STEM Students: How Does Your Essay Stand Out?

Amanda Orbuch
Amanda Orbuch

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Once upon a time, in an era dominated by young people vying to be future lawyers and financiers, a STEM student was rare. The computer scientists and engineers of tomorrow were prized rarities among colleges and universities. Nowadays, however, it can feel like everyone is a STEM student, and moreover, it often seems that the level of competitiveness among STEM students is ever-increasing. If that’s you, you need to ask yourself: how does your essay stand out?

This perception, founded partially in fact and partially in misplaced anxiety, can lead many STEM students to feel that their college applications will get lost in the mix of other highly qualified applications with similar profiles. In an effort to assuage some of these anxieties, I’ve compiled a list of 3 ways a STEM student can make his or her college application stand out, focusing on the essay portion of the application.

First: if you’re going to write about STEM in your essays, do it differently.

More than ever, colleges are approaching student applications “holistically.” There is a sense, in modern college admissions, that the “student” is comprised of an amalgamation of tangible and intangible factors, and discerning within the mix of quantitative data, extracurriculars, and personal statements the indication of a person behind the application is critical to the application review process. Colleges, simply, don’t want to see a machine. They want to see your multifaceted entirety, your idiosyncratic “you”-ness.

Your essays, therefore, can be absolutely crucial when it comes to giving your application an edge. Rather than using the essays as an opportunity to reiterate that you do STEM activities, use them as an opportunity to talk about the person behind the activities. If you’re curious as to how does your essay stand out, think about whether it sounds like you!

One thing to make clear: that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk about STEM. If STEM is truly what drives you onward in the world, talk about it. That being said, talk about it from a new and interesting angle.

Here are some suggestions:
  • If you have done wet-lab research on something in biology, talk about how that changed your view of the world. How do very small life forms challenge your views on what we define as a life that is “meaningful”? Do the things you’ve learned from this research make the world seem simpler or more complex? Why do you think you crave the understanding that research can give? Why do you have a need to know? How might this research make you more conscious of your own status as an organism (either mortality and fragility, or resilience and strength), and how might this impact the way you live?
  • If you’re an engineer, talk about the act of creation. What aspect of creation drives you on? For you, is it all about serial creation, that is, finding a need and meeting it? Is it specifically about giving back to where you’re from? Do you simply like disrupting old ways of doing things? What is your earliest memory of creation? What might it mean to you to be an “ethical” engineer? How important to you is doing the “right thing” when you are involved in your craft? For whom do you create?
  • If you are a computer scientist, talk about how the work you do makes the world better. How does the software you design contribute to the “good life,” either for you or for the people who use it? What does it mean to you to code something that you’re proud of? What does the process of debugging look like for you? That is, how do you deal with a piece of code that won’t seem to work? In what ways might coding be considered its own form of art? In this sense, might you consider yourself a sort of artist?

All of these things will distinguish you.

Second: that being said, maybe don’t write about STEM.

The college you’re applying to already knows you do STEM. To some extent, they even know you’re passionate about it; if you are devoting hours a day and weeks of your summer to something, there’s a good shot you care. It might be redundant to drive that point home once again in your essays.

Furthermore, this is an opportunity to show another, more personal side of yourself. In your essays, you might choose to talk about something among the following:

  • What does your favorite food say about you?
  • What is the one question you love being asked and why?
  • Who or what do you worry about?
  • When did you become confident?
  • Who is your favorite YouTuber?
  • Are you addicted to social media?
  • When was the last time you cried? Laughed?
  • What does it mean to you to be human?

The point here is to be honest. Give the colleges a chance to see you, including your imperfections, because the reality is that you are enough as is. If you love the “Yodeling Walmart Boy” meme, talk about it! The minutiae of you is what makes you real. So use your essay as a space to show the funny and deeply human parts of yourself.

Thirdly: how you write matters almost as much as what you write.

One of the common stereotypes of STEM-focused students is that their emphasis on STEM exists in the extremes. Almost to the exclusion of developing other skills; particularly the skill of effective communication. If you’re asking yourself, “how does your essay stand out?” Writing can be the key. Learning to write smoothly is important, but even more important than that is learning to imbue your piece with a sense of voice (i.e., personhood).

Conveying personality in a challenge, but it is the critical difference between an engaging essay and one that falls flat. Contrary to what you may have been taught, a conversational tone that involves some elements of your genuine speech patterns should not be avoided, so long as adequate attention is paid to grammatical and syntactical conventions. That is, you can write how you speak, but make sure you understand the conventions of adapting speech to the page. If I had to pick the top 3 most important questions to ask yourself during the revision process, they would be the following:

How can I make this more specific?
  • Original: I learned so much from this experience.
  • Revised: After that morning in the Sonoma fields, I resolved to invest myself in the relationships around me.
How can I make this less clichéd?
  • Original: I learned to never judge a book by its cover.
  • Revised: It became clear to me that her most immediately apparent qualities didn’t capture the entirety of her whatsoever; she was infinitely more than I imagined.
How can I make this flow better?

This will mostly hinge on breaking up paragraphs into smaller chunks and making sure sentences flow naturally.

Now you can see, these tips will help you get started on your college essays. For you STEM students out there, continually challenge yourself to answer the question: how does your essay stand out from the crowd?

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