of your life inevitably introduce the type of drama that captivate a reader.  

It’s just good storytelling. 

These conflicts, whether intellectual, spiritual or emotional, allow you to reveal who you really are, what you’re about, and what you stand for. What can admissions learn about you from your essays that they won’t get from scores and transcripts?

So, how do you write about conflict or aspects of yourself that oppose each other?  

The answer: Look for unusual connections. Find the connections and insights that surprise you or are unlikely. Here are some examples: 

Topic: Debate

Obvious Insight: I grew into a more confident public speaker (This has been done so many times already).

Unusual Insight: Through debate I learned when to keep quiet or when to hold back.  Then you can offer 1-3 more clear examples of how you came to this insight in other ways or through other experiences.  

Topic: Drawing

Obvious Insight: Drawing helped me develop a nuance for detail.

Unusual Insight #1: Drawing taught me that everything is about perspective and point of view. Then you can offer 1-3 more clear examples of how you came to this insight in other ways or through other experiences

Unusual Insight #2: Drawing taught me how and when to break the rules. Then you can offer 1-3 more clear examples of how you came to this insight in other ways or through other experiences.  

As a writing goal, you should try to differentiate yourself, push yourself to go deep, but remain true to who you are. 

Another great way to differentiate yourself is to identify the unusual connections between art, for instance, and a new value you’ve gained because of that experience.

Topic: Art

Unlikely Value: I became a little more selfish…in a good way. 

This will show another side of you and it will stick out as unusual…in a good way. 

Give your readers something unexpected. The unusual connections between your experiences and your insights will get a readers attention. 

Where do I start looking for unusual connections?

Ask yourself: Will this connection between x and y feel surprising or unlikely or kinda obvious? 

The best way to start is to explore 3 things:

  1. Qualities
  2. Values 
  3. Experiences

Create a 3-column table. Write them all out.  It doesn’t matter which one you start with. You can start with a value that is important to you, a quality you possess, or an experience you know you want to write about. 

You will start to see some patterns. Then you can begin to explore a thematic thread by examining a list of values (google “list of values” to help you). Which values would be an unlikely connection? Which values “uncommonly” connect your experiences to your personal qualities?

Important: Take nothing for granted.

What might seem normal or average to you might be totally original to someone else. You just have to be willing to look at it from a slightly different perspective.

Look through the lens of your value systems and how those experiences or values or beliefs intersect. I’ve found that impact on the reader is directly relative to the level of depth and clarity with which you question the norms of your own life.

My Closing Thoughts.

In my opinion, some of the best essays reveal how at one point or another your mind was shifted or changed in some way.

To “dig deep” and challenge an idea or belief you previously held expresses the maturation of your thought process. It shows that there is something in you that is revolutionary enough to challenge the status quo of your life. 

And, hopefully, these tools will help you write an essay that stands out.

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