Once you’ve narrowed your college choices down to a shortlist of dream schools and safeties, it’s time to start cranking out admissions essays and application letters. (Well, as long as the Common App doesn’t crash again.)
With more and more students competing for limited spots—in 2013, Harvard’s acceptance rate was only 5.79 percent—it’s more important than ever to stand out from the crowd. So what can you do to get noticed?
Avoid the laundry list approach. A college application letter is not the time to list all of your accomplishments and extracurricular activities. According to Ruth Starkman of Stanford University, college application readers will spend an average of eight minutes looking over your essay. Don’t waste their time by listing the stuff that you’ve already included in other parts of the application. As Stacey Kostell, Assistant Provost and Director of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Illinois, puts it, “There is no need to repeat your transcript. Instead, share how your qualifications will be a benefit to you at the university.”
Be yourself. Writer Kathleen Buckstaff recommends drafting a “perfect angel” essay first, where you try to present yourself as the ideal student. She advises, “Make this essay so extreme that when read out loud, it sounds laughable, nauseating, or both.” Throw that one out. Buckstaff suggests that instead of writing about who you are, which can be really hard, write about something you love instead. If you’re passionate about something, your personality will typically shine through.
Stay focused. More than 500 colleges and universities use the Common Application, so chances are good that you’ll have to use it at some of the schools to which you apply. In 2013, the Common App revised its essay section. It now has five prompts to choose from—although each is still focused on inviting students to share their personal story. Once you’ve chosen a topic, stick with it and try not to ramble or go off on irrelevant tangents. For example, if you’ve chosen to write about a time when you failed, discussing the Tyrannosaurus Rex or your favorite brand of peanut butter is probably not relevant.
Don’t get weird. Now is not the time to experiment. While some colleges value creative self-expression, writing a sonnet or a punctuation-free, stream-of-consciousness rant may not be your best bet. Stick to more traditional formats. An application letter should consist of three or four short paragraphs totaling no more than 500 words. Admissions essays can be a little longer; the Common Application recently raised the limit to 650 words. That’s about the length of this post, or two typed, double-spaced pages.
Proofread. What you write is important, but so is how you write it. Admissions personnel will look at the content of your essay as well as the grammar, spelling, and punctuation. If you send in an essay riddled with typos and other errors, your chances of getting in go way, way down. Don’t rely on Microsoft Word’s spell check, either. For a first pass, try Grammarly, an online grammar checker, and then ask two or three grammar-savvy people to take a look at it. English teachers, guidance counselors, parents, or your word-nerd-friend are all good options.
One final word of advice: don’t wait until the last minute before writing your application letter or admissions essay. You’ll need at least a week to let it chill out before you can look at it again with fresh eyes. If you rush or try to edit it too soon, you might miss some major issues. Plan ahead and give yourself enough time to do your best work.
Need a break from writing admissions essays? Stretch your creative muscles this November by participating in GrammoWriMo, a group novel project orchestrated by Grammarly in honor of National Novel Writing Month! Sign up today.