How to Write an Attention-Grabbing College Essay

It's a part of the application process that can prompt plenty of anxiety. Here, we debunk four myths and show how to nail that attention-grabbing college essay.

Attention-grabbing college essay

Fall of senior year is officially crunch time, especially if your child is eyeing early admission deadlines. But that’s no reason to get worked up. There’s one thing left to do for your child to stand out: nail that attention-grabbing college essay.

You can help students by sharing these four college essay myths and facts before they write their essays and click send to the schools of their dreams.

Myth 1: An application essay has to be written about an impressive topic.

Fact: Your child is impressive – not the topic.

A college application essay is all about reflection; it’s an opportunity for applicants to share something meaningful about themselves.

“We get a lot of essays about mission trips, camp counselors and sports injuries,” says Kim Bryant, assistant director of admissions at the University of Michigan, adding students list what they did at camp (archery, riding in a boat, meeting a lot of really great people) without sharing much about themselves.

Bryant and other admissions officers want to read more compelling essays that “tell us how that experience affected” the student.

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“The essay does not have to be about something huge, some life-changing event,” says Calvin Wise, director of recruitment at Johns Hopkins University.

“You can write about an ‘aha’ moment, what defines you as a person. But it doesn’t have to be really extensive. … What does it mean to you? That is what we want to know.”

That’s what makes for an attention-grabbing college essay.

Myth 2: A college entrance essay should sound sophisticated, like Hemingway or a college professor.

Fact: A college essay should sound like the applicant who wrote it.

The college essay is your child’s story, and it should be written using their words, in their voice. Your son or daughter is a high school senior, and the essay should sound like one. Not mom, dad or their English teacher. And certainly not one of the most revered writers of all time.

“I wish I saw more of a thoughtful voice of a 17-year-old,” says Christoph Guttentag, Duke University’s dean of undergraduate admissions. “By the time the applications come to us, many of them have gone through so many hands that the essays are sanitized.”

Myth 3: There is a right way and a wrong way to write an essay.

Fact: Your child’s best story will grow out of the process of writing a college application essay.

There are no tricks or shortcuts to writing the perfect college application essay. It’s less stressful if your child allows it to emerge from a process of discovery that includes brainstorming, free writing, revision, review and editing.

Myth 4: Only superstar students impress admission officers with their essays.

Fact: Anyone can stand out with a great story.

Your child doesn’t have to rescue a child from a house fire, get a million downloads for an app they developed or train seeing-eye dogs to impress admission officers.

“I think sometimes students feel that because they haven’t found the cure for cancer, they have nothing to share,” says Vanderbilt University’s assistant director for undergraduate admissions Jan Deike. “Life is truly lived in the smaller moments.”

Get more tips

The author of this post, Kim Lifton, is president of Wow Writing Workshop, based in Huntington Woods in Michigan. Her strategic communication and writing services company is a leading expert on the college application essay.

She works directly with students, and trains school counselors, English teachers and independent educational consultants.

To learn more about writing an attention-grabbing college essay, download a free electronic copy of Lifton’s book, How to Write an Effective College Application Essay, The Inside Scoop for Parents.

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