In the 2020-2021 admissions cycle, Harvard College received more than 57,000 applications: a record high and a 42 percent surge in applications compared to last year. With three essays included on the application, not including the optional open-ended essay, that means that admissions officers read at least 170,000 responses to the same prompts. Most top colleges’ admissions cycles followed this trend. How does a student even go about trying to stand out from this overwhelming competition?
The good news is that, every year, there are applicants who manage to write compelling essays that make them memorable. The potentially more frustrating news is that there’s no correct way to write a college essay. There are countless books and articles that offer useful advice, but the best essays often forgo many of the tried and true formulas. That’s why the main piece of advice I give when editing students’ essays is to be more specific, but students are usually confused as to how to implement that in rewrites. The truth is that being specific requires you to define your voice as a writer and as a person, and specificity looks different in every story.
What Makes An Essay Memorable
Most college essay prompts are variations on the same topics: community, identity, overcoming difficulty, and so on (the “Why School” or “Why Subject” essays are a bit of a different animal). Sometimes schools like students to get more creative, such as the University of Chicago’s famous out-of-the-box questions, and require completely original approaches. Nevertheless, your job as a writer is to help us learn more about you, no matter the prompt. You can best do that by giving a very specific answer to an intentionally broad question.
Admissions officers, especially at universities with large applicant pools, usually summarize students in a few paragraphs or even a single, acronym-laden line. Even if your essay isn’t the defining piece of your application, it will definitely color the conversation around your candidacy. Maybe you’re a math whiz who is fascinated by the concept of imaginary numbers, or you’re an aspiring marine biologist who spent weekends working at an aquarium. Your passions might not even cross paths in an obvious way, such as a history buff with an affinity for playing the guitar. You don’t necessarily have to write about an academic interest either — if it’s a genuine interest with a captivating angle, it can make for a strong essay. Try to deduce what your one-liner could be based on all the parts of your application. It’ll help you figure out if you're missing any essential components of your story, which you can address in a personal statement.
You also don’t need to have a nationally-recognized success or a personal tragedy to write a remarkable essay. In fact, some of the best essays offer new insights into everyday occurrences. Take this essay about running at night that helped a North Dakota student get into all eight Ivy League schools, Stanford, MIT, and Caltech. Although his stellar grades and test scores no doubt played a big role in these successes, this down-to-earth reflection allows us to hear the author’s voice as he reveals the experiences and ideas that have shaped him in an innovative way. Every detail offers us something new: he relates an open road to a classical music piece, establishing his musical expertise; running by a cathedral gives him an opportunity to explore his familial identity. And framing all of this within a single morning run gives us a clear and cohesive narrative that makes us feel like we learned something between the beginning and end. No one else could’ve written this essay quite the way that he did.
It’s All in the Details
Start with your structure. It’s important to have a clear beginning, middle, and end. The beginning gives us a sense of the “world” — your debate team, your family, your hometown, etc. — and sets up the conflict in an intriguing way with your opening anecdote. The middle, usually the longest section, chronicles the steps you took to resolve this conflict or what you learned from the experience you had. Finally, the end reinforces the main message of the essay and often calls back to the beginning, bringing the essay full circle. This structure isn’t always necessary, but it’s a good place to begin.
Avoid cliché at all costs. Instead of saying you “saw the world with a new perspective,” show us specifically how your perspective changed over time and why. Instead of saying you “realized the importance of giving back,” detail the specific encounters you had that showed you why this was important. It’s more interesting for us to read the details of your unique experiences than the conclusions that you later drew. Save that for the last few sentences, or don’t include it all. There are thousands of other applicants who’ve already said it the same way, but they haven’t lived the same life you have.
Show, don’t tell. You want to avoid generalizations and vague statements that don’t give us any new, specific information. Stay away from speaking in conclusions until you’ve painted a comprehensive picture of the experience you’re discussing in the essay. Instead, give us sensory details that take us along for the ride instead of simple exposition. Think of it like you’re writing a diary entry or telling your best friend.
For instance, imagine you’re talking about doing theater as an extracurricular:
Tell: I made many friends and learned how to express myself through the theater productions I did at my school.
Show: As we took our bow on the final night of Seussical, the audience leapt to their feet. I realized I had not only gained confidence through telling this wacky, wild story — I had gained a second family.
By singling out this experience and taking us through the emotions you felt, you’ve already created a more interesting example for us to read that helps us understand who you are.
As you start to brainstorm your college essays, just remember that you have a story no one else can tell, which will help distinguish you and your application. And the more specific you can be when describing that story, the better.