College Applications: Steps to an Exceptional Essay - Cardinal Newman Society

College Applications: Steps to an Exceptional Essay

So, you’re in the midst of the application process, and the time has come for you to write … The Essay. Don’t panic, but do be aware that most colleges and universities require one or more essays be submitted along with the usual transcript, scores, and recommendations. For some students this is no big deal, especially for those who write easily and maybe even enjoy it; however, for others the essay requirement may be a dreaded chore that becomes the object of abject procrastination. And because this type of “personal essay” is quite different from the kind of formal academic writing most students are used to in high school, many applicants can feel they’ve wandered into unfamiliar territory.

In some cases the stakes seem high; college acceptance is a life-changing, tremendously important decision that will be made, at least in part, by people you don’t even know. Because writing skills of high school graduates have been in steady decline for the past three decades, most colleges and businesses are very frustrated by the low levels of basic skills exhibited by students today. So, if you can show an ability to communicate clearly and winsomely while also using correct, even sophisticated, grammar and usage, you will stand out among your peers.

Therefore, let us consider a few strategies for writing the very finest piece you can—something that will effectively and accurately present you and your communication skills in the best light. Initially, the subject matter of the essay should be unique, appropriate, and engaging. Additionally, the way the essay is organized can significantly influence the reader; a rambling, redundant essay can be seriously frustrating. Finally, your grammar, sentence structures, and vocabulary should communicate to the reader that you are competent, or even masterful, in your use of the English language.

Invention – What to Write

While college applications will usually include one or more questions for you to address in your essay(s), the prompts are usually quite broad and allow you quite a bit of freedom in choosing your subject matter. Frequently the prompt will ask you to reflect on someone or something that has had a strong influence on you: an important person in your life, a notable book you’ve read, a significant experience you’ve had, even a crisis you’ve weathered. This sort of question is often given because it requires a level of objective reflection and mature self-evaluation not typical of children.

However, it is important to stand out from the crowd. In making your choice about the subject of your essay, try not to choose an idea that may sound cliché, such as “how my senior trip to France taught me independence.” Instead, try to showcase something truly unusual or unique in your experience, and give an analysis of how you changed as a result of that person or event. One goal in choosing subject matter should be to grab or startle your reader into a quick response: “Wow! Now that’s different!” Some schools get thousands of applications for hundreds of openings, and your goal has got to be to pop out of the crowd. Demand their attention.

Most students will want to choose content that helps communicate sincerity about their desire to attend the school. If the institution is an academic powerhouse, it will value students who have serious and aggressive academic goals, so choosing past experiences that underscore this desire will be effective for that application. While other schools may emphasize their esteem for leadership experience, a few of the Catholic colleges might be even more concerned with the spiritual inclinations of their applicants; if so, influences showing one’s desire for spiritual growth—development of virtue and character—will be more influential for that significantly different audience. Try to anticipate what the school values, and choose subject matter that will illustrate how you have grown and now possess qualities that it considers most important. Above all, in choosing your content, remember that a sincere and personal example is best; college admissions people tend to be friendly, relational young folks who will be most engaged if they read your heartfelt, genuine thoughts and feelings.

An excellent way to approach this task of “invention” is to first make an “inventory” of possible ideas. Contemplate the question given, and then list half a dozen or more subjects, e.g., people, experiences, challenges, or reasons, from which you could choose. Then with the best three or four, jot down some possible topics for each—aspects or elements of the subject that would be of greatest interest to your reader. If you don’t think that any of your options can have the desired positive effect, pray for some inspiration, and repeat the process, scanning your life and experiences to list more options. Oddly, a smaller, more obscure subject can sometimes be a better choice for reasons stated above: more personal, less cliché, focused, and vivid. Once you have settled on a subject and identified a few potential topics, you can move on to the next step.

Arrangement – Organizing the Content

When planning your essay, you will probably want to choose from two basic organizational options: narrative or expository. Relating a sequence of events through time, a narrative essay leads the reader into and through the experience you wish to share, while a descriptive format will identify and present a few divisions within the subject and give a bit more insight and depth for each topic. Although the subject matter itself may make the choice easy, it’s important to understand that telling a story is often more compelling than just giving facts and analysis. If you can lead the reader into sharing a poignant moment of your life, the essay will be strong in pathos, one of the three essential rhetorical elements.

For example, sharing the two or three most valuable lessons learned from a favorite teacher can fit nicely into an expository format, with a short introduction, two or three topic paragraphs, and a short conclusion. Likewise, an essay on how you were forced to cry out to the Lord for help during an extreme challenge or crisis in your life lends itself much more to a narrative format with a first section describing the setting, a second showing the conflict, and a third relating the climax and resolution.

Your target length will affect how much detail you can include, which will in turn affect the organizational structure you choose. In the case of planning for a “one-page” essay (not uncommon), you would do better to aim for two or three paragraphs rather than a traditional five-paragraph format. As a general rule of thumb, one paragraph with seven to eight statements will range from eighty to a hundred words, and a page of text in Times font, twelve point, double-spaced, will average three hundred words. So when outlining your essay, first consider your target length (number of pages or words), translate that into number of paragraphs, and then plan your topics or sections accordingly.

Most likely you’ll want to have a short introduction that gives some background information—relevant history, facts, or details that help build the context for the story or the topics. A “thesis statement” typical of high school analytical essays can sometimes backfire in this type of short personal essay, since you may “steal your own thunder” and preempt the climax of the conclusion. However, even if you do write a thesis into your introduction, you can always edit it out later or change it into a question to add a bit more drama or mystery into your opening paragraph. A traditional five-paragraph format suggests that the introduction should “state” the topics to be discussed, but in doing so there is an inherent danger of sounding too redundant; therefore, the idea of “hint at” the topics may give a smoother, subtler effect.

Every good composition has some kind of “hook” at the start—an attention-getter that pulls in the reader and demands continued reading. A pithy quotation, an appropriate verse from scripture, a short two- or three-sentence vignette to paint the picture of the scene, a bit of humor, or even a very short sentence or fragment can create such a desired effect. Don’t feel that you have to write the first part first, however. Often it works best to write an essay “from the inside out”: body paragraphs first, conclusion second, introduction last.

It’s said that the two most important parts of the essay are the beginning and the end, since the first and last impression will be what most powerfully influences the reader. Therefore, in your conclusion, whether it’s a whole paragraph or just a sentence or two, say what you want the reader to know is most important to you, and make it loud and clear. Avoid expressions such as “I think,” “I feel …,” “I believe …,” or “In my opinion …” These weaken your writing. Just say what you think, or feel, or believe, as if it is the absolute truth. The whole essay is your opinion, and the reader should know, so don’t bother with such unnecessary qualifiers. Using strong statements at the end, you will more likely come across as clear, confident, and competent in your communication.

Elocution – Saying It with Style

Some students resist writing outlines first; they imagine it takes more time and requires more effort. Actually, however, the exact opposite is true. When a writer can separate the complexity of “what to write” and the “how to express the ideas,” the final product will be better, without exception. So don’t neglect that part of the process. If you have first determined what you want to say—the ideas and their sequence of presentation—you will be able to attend to elements of style: vocabulary, sentence structures, rhetorical devices.

Many great authors have said essentially the same thing about writing prose: The most important thing is using the ideal word in the best possible way. Vocabulary is key. Therefore, when you begin to construct a sentence, don’t just write it the way you would say it, and don’t assume that the first word you think of is the best choice in the end. Consider each word carefully. Every sentence has a verb, but is the one used your best option? Adjectives attach themselves to nouns, but do they enhance the image or feeling? Adverbs should create smooth transitions, but do they? Use your thesaurus! There’s one built into every computer, so options are readily available, and great writers may ponder one word in a sentence for many minutes. Vocabulary is critical.

Unfortunately, many students tend to write like they speak, using a predictable subject-verb-object pattern which when overused in essays can quickly become monotonous and uninteresting. Vary your sentence patterns. The best way to do this is to use different sentence “openers,” starting some with prepositional phrases or subordinate clauses, others with appropriate adverbs or transitional conjunctions, and even the occasional participle. If you will reread this article attentively, you will discover each of the above, along with an occasional very short sentence of three or four words which add rhythmic variety or dramatic effect. This simple technique—varying your sentence openers—will create an almost instant improvement in your style and will increase the sophistication and variety of your sentence structures.

We often find that good writers are able to judiciously use literary devices which enhance the content. Some, such as alliteration, triple patterns, or parallel constructions, will appeal to the senses, causing us to enjoy hearing the rhythm or rhyme of the language, while others, such as simile or personification, appeal to the imagination, which, like a good caricature, allow us to better visualize the scene or vicariously experience the event. If you have been at least a little bit engaged during your literature classes in high school, you should be familiar with a few of these stylistic tools.

Proof to Perfection

Unlike the timed essay you probably wrote as part of the SAT or ACT test, and unlike most of your school projects, this essay assignment is quite flexible both in content and process. You can take as much time as you like. You can get as much help as you like. You can rewrite as many times as you like. Therefore, it should be pretty close to perfect. With the modern technology available to you, there’s little excuse for errors in spelling or mechanics. You can have your best friend or your worst enemy, your father or your grandmother, your teacher or your sibling (or all of them!) proofread it for you. This college application personal essay should reflect your absolute best effort at selecting appropriate subject matter, organizing it logically and appropriately, and expressing it skillfully, and the good news is that you’re not alone in this. Though you are certainly responsible for the final product, you are welcome to get as much help as you like, and because of that, there’s really no excuse for typos or grammatical errors.

Colleges and universities are increasingly concerned about the poor writing skills of incoming freshmen, and so there seems to be a corresponding increase in the weight they place on examination and application essays. Unsurprisingly, the College Board recently announced that writing ability is the number one predictor of success in the higher education environment, and the institutions know it. So this matters. If you are willing to work at it, you can write an excellent, even exceptional personal essay, and it might just make the difference in which school you eventually attend.

Andrew Pudewa is the founder, principal speaker, and director of the Institute for Excellence in Writing. Presenting throughout North America, he addresses issues relating to teaching, writing, thinking, spelling, and music with clarity, insight, practical experience, and humor. For more information visit

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