Director of International Admission
Coming up with a brilliant idea isn’t necessarily as easy as taking a long walk and letting your mind wander (but then again, that may work for you). Most people need to give their brains a little encouragement. Here are a few suggestions on how to do that:
- Talk about it. Having a conversation with other people about the essay question will help you clarify your thoughts. It will probably spark new ideas and leave you with further questions that you should explore. Be sure to have this conversation with several people, but remember to stay true to your own thoughts and opinions.
- Think for and about yourself. Application reviewers are masters at spotting fakes—they do it every day. Do not write what others tell you to write. Talking to other people should spur your own ideas, not replace them. Do not even consider plagiarizing something you got off the internet or in a book. Colleges use sophisticated software to detect dishonesty.
- Let your pen run free. The biggest challenge for most occasional writers is that they start editing their writing before they have all their thoughts down on paper. Your teachers may have taught you to prepare an outline for your essay, planning the key points you want to include before you start writing. That's good advice, but only after you have given your mind the freedom to explore the topic first. Once you have your thoughts on paper, you can sort the good ideas from the bad. Then, and only then, can you start structuring your essay.
- Feel it. The most compelling writing is always fueled by passion. If you don't feel strongly about it, either try to ignite that spark or switch to another topic straight away. To fuel your emotions regarding the university itself, speak to alumni, read whatever you can about the institution, and, if at all possible, spend time on the campus.
- Do your research. One of the first rules of writing is to only write about what you know. This is doubly important when you write about the college you are applying to.
Former Executive Director
Colleges That Change Lives
Students who are willing to share who they are as a person, distinct from their academic record and test scores, are the students who stand out. This doesn’t mean all students have to start a business, develop a solution for homelessness, etc., but everyone needs to write an essay that provides the admission officer a view of who they are—the things that could never be the same as the next file they pick up and read. Students often write about travel abroad that too often ends up sounding like a travel brochure instead of providing an insight into how they really felt about the people they met and places they visited, which should be different experience for each person. The essays I most remember over 30 years allowed me to visualize a real person and their background and why they wanted to continue to learn. Ask the people who care about you what stories come to mind when they think of you—often there are great college essays in those stories!
Assistant Vice President of Enrollment & Student Advancement
The University of Chicago
If you are a funny person, feel free to write humorous pieces. If not, don’t feel like you have to be funny for the first time in your life! Remember to filter your thoughts—the essay should not serve as your journal or confessional. Think in terms of your grandmother reading the essay. Make sure you do put personality into your essays so admission officers can easily picture you on their campus. Check out essay examples for unique and engaging stories in essay form!
For more on application essays, check out our articles about college essays and admission!