Not too long ago, my daughter, Sarah, a high school junior, took her first crack at a college application essay. It was an assignment for her English class. Sarah said she needed help—she had no idea what story to tell.
I suggested she take a step back and rethink how she was looking at this assignment. Instead of thinking solely about what story to tell, she should also consider what she wanted colleges to know about her beyond her grades, transcript, and extracurricular activities. This advice was new to Sarah.
Her assignment said to read a sample essay, pick a prompt, and tell a story about herself that answered the prompt. While there were also some decent tips included in the assignment, everything about the assignment focused on what do to and what not to do—there was no mention of how to get there. It was a good class assignment; it just wasn’t enough to help a student master this task and write an essay that would stand out in a college application.
The secret to standing out in your application essay
Here are the questions admission counselors are asking themselves when they read your admission essay: Who you are? Can you write well enough to succeed in college? Are you a good fit for the university?
Answering those questions and letting them know who you are requires thinking and reflection. To start, you must answer this question: What do you want colleges to know about you that they can’t find out from the rest of your application? Are you smart? Resilient? Funny? Social? Hard working?
Sarah told me she wanted colleges to know she was responsible. That was perfect because it was her idea, and there was no right or wrong answer to my question. Once she answered it, brainstorming for story ideas was a lot easier.
Don’t treat the college essay lightly. Good grades and test scores are not enough to land you a coveted spot at your top choice college in this competitive landscape. When it comes to your application essays, take a step back and think about how they can best help your case in proving to admission counselors that you’re the kind of student they want in their school.