Outstanding college entrance essays (also known as common app essays) are rarely the same; in fact, what sets these great essays apart is that they stand out from the crowd by using at least one unusual or unique writing technique.
Almost all good college essays use at least one of the following techniques:
1. They are stylistically interesting.
Great college entrance essays take stylistic risks to stand out from the crowd. For example, they might use short, terse sentences with few adjectives à la Hemingway.
He gestured to the bed. I walked over and looked down at her. She said nothing and I moved away.
Others will pull an Emily Dickinson as use the em dash, a lovely invention used to interrupt a thought.
I couldn’t wait to meet Mark at the mall- not that I thought it would turn into anything of course, but one never knows on these sorts of occasions.
College admission officers want to see mastery and control of the English language. That means using punctuation correctly and, if you can swing it, by showing off your stylistic chops. If you need to feel inspired, read Consider the Lobster, by David Foster Wallace, a leader in style experimentation.
2. They focus on one subject or experience.
Novice writers have the tendency to focus on a sequence of events. In reality, the short college entrance essay does not offer enough space to fully explore a range of small events, even if they’re related to each other. If a writer wants to talk about the death of his or her grandfather, it’s important to zoom in on that one moment that best illustrates the relationship or the feelings of the loss. The closer, the better! College admission counselors are interested in depth, not breadth.
3. They focus on two related experiences (reversal).
I know, I know- I just said to use only one experience. However, one easier way to write a good college entrance essay is to use the “reversal” technique. That’s where you delve deeply into two distinct yet related moments, one at the beginning of the essay and one at the end. Commonly, this technique is used to show “overcoming” some hardship. For instance, a writer might describe her experience failing to block a goal as goalie in a field hockey game in the first paragraph. In the final paragraph, she would describe accepting a trophy after a winning game. In between, you would expect to hear about the hard work, emotions, and struggle leading up to the final moment.
A reversal can be made more unexpected, though, by having a more murky ending. Perhaps after sharing a challenging childhood confrontation with a father figure, you then describe the loss of this person, or a time when you are older and try to move beyond these childhood issues. Colleges are interested in students who can navigate the gray areas of the human experience and are comfortable with uncertainty, both in writing and in life. A complicated reversal is a great way to subvert expectations, as well, by taking a oft-used device and challenging its assumptions that experiences can be neatly summed in two easy pages.
4. They choose an interesting topic or unique experience.
Since most students writing their college admission essays are only 17 or 18 years old, many have experienced similar life events: the death of a grandparent, switching high schools, winning an athletic championship, passing a test, etc.
While any one of these events may have been a major part of your life, they are popular topics for entrance essays; your essay will face increased competition to stand out from the crowd if you choose to write about a life event like death of a grandparent or changing schools.
A common brainstorming exercise I do with students early in the writing process involves making a list of 20 experiences or things that matter to them or have affected them. Listing that many things forces writers to move beyond the big, common life experiences.
Want more tips for navigating your college career? Inquire about Cheshire Academy’s College Counseling Services.