How to write a powerful college essay that stands out from the crowd
Thousands of students apply to colleges each year. Many students come to me asking how they can stand out. I often hear “I haven’t done anything special” or “I don’t have any experiences that are worth talking about.” Another common one is “I haven’t cured cancer!” (Psst, most people haven’t.) I’ve helped write over 300 college essays, and each one has turned out unique and memorable. Here are 3 quick and easy ways to stand out:
1. Get specific.
At the broadest level no one is unique. We are all humans who eat and breathe. We have friends and family. We do extracurriculars. We go to school and study. That’s basically the definition of a high schooler.
It’s the details that matter. Were you the president of Key Club or the founder of a dance team? Were you the math president that doubled the club size by well designed marketing, or were you the drama president who reorganized the club’s structure?
The skills of the people who did the above vary drastically. If you find a specific moment (anywhere from 1 minute to a month) and share a detailed picture, you will end up with a unique topic.
This is also the same reason why essays on a general level, or essays that cover a large number of topics, often fail. We all can say we are “passionate about science” or “have loved computers ever since childhood”. That definitely isn’t unique. It’s the specific experiences that matter.
The best strategy to be unique is to focus on telling a specific story, followed by zooming out and sharing the broader context briefly.
2. Have voice.
There are hundreds of students who have written about winning a soccer tournament. Does this mean you shouldn’t write about soccer, because it’s not unique? Absolutely not.
Essays on the same event often turn out completely different based on voice.
Let’s take a look at an example, with a sentence I wrote earlier.
Example A: That’s basically the definition of a high schooler.
Example B: These shared experiences are what join us together as high schoolers.
Substitute these two sentences back to where I originally wrote it. How does your impression of me change now? A has a snarky tone. B has a more nurturing and “hippy” vibe. These 2 examples convey the same idea but reveal different personalities. Now do this for the entire essay.
If you can make your voice permeate throughout your paper, it will definitely be yours.
If you’re having trouble finding your voice, go and physically talk to someone. Hear that? That’s (literally) your voice. Now, just use it in your essay.
3. Spend 10% of your time choosing the topic, 20% on writing the draft, and 70% on editing.
Many students, worrying that their topic isn’t unique, try the shotgun approach. They write 3 or 4 essays, thinking at least one of them will be good. In the end, they’ll only be half hearted attempts.
You should explore 3–4 ideas but spend the bulk of your time writing ONE essay. It is too much time and effort to write 4 good essays, and you will not end up having any essays you are satisfied with. In my experience, almost any topic can be amazing. I’ve had friends write about their first shrimp cocktail and get into elite colleges.
After writing, edit the crap out of your essay. Have everyone edit it: your teacher, your friends, your parents, your dog. Most importantly, you. Students often think their job is done after writing their essay. But the real work is in the revisions. I did over 20 iterations to my own essay and go through many revisions with my students for theirs. This is where the majority of your time should be spent. There’s a lot of work that goes into crafting a good essay. Who’s going to do that work? You.
Okay, I followed your steps. Now what?
After you’ve followed these 3 steps, you can use this trick to check if the essay is unique:
Imagine you didn’t write your name on your essay and you dropped it in the hall of your school. If your best friend found it, would she immediately say, “Oh, that’s YOU! It can’t be anyone else?”
If your essay shows your personality well enough, your best friend will be able to identify it out of your entire high school. This is a great baseline test.