July 23, 2021
In our work, my team and I find that ninety percent of students (and, ahem, the parents looking over their shoulders) start their college essay thinking one of the following:
The rub: all of these perspectives have a fundamental flaw. A good story well told is not sufficient to secure admission at a top university.
In the prior installment of this two-part series on how to write a good college essay, we described the SPARC method for writing a college essay that gives admissions officers what they're actually looking for in a college essay - a sense of what makes each applicant unique and prepared to succeed in college.
In this article, we build on that and add common mistakes to avoid, tips for writing a good essay, and examples of successful essays before and after revision. Follow this guide to transform a college application essay that's not working into potential admissions gold.
Before we even begin our essay, we need to know our audience - the admissions committee. As someone who has spent almost a decade reading admissions essays, I've learned that by the time you've read even 100 essays, you don’t “read” them in the way you read a novel or the newspaper.
We readers crave being knocked off balance by something we can’t get ahead of. Fortunately, with a focus on an applicant’s dynamic personality traits, it’s possible to make any essay keep a reader engaged, guessing, and surprised. (If you’re not sure what your SPARC traits might be, consider taking our SPARC quiz.)
In my role, I have the luxury to spend hours digging deep into every submission. Most admissions committees don’t have that kind of time. Many will spend less than 30 minutes on an entire application package.
The goal is to write a college essay that grabs the reader’s attention, even if it’s the 20th essay they’ve read that day! The best essays give admission's committees a reason to prioritize you over the other applicants and leave the reader thinking, “I wish I could meet this person!”
What’s the one thing you can almost guarantee readers will read? The first line! The opening of your college essay is far and away the most important part.
There aren’t many rules in writing college essay introductions, but allow us to offer one: don't let the first thing you wrote be the first thing the adcom reads. First draft essays often open with introductions where the writer was clearly “warming up” or hadn’t quite decided what the essay was all about yet.
The solution to writing a good opening for your college essay is simple: start with your second paragraph. This approach also takes some of the pressure off perfecting the opening line, which makes starting easier. Just hack out a quick temporary opening, know that you will cut or rewrite your introduction in a later draft.
Here are some before and after examples of openings from our students' essays. We include the first draft and the final draft they ultimately submitted after working with us. While we have changed names and details to protect our clients’ anonymity, the excerpts in this article are otherwise exactly as the admissions team read them.
The final version of this essay earned this applicant admission to Cornell, Michigan, Boston University, and Northeastern.
A triptych is a work of art, a visual story, presented in three parts. As a painter, I like to use the triptych model when drawing 3-panel compositions. Let’s think of this as a triptych.
This kind of formal experimentation is not going to hook a reader’s interest on their 10th essay of the morning. The writer actually had a compelling story to tell (a humbling sports injury that led to a lot reflection and salutary character changes that made him an excellent potential college classmate), but we don’t get any hint of that in this opening.
Here’s where he ended up:
It’s late September 2017, and I am a magnificently self-absorbed sophomore. I check my TikTok account upon waking up, I spend more time on my hair than talking with my family, and I expect one of my parents to drive me to school whenever I am ready to go. I live in a bubble, a beautiful Connecticut cocoon.
Now the opening relates to the story the essay actually tells. Our beleaguered admissions reader knows what they’re getting (hint: he’s going to leave that cocoon!), knows what to look for, and is also brought into the story by a specific, vivid, opening scene.
The final version of this essay helped to get this student admitted to Columbia, Brown, and Stanford.
“Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon in the sense that it is and can be produced only by a more rapid increase in the quantity of money than in output.” - Milton Friedman
On November 8, 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India announced the demonetization of certain banknotes with the stated purpose of reducing crime. Indian stock indices fell six percent the next day and, according to the Bank of India…
We have here a student who is very interested in economics, in particular monetary policy. Excellent!
Where he goes wrong is assuming that the reader shares that interest. Admissions departments love to admit people who are fascinated by a topic, but they don’t have enough knowledge to assess your level of knowledge. This applicant could name check every important economist of the last thirty years, cite every important theory—the admissions committee is still going to evaluate his economics knowledge based on his grades from relevant classes and exams.
Rather than focus on the words and ideas of others, or a dry recitation of news events, we needed to convince the reader that this applicant is passionate about his chosen field. We needed to show them why he cares so much about this topic that he’s planning to devote his life to it. Luckily, our budding economist did have a deep personal reason to care about these issues. Here’s the revised opening:
On November 8th 2016, my entire school was engulfed in debate about the U.S. presidential election. I worried about my place in the U.S. as an Indian-American immigrant, and how the new administration’s proposed policies would impact my parent’s import-export business. Little did I know that another policy change, made the very same day on the other side of the world, would have a much bigger impact on my family’s livelihood…
Plenty of people wrote about the 2016 election over the last few years. But where others zigged, this applicant zagged—making the argument that monetary policy operating at the central bank level was more important than the hubbub of horserace politics. The story of how his family business was devastated by Indian monetary policy is a much more personal hook that captures the applicant’s deep interest in somewhat arcane financial matters without bogging the reader down with citations and data.
One of the most infuriating aspects of being young is not being taken seriously by one’s elders. When someone who hasn’t yet been to college talks to an adult about a complex issue, the older interlocutor tends to assume a lack of experience or knowledge. Plato was of the opinion that philosophy shouldn’t even be taught to students younger than 30 years old because they hadn’t lived long enough to know what to do with it (presumably he was over 30 when he wrote this).
Of course, Plato also toyed with the theory that humans once bred like cicadas—implanting children in the ground to crawl up out of the soil nine months later. So it’s possible he was wrong about a lot, and that there are a few clever young people out there who have interesting perspectives to offer!
But the reality is that, just like most adults, the adults on your admissions committee may have a hard time taking broad, abstract, political, philosophical, or ideological claims seriously when they are coming from a teenager—unless you support them with concrete evidence. Having people seriously consider any claim you make—no matter how crazy—is a privilege that comes after you’ve graduated from a big-name academy (like Plato did).
America has been a beacon of hope for marginalized groups throughout centuries. Those escaping from religious persecution, poverty, gangs, and economic failures see our society as a better and safer place. Through my experience in parliamentary debate, however, I have seen how America, a global hegemon, has hidden secrets within its political system that creates marginalized groups within itself. Through seeing loopholes in legislations, prioritizations in lobbying, and political polarization, I've understood how our society doesn’t always provide a voice to the voiceless. Big pharma, tobacco, and financial regulations, the government prioritizing alliances over human rights, and the selfishness of politicians ended up hurting the most underrepresented people in our country.
Hoping to address these issues, I founded a chapter of Women in Debate, a non-profit encouraging female participation in debate…
Whether you agree or disagree with the characterization of American society is beside the point. The problem here is the applicant’s relationship to these issues: she has been exposed to them through her “experience in parliamentary debate.” But her experience is not described.
Nor do these fairly generic political views give us a sense of what makes this applicant different from others, or why we would want her on our campus. Most importantly from a narrative perspective, how did debating all of these unrelated issues lead her to found this debate organization?
We recommended that the student reduce her discussion of macro, abstract issues, and instead zoom in more on the personal experiences that made her story unique.
With these changes, this applicant earned admission to Harvard, MIT, University of Chicago and Vanderbilt, among others. Here’s what she came up with.
Aggressive? No, too loud. Emotional? No, too feminine. As a female parliamentary debater, I constantly heard these comments from judges and coaches, so I sought to find a voice that pleased all judges - until I realized that was impossible. I had to find my own voice.
When debating crises in Pakistan or Peru, I couldn’t communicate my empathy by following conventional stereotypes of how women should speak. Female participation in debating events is already disproportionately low and such gender-based expectations make a bad problem worse. In response, I founded a chapter of Women in Debate, a non-profit encouraging female participation in debate…
This version makes for a stronger story, demonstrating the applicant’s character and willingness to take action when she sees a problem in her community. As an admissions committee, we want her on our campus because we see that she is an engaged citizen who will take action to improve our school.
This is much more valuable to an admissions committee than a student’s ability to name-check a wide variety of topical issues. After all, the whole point of going to college is to acquire abstract knowledge—you don’t need to prove you have it before you get through the door.
If you ask an admissions committee member what the most common mistakes are, they’ll mention essays that don't speak to one of the essay prompts. Admissions teams really do put quite a bit of effort into writing those prompts, testing them and often trying new things year after year to reveal very specific traits (i.e., SPARC).
When an applicant ignores all that work and just writes whatever they want, it naturally bothers the committee. Expressing ideas within the framework of an assignment is also a core academic skill, so failing to do so on your application doesn’t instill confidence in your academic ability.
Where people go wrong is often with more complex prompts that have extensive preambles.
Consider these essay prompts (emphasis added).
Columbia students take an active role in improving their community, whether in their residence hall, classes or throughout New York City. Their actions, small or large, work to positively impact the lives of others. Share one contribution that you have made to your family, school, friend group or another community that surrounds you.
Curiosity is a guiding element of Toni Morrison's talent as a writer. "I feel totally curious and alive and in control. And almost...magnificent, when I write," she says. Celebrate your curiosity.
What if the moon were made of cheese? Or Neptune made of soap? Pick a celestial object, reimagine its material composition, and explore the implications. Feel free to explore the realms of physics, philosophy, fantasy…the sky is the limit!
Only the bold sections in the sample essay prompts above are operative. The rest of the material in these prompts can help us understand the school’s intention in asking the question, but don’t get caught up in them.
For example, in the Columbia prompt, you don’t need to spend a paragraph describing how you have taken a generally active role in your community—they didn’t actually ask that. That essay should be laser focused on one specific contribution, per the last line of the prompt.
Just following the instructions can actually knock the reader off balance a little bit (in a good way). Admissions departments add all this language because it’s necessary: the more preamble there is, the more likely it is that a lot of people aren’t following the instructions.
So when someone does laser in on the actual prompt, it gives the reader a pleasant jolt: “Finally, a kid who’s paying attention!”
These examples also highlight one of the most challenging types of prompt: ones suggested by students. Many schools have moved away from this, but there are still a few places that solicit wacky ideas from their student body. If you do get into one of these schools, and are asked to submit a prompt for the following class, please be nice and straightforward!
There is one factor that is more important than everything we’ve discussed so far. In our experience, the underlying common ingredient of all successful applicants is TIME.
Applicants who give themselves enough time to write (and revise!) their application essay get into their reach programs. Applicants who rush rarely end up where they could have. A few carefully considered essay drafts can make a huge difference.
So, our advice: get writing!
If you want individual support with your admissions essay or college application, reach out to request a free consultation.
No matter which essay prompt you choose, the topic of your essay should shows the admissions committee your unique SPARC:
We’ve applied the strategies above hundreds of times and gotten great results. If you want individual support with your admissions essay or college application, reach out to request a free consultation.
Check out the first installment for tips on using the SPARC method to write a college essay that stands out.
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