Things to Include in Your College Application Essay

Updated November 09, 2016 |
Things to Include in Your College Application Essay
Most colleges and universities require an essay as part of the application process, but how important is the essay really and what can you do to make sure yours stands out?

Deciding which colleges to apply to is difficult enough, but you add to that the stress of writing a personal essay for each of your applications. Your personal essay is supposed to give college admissions teams a snapshot of who you are as a person and who you hope to become but you don’t have to spill your guts or transcribe your whole life story. To increase your chances for getting accepted, first learn just how important your essay is and then take the time to learn the Dos and Don’ts of college application essays.

How Important is Your Application Essay?

Every year, colleges and universities receive hundreds or even thousands of applications. Many of those applications are virtually identical in terms of GPA, class load, and test scores – so how do you make yourself stand out in a crowd? The college application essay is designed to give you a chance to speak directly to the admissions committee, to tell them who you are and why you want to go to their school. But is your application essay more important than the rest of your application or is it just one factor that admissions committees weight evenly with your GPA and test scores?

According to an article published on Time.com, college application essays aren’t as important as they are cracked up to be. In fact, Stanford sociologist Mitchell Stevens worked alongside admissions officers at numerous top-tier liberal arts schools for 18 months and he discovered that in cases where students met the minimum requirements for GPA and test scores, the personal essay was rarely used as a deciding factor for admission. According to Stevens, there are too many other factors to consider such as previous offers of admission from the student’s zip code, special endorsements from a faculty member or alumnus, the likelihood of the student accepting an offer of admission, and whether the admissions office owes a favor to the student’s guidance counselor.

On the other side of the issue, a report sponsored by the National Association for College Admission Counseling suggests that while grades, test scores, and curriculum are the top deciding factors for admission, a majority of universities and colleges believe that the essay is of moderate to considerable importance. To put it another way, in a world where everything else is equal between the applicants, a good essay can make a difference. There are, however, different ways to write college essays that can increase your chance for an admission offer and things you can do that may hurt your chances.

What Should You Include in Your Essay?

Basically, what colleges are looking for in an application essay is evidence that the applicant has strong writing skills and the ability to support ideas with logical arguments. Schools also want to get a glimpse of the student’s personality and what makes him or her different. Of course, some colleges weight the essay more heavily than others so it never hurts to talk to your admissions counselor about the role the college essay plays in admission to a particular school. Here are some things you should definitely include in your college essay:

  • Why you want to attend this school – admissions committees want to know why you are interested in their program and what makes you a good fit.
  • Specific details about what interests you about the program and why you are a good fit.
  • Information about your past accomplishments that have led you to choose this program.
  • Your plan for the future – how you plan to succeed in the program and what you see in your future after completing the program.
  • Supplemental stories and anecdotes to help drive your point home and to help you stand out.

In addition to making sure that all of these things are included, you should also be aware of HOW you write your essay. Admissions committees want essays to be concise – you want to make your point in about 700 words or less. You should also make sure that your essay is coherent – that your ideas flow and your arguments make sense. Don’t be afraid to show off your writing skills, but don’t do anything that takes away from your core message.

What Should You Leave Out of Your Essay?

When preparing to write their college application essays, many students obsess about what they SHOULD do, forgetting to think at all about the things they shouldn’t do. Even if your essay is a work of art – the best thing you’ve ever written – it won’t matter if you don’t address the prompt or if your essay doesn’t paint a picture of who you are as a person. Here are some common mistakes students make with their essays that you should avoid:

  • If a school offers multiple prompt options for the essay, don’t choose too quickly – think about how you would answer each prompt and choose the strongest option.
  • Be sure to address the question, especially if it is a two-part question – admission essays are just as much about showing who you are as they are about proving your writing skills.
  • Don’t be too general – college admissions committees want to see specifics. Don’t be afraid to go into detail to make your point!
  • Don’t ignore guidelines – if there is a minimum or maximum word count, stick to it! Longer is not always better when it comes to college essays either, so don’t feel like you have to hit the maximum word limit
  • Keep an eye on your tone throughout the essay – this will help to shape the committee’s impression of you. You don’t want to come off as lazy, prejudiced, or cynical.
  • Don’t forget to proofread! Your computer’s spell check option may not catch every little mistake you make so you should plan to read back through your essay a few times on your own and have as many other people go over it as you can.

Other College Essay Writing Tips

Once you have written your college application essay, your job isn’t done – you need to keep working on it to improve it until you can improve it no further. It is a great idea to have someone else read your essay to provide feedback. In fact, the more people who read your essay, the better. Ask your readers whether the essay provides an accurate depiction of who you are and ask whether it is clear, concise, and easy to read. If you were given a prompt by a certain school, make sure that your essay actually addresses the prompt. Even I you don’t have anyone else who can read your essay, you can review it yourself – just take a day or two off after writing it before you read it back so you can view it with fresh eyes.

Writing an essay is something students learn to do in school from a fairly young age, but it is a skill that must be perfected over a number of years. The college application essay is the true test of those skills and of your ability to present an accurate picture of who you are. There is some controversy regarding the importance of the college essay but, for now, it is a mandatory inclusion for most applications so you should take the time to learn what you should and should not include in your essay for the best results.


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