Writing the Perfect College Essay

Last Updated May 15, 2009 5:37 PM EDT

Podcast

Want to write a killer college essay?
Of course you do. Considering the cut-throat competition at elite schools, writing a perfect college essay may keep your application out of the shredder. And the approaching summer months are a great time to get started.

Here then are four ways to write the perfect college essay:

Be as personal as possible. This is the take-home message that I got after listening this week to a podcast on college applications that Stanford's admission director Shawn Abbott recorded. "If the essay could describe anyone else with a similar experience, it's probably not personal enough," Abbot warns.

Stanford's admissions gatekeeper says he is also fond of the essay strategy of a high school counselor in Florida. She tells all her charges to turn in their essays without signing their names. If she can't tell who the author is by reading the essay, she makes the teenager revise it.

Don't overwrite. I can't resist mentioning Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, which was just 10 sentences. I know that because I've visited the battlegrounds a couple of times in recent years during college tours. If you aren't an eloquent writer, keep it on the shorter side. Surely no more than 400 to 500 words. Only gifted writers should jump to a second page.

Write a catchy intro. An article in Stanford's alumni magazine included the opening sentences of college essays from successful Stanford applicants. There wasn't a dull intro in the bunch. Here are a few examples:
  • When I was in eighth grade I couldn't read.
  • While traveling through the daily path of life, have you ever stumbled upon a hidden pocket of the universe?
  • The spaghetti burbled and slushed around the pan, and as I stirred it, the noises it gave off began to sound increasingly like bodily functions.
  • I had never seen anyone get so excited about mitochondria.
  • I have old hands.
  • I'll never forget the day when my childhood nightmares about fighting gigantic trolls in the Lord of the Rings series became a reality.
  • Some fathers might disapprove of their children handling noxious chemicals in the garage.
  • On a hot Hollywood evening, I sat on a bike, sweltering in a winter coat and furry boots.
  • I change my name each time I place an order at Starbucks.
Deliver a take-home message. You can write an essay that's humorous, reflective, inspiring...it doesn't matter. But the essay has to reflect back on you. I once heard someone from Yale's admission office complain that a lot of Ivy League hopefuls write about Winston Churchill without ever explaining why the prime minister ties back to the them. Don't do that!

Quill image by Monceau, CC 2.0

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