Here’s a brutal truth about applying to college: On paper, most teenagers are not very unique. Some three million high school graduates send applications into universities every single year, and that’s just within the United States. Seasoned admissions officers—particularly at elite schools—know how to spot cookie-cutter applicants and toss them into the reject pile in seconds.
Luckily, you do get a modest chance to distinguish yourself. Universities in the US and across the world are increasingly looking away from test scores and grade point averages and toward one particularly unique component of students’ applications: the essay. If done exceptionally well, it’s a catapult to an acceptance offer. So what exactly is the best way to sell oneself to Harvard in a thousand words or fewer? Reporters and editors across Quartz’s newsroom have come together to offer some foolproof advice.
Forget “writing from the heart”
Parents and teachers will often tell students who are just starting out on their essays to “write sincerely,” “write about your feelings,” “write about what matters to you.” That advice, while well-intentioned, is not helpful. An essay can be completely heartfelt—and terrible.
Instead of starting from such a broad place, begin with the narrow strategy of researching the worst college-essay clichés; that way, even if you don’t have the faintest idea what to write about, you at least know what you have to avoid. Examples of hackneyed essay characteristics that immediately make admissions officers roll their eyes include:
- Dictionary definitions (“Webster’s defines ‘courage’ as…”)
- Epigraphs or references of famous writers (“It was the best of times…”)
- Sound effects (“Whizz! Snap! Whew! went the rocket that I built…”)
- Sentences that are just strings of SAT words (“The fortuitous phenomena that transpired on the fortnight of…”)
- Overused metaphors
- “Let me tell you a story”
- Repeating information from other parts of your application, i.e. re-listing all your extracurriculars
- Talking about the university instead of yourself
- Over-using passive tense, instead of telling an engaging story
- Sticking too close to the prompt (“A time I overcame an obstacle was when…”)
Don’t be interesting. Be interested
Now, what to write about? Essay prompts are intentionally open-ended, and there are several ways to go about choosing a topic. Here’s a nearly foolproof one: Write about a person, place, or idea that you genuinely—perhaps to the point of geeky, nervous-laughter embarrassment—love.
“Write about what you’re interested in, not what you think is interesting about you,” says Quartz lifestyle reporter Jenni Avins, who wrote about her part-time job in high school making crepes in a coffee shop: “I was really interested in the people who came into this creperie, and this little world. It was an observational piece about having this window on a community.”
But this doesn’t mean you should ramble on pointlessly for five paragraphs. Make sure your topic reveals something about yourself, or why you want to study and pursue the things you do. Jenni’s essay highlighted her curiosity toward others. Quartz science editor Elijah Wolfson wrote his essay about pizza joints in New York—but it was really a tale of moving across the country and coming to terms with loss.
Yale’s dean of admissions Jeremiah Quinlan told Quartz last year that the university is explicitly “looking for passion” in the kids it admits; you can bet that the admissions offices at Stanford, MIT, and other top-tier schools are hunting around for the exact same. Don’t worry about your topic sounding too boring or pretentious—the raw emotion underneath matters more.
Pull out unflattering memories
It can be instinctive to paint the best picture of yourself possible in your essay, but put aside vanity and pride for a moment. You’ve already spent the rest of your college application flourishing your immaculate GPA, club leadership, and volunteer work. Oftentimes, the most powerful essay topic is one that lets some of your imperfections seep through.
You can start by thinking of a time that you struggled, made a mistake, or were embarrassed. Quartz technology reporter Mike Murphy, for example, wrote his essay on being stranded at the bottom of the Grand Canyon as a kid. He begins by setting up the scene: “I’m sorry, but 3:30 a.m. is never the same as 4:00 a.m.” He goes on to explain how he and his relatives were accidentally separated on the trip, walking the reader through the challenges he faced on his way back to safety, and ending on a tone of humility and lesson-learning.
Good essays don’t all need to hype up an applicant’s superpowers: They can expose weaknesses, demonstrating subtlety and self-awareness.
Tell a story—however you want to
When it comes to the college essay, taking a risk—however small or big—is better than playing it safe. Try writing different versions of your essay, maybe in completely different formats, just to see if one of them resonates more than the others.
“Admissions officers have to read so many essays that physically look the same. An essay that stands out is simply more memorable,” says Quartz growth editor Jean-Luc Bouchard. “I wrote a series of thematically linked poems for my admissions essay, and even though the poems were probably pretty bad, I think I got points just for trying something different.”
You may recall the news this spring about Ziad Ahmed, a student who got into Stanford by writing “#BlackLivesMatter” a hundred times on one of his essay prompts. Such ventures may come off as gimmicky—and we certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone repeating this exact idea in a future year—but they’re effective at one thing: grabbing the reader’s attention. Ziad, who had interned for Hilary Clinton and was recognized by Barack Obama at a White House dinner in 2015, was already more than qualified. What his essay did was make admissions officers pause in their tracks for a moment, and peer a tad more closely at the rest of his application.
Tinker with your essay. Think of it not as an essay in the academic sense, but an unlined blank canvas you can use to present whatever you want. That said, no sound effects—please.
Run your essay through spellcheck. Ask a teacher, friend, parent, or counselor to read it over—then ask five more people to do the same. Admissions officers barrel through dozens of essays a day, and the rote tedium of it can cause them to be hyper-critical of even the smallest of typos and grammatical errors. Show them this small respect, and you’ve already beat out many others kids for that coveted acceptance letter.
Read this next: How to go to college for free in America
A post by Top Tier Admissions’ Maria Laskaris, former Dean of Admissions & Financial Aid at Dartmouth College
A stand-out college application consists of more than just high test scores and a killer GPA. Year after year, admissions officers are faced with a crushing volume of applications and a short amount of time in which to read them. As former Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Dartmouth, with over 25 years of experience in selective college admissions, I can tell you, they are looking for reasons to accept, not deny, you. To do so, they’ll look well beyond just your stellar high school record, strong test scores, and extracurricular resume to figure out if you’re just the type of student they seek for their community.
CALLING ALL SENIORS
Seniors, as you’re well aware, deadlines for early and regular admission are on the horizon and as you write your essays and complete your Common App, you’re probably wondering “am I good enough” or “will they like me.” Read on for my tips and learn how to make your application absolutely rise above the rest and put these questions to rest.
MARIA’S TOP TIPS FOR A STAND-OUT COLLEGE APPLICATION
“Your business here is learning” said a former college president to the assembled first-year students at the college’s annual convocation. Remember that colleges are, first and foremost, places of higher learning. Admissions officers are looking for students who love learning, not just those who get good grades. How do you convey your love of learning through your application? Use your essay(s) to show how your mind works – the questions you ponder, the ideas you want to explore, the problems you want to solve.
Your voice matters. They may only be 650 words, but your essays will tell the admissions office something about you that your grades and test scores won’t. Don’t be shy! Once you’ve brainstormed a focus for your essay, be specific. Show – don’t tell – the reader what makes you unique and distinctive. Find a creative angle or hook for your essay and let the rest flow from there. Be honest and authentic about what matters to you and why.
Quality, not quantity, matters most. Whether your extracurricular passions include volunteer work, hobbies, clubs, arts, athletics or a part time job, it’s not about how much you do but rather the quality of your contribution. Rather than simply filling up the Common App’s extracurricular grid with a laundry list of all you’ve done, be choosy. Highlight those that are most meaningful – and show your greatest impact – by putting them at the top of the list.
New definitions of leadership.Colleges define leadership in ways that go well beyond being captain of the swim team, president of senior class, or editor of the yearbook. How do you make your school and community better through your ideas and initiative? Use any opportunities – supplemental essays, the “Additional Information” section on the Common App, interviews – to show how you’ve made a positive and lasting impact through your leadership.
Choose wisely. Build a college list that includes schools at which you have a realistic shot at admission and which line up with your academic and personal interests. If your grades and scores put you well in range of students typically admitted to the school, then you’re most likely a realistic applicant.
Do your research and be able to articulate in an essay (as well as an alumni or campus interview) why the school is a perfect fit for you. What are the academic programs that match your interests? How do you see yourself taking advantage of on- and off-campus learning opportunities? What appeals to you about the college community? Is it the artsy vibe, outdoors bent, or socially engaged student body? Be sure you can answer the question you’ll inevitably be asked about.
Best of luck to each of you on your college admissions journey!