Know who reads your application–and help them know you.
I feel very lucky to have been accepted to, and graduated from, Stanford University. While I worked hard in high school and put my best foot forward in my applications, I want to emphasize that there will always be some serendipity in college acceptances. At the end of the day, you can only be yourself. What you do have control over–and what you can work on in your college applications–is how well you use your essays to summarize who you are to admissions officers.
In the whirlwind of applications, keep in mind who your audience is (this is not to say that you should stalk your admissions officer online and tell them what they want to hear). Instead, be genuine and help the admissions officers understand you. Remember that they are only human, and are subject to feeling tired, forgetting things about you, and creating as holistic of a picture of you as you give them in your application.
Here’s how you can help someone understand you with 500 words:
- Don’t be afraid to talk about yourself. College admissions is perhaps one of the only times in which it is okay to brag about yourself. An admissions officer has about 5 minutes to figure out everything you’ve accomplished in 18 years of life. Use a (non-pompous) tone that accurately conveys your accomplishments. Be tactful by weaving them into your essay. As every university admissions information session harps: “Make sure your essay is about you, not your grandma.”
However, what they often don’t tell you (and what I found to be successful) is: You can brag about yourself without ignoring your personal history or sources of inspiration that might explain who you are. There is no way for an admissions officer to know how your familial background has influenced your academic interests, or how your role models have catalyzed your career aspirations. While your essay should be about you, do not be afraid to give the admissions officer a broader picture of why you are the way that you are.
- Tell a distinct story. A good story has narrative structure and leaves the reader with a distinct insight. Our brains are programmed to look for a beginning, middle and end in a narrative. Make it as easy as possible for the admissions officer to scan your essay. Open with a gripping anecdote that is not too dramatic (after reading a million depressing and dramatic essays, a lighthearted, positive or self-deprecating tone can be refreshing). If your essay has multiple vignettes, then select a theme to tie them together. And while all good stories have an end, make sure you end with a forward-looking statement about how you hope to tie in your past interests into your career at said college.
For your essay topic, pick a distinct theme. Many applicants will have the same experiences as you do. Write about an unusual activity that sets you apart. If you do not have an obscure experience to write about, explain your seemingly commonplace experience with an uncommon insight. Show the admissions officer that you can think in ways others might not.
- Make your essay sparkle. Out of a stack of thousands of applications, you will need to stand out. You can be memorable by being specific. By loading your essay up with lots of proper nouns, you will create a specific image in the reader’s mind. Furthermore, it will be easier to go back and remember your experiences if the reader can pull out specific words that trigger their memory of you. Likewise, keep your sentences short and to the point. You should skip excessive adjectives or effusive language. Instead of incorporating reflections on how you felt, write about what you did and why it matters. The officer assumes you are the author of your essays, so to cut words by removing unnecessary phrases like “I think” or “I feel”. While such advice might seem like English 101, it is easy to get bogged down in your own work during college applications. If it is allowed by the college, it doesn’t hurt to have another set of eyes help you to pare down your language.
Overall, there is no secret sauce to getting into college. Still, the trite advice of “just be yourself” is a maxim. If you are deep in the admissions process, you cannot alter your past accomplishments. During such a stressful time, you can only do your best. While you might regret not learning how to market yourself properly, you will not regret being yourself. The best thing you can do now is to spend time accurately communicating yourself to the complete strangers that are your college admissions officers. You are your best advocate. Best of luck, you’ll do great!