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Top Tips for Making your College Application Essay Stand Out

Lindy Ledohowski

Lindy Ledohowski

EdTech CEO at EssayJack and VP at Wize

Published Oct 28, 2021

November 17, 2PM ET/7PM UK: Top Tips for Making your College Application Essay Stand Out

Your College Application Guide 2021, Nov 17 2pm ET / 7pm UK

Learn the 7 most common application essay questions for 2021 (and how to answer them) in this practical webinar.


Contents:
  1. How Do You Write a College Admissions Essay?
  2. What Are the 2021 Common Application Questions?
  3. How Do You Make a Good First Impression On Your College Application?
  4. How Do You Write a Personal Statement That is Personal?
  5. Where Can You Find Help For Writing Your College Application?

How Do You Write a College Admissions Essay?

More than 900 colleges across the United States use the common application process for admissions.

The common app has an essay component to it, which is required of students applying, and often this is one of the most challenging AND rewarding parts of the application.

In the college admissions essay, you get a chance to show yourself, a chance for the admissions committee to get to know you, and a chance to share something real beyond a standardized test.

What is a college admissions essay?

What Are the 2021 Common Application Questions?

Below is the full set of common app essay prompts for this year’s personal statement essays:

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

7 common application essay prompts

Each of these questions operates as an invitation to get to know the applicant a bit better.

But every question is different, and they all require a different approach.

In this article, we’ll take a look at some key tips for all 7 questions that can help you shine.

How Do You Make a Good First Impression On Your College Application?

Before we get started, be aware that stylistic and grammatical errors can make a bad first impression. This is where ProWritingAid is a crucial help.

You can have brilliant answers to the questions above, but if you make glaring writing mistakes, the person reading your app will be more focussed on your spelling than your achievements.

Check your answers carefully before you submit.

That’s a tip everyone should use. But all of these prompts are asking for something specific about you.

They want to know what you can bring to their campus that nobody else can.

This is where you can showcase yourself through your personal statement.

What Shouldn't You Include In Your Application?

Before going into that specificity, let me tell you a story.

Back when I was helping a student of mine with her college application personal statement essay, she wanted to showcase her love of performing arts and how she wanted to be an actress.

However, what she wrote was all about an imagined scenario where she walked across the stage to thunderous applause to accept her Academy Award.

She wrote about what it would be like to stand there before the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and to accept an award in front of the famous faces of Hollywood.

What was missing was anything specific about her love of performing arts.

  • What was it that inspired her about acting and embodying a role?
  • What was it about memorizing lines and making them her own that she was passionate about?
  • What was her process for using her own emotions to become someone else?

What to include in a performing arts application

None of those details came out in her fantasy of winning an Oscar.

Needless to say, we rewrote her application essay, and she was accepted into the performing arts college of her choice.

For all of the college application essay prompts, you want to be passionate. Be honest. Be authentic.

For this part of the application process, no one wants to simply read a list of your accomplishments.

Avoid telling how many singing or dancing competitions you may have won or what your sports ranking may be.

Instead, express how the music or the sport makes you feel. What does it add to your life?

How Do You Write a Personal Statement That is Personal?

Here are some steps that you can take to help flesh out your own experiences for each of these college admission essay questions.

They allow you to give a focused personal statement shaped by who you are and what makes you tick.

1. Share Your Most Important Story or Characteristic

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

If this is the application essay that speaks to you, you should know already what piece of your personal story you want to highlight.

To be successful here, you want to showcase something unique about yourself:

  • Choose the thing that differentiates you from everyone else and identify it clearly. Be as precise as you can be. No “I am a really great swimmer. Swimming is what I’m best at.” Instead you want to be precise: “I never feel more alive than when I’m pulling myself through the water in the backstroke at speed. Let me tell you about it…”

  • Show, don’t tell. As important as it is to explain what the thing is that makes you uniquely you, it’s important to show your reader. Find adjectives that describe the thing and its importance to you in a way that makes it come alive for your reader.

How to share your most important story or characteristic

2. Write About How You Overcame a Challenge or Failure

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

What the selection committee will be looking for here is something about your ability to reflect on past hardships and grow as a result of them.

It is important to have the self-reflectivity to truly be able to recognize whether or not you’ve actually overcome hardship.

If your idea of hardship is that your mom once grounded you, and you learned to listen better, that will fall entirely flat when compared to the application essay from a refugee who swam her boat to safety in the search of a life beyond the war torn reality of her birth.

While everyone’s suffering is experienced as real and important to them, we want to make sure that we’re also sensitive enough to see our own struggles in the broader context of the world.

To be successful here you want to:

Show that you can grow.

The main take away is to be able to describe, with some level of narrative detail, what the struggle or hardship is that you’ve overcome, and then tie that to some genuine lessons.

Perhaps the lesson you’ve learned is that you’re stronger than you think, or that you’d be nowhere without your family. Maybe you have seen first hand how larger, geopolitical structures can disadvantage others.

In preparing your college application essay, make sure that you first decide what specific hardship will be the focus of your essay, and what specific lesson(s) you will tease out.

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Show that you are thoughtful about the world around you.

One risk in talking about your own hardships is that we can then be tempted just to talk about ourselves. But if we can talk about our own experiences within the larger social fabric into which our lives are woven, then we demonstrate our own thoughtfulness. So ask yourself how your hardships fit into your family’s story, or the story of your city or country, and consider if it has anything to do with larger struggles.

How to write about overcoming a challenge

3. Reflect on a Time When You Challenged a Belief or Idea

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

This type of question is particularly good for those personality types who are the “you’re not the boss of me!” types of students.

  • Are you one of those people who staged a walk out at your school?
  • Did you start a letter writing or social media campaign?
  • Are you politically active within your community?

If this is your personality type, then this is the question that can let your passion to change the world shine through.

To be successful here you want to:

Engender your readers’ support

Your aim is to try to get your reader on-side about the cause that you will then explicate.

If you are passionate about climate or food security or representational politics or universal healthcare or global educational standards or any other topic that piques your interest, then you want to first set the stage to make the reader care about that too.

Is there a scene or image that first hooked you into the topic? Was there an incident that first gripped your imagination and made you pursue this cause? Try to get your reader to care about the topic as much as you do before you begin explaining how you’ve tackled this idea.

Be specific about how the issue that you’ve become gripped by goes against the standards that others around you believe in.

For instance, if you grow up in a very socialist household, and you want to then explain in your college application essay just how you’ve been gripped by Marxism, then it won’t sound all that much like you’ve challenged something. So it’s up to you to show how the context that informs your upbringing is different from the views you’ve learned to hold dear.

How to reflect on a time when you challenged a belief

4. Talk About A Positive Event That Affected or Motivated You

Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

This one can be a place where you can approach some of the same ideas that you might have in question 2 about hardship if yours is perhaps not a hardship when compared to the lives of others.

What you can do, then, is shift your focus to the expression of gratitude.

There are a few ways to be successful here:

Showcase something unexpected to help your essay stand out.

As you craft your narrative detail on what happened and who helped you, try to focus on something surprising.

For instance, simply saying that your volleyball coach has always supported you and had your back and for that you are grateful is less narratively compelling than if you can describe how at first you hated that coach, how you never thought she’d be able to bring out the best in you, but then along the way, you learned that her style is exactly what you needed to be the amazing varsity athlete you are today!

Work in humour if it is suitable.

Not everyone is funny, and if that’s not your personality, don’t try too hard, because it might fall flat. But if you are one of those people who can tell a story about your own gratitude in a way that works in comedic timing, then this is a place where you can combine the sincerity of gratitude with the complexity of humour.

How to write about an event that positively affected you

5. Describe an Accomplishment That Sparked Personal Growth

Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

This is an essay about your accomplishment(s).

It’s not about listing all the amazing accomplishments that you have under your belt.

There are other places in the application process that you can include general accomplishments. In your essay, you should only discuss something that you are tremendously proud of.

Is there something that you did that turned out to be extra special?

For instance, in my junior year of high school, our girls’ rugby team (on which I played) had a magical season where not a single point was scored against us all year, and we were our provincial champions.

I could describe that season in detail and the confidence that it built in me. Do you have something like that?

To be successful on this one, you want to:

Avoid the tendency to brag.

I know. It’s hard. But what the admissions committee will be looking for are the ways in which you can be thoughtful about the achievement of that goal.

What personal qualities does the achievement of the goal showcase for you? For instance, in my rugby example, I would talk about my sense of confidence, but someone else on my team might talk about her athletic prowess or her competitive nature or even her sense of being part of a team.

There are different qualities that can emerge from the same event.

Be specific.

If you score a 5 on one (or more) of your AP exams, explain which subject and why it is an accomplishment that makes you especially proud.

Is it because you studied harder than you ever thought possible? Is it because you finally unlocked the ability to think theoretically or critically? Is it because you methodically ran through previous practice exams?

Be specific about why the accomplishment matters to you.

How to describe an accomplishment that sparked personal growth

6. Discuss a Topic That You Find Engaging or Exciting

Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

This question is specifically for the artists or athletes out there.

  • Are there things that you absolutely love and cannot live without?

  • Are you a composer? A painter? A builder?

  • Do you lose yourself in nature running cross country?

  • Do you get in the zone when playing football?

If there is something that automatically jumps out at you when you read this prompt, then this is the question that you should answer.

To be successful here you want to:

Express the depth of the passion of the thing that you will share.

This can be very personal. If you are a poet or a novelist or a musician, you may never have shared your work with anyone yet. Perhaps no one has heard the songs you’ve written.

You’ll not only want to share with the admissions committee the passion you have for the thing that grips you, but also the struggle to be vulnerable enough to showcase this passion to the world. Perhaps you are honing your craft and perfecting it before sharing it. Express some of that struggle with the admissions committee. Be real.

Showcase your special talent or passion in writing if possible.

For instance, if it’s sporting, can you describe it in such a way that your reader will feel like they’re right there with you doing the sport? Or if it’s poetry, can you build in some poetic language in your answer itself?

How to discuss a topic you enjoy

7. Include an Essay on Any Topic That You Enjoy

Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

This prompt is excellent for those of you who feel uncomfortable with some of the very personal nature of some of the other prompts.

It might be that you’re very proud of a particular piece that you’ve written for a class, and that’s what you want to share here.

In which case, to be successful here you want to:

Situate the essay in context.

You will probably have to edit what you’ve written previously in order to make it into a piece that fits here. You may have to write an additional few sentences to make the essay you already have fit for the application.

Choose this option if you are particularly proud of an essay you’ve written, or if it fits within the larger context of your application.

For example, if you are applying to a specific program of study, and you have an amazing essay that fits within the subject matter, then that’s a good fit. If, however, you have an amazing History essay, but your aim is to go into pre-Med, then you will likely want to explain this difference.

How to include an essay on another topic

Where Can You Find Help For Writing Your College Application?

There’s lots of good college application essay advice out there, and we hope that you find our step-by-step guidance helpful for you too.

Applying for college and university can be very stressful, but it can also be very exciting!

If you need help applying for scholarships, our friends at Wize have also pulled together a guide to help with scholarship applications that you might want to check out too.

After all, you want to write the best college application essay and put forward the strongest application you can!


Check out Lindy Ledohowski's webinar:

November 17, 2PM ET/7PM UK: Top Tips for Making your College Application Essay Stand Out

Your College Application Guide 2021, Nov 17 2pm ET / 7pm UK

Learn the 7 most common application essay questions for 2021 (and how to answer them) in this practical webinar.

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Lindy Ledohowski

Lindy Ledohowski

EdTech CEO at EssayJack and VP at Wize

Dr. Lindy Ledohowski has a PhD in English and was an English professor before cofounding academic writing software company, EssayJack, dedicated to helping students unlock their potential with academic writing and critical thinking. In July 2021, EssayJack was acquired by Wize, a leading EdTech software company offering bite-sized micro lessons, with a specific focus on STEM subjects. Dr. Ledohowski joined Wize as a VP, leading its operations and educational development so that students around the world can be successful in college and university.

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