Tips on Writing an Effective Essay

by Julie Wiley

For students and parents exploring options for high school, the admission process can be exciting, overwhelming, stressful, and scary all at the same time. It feels like a big decision because it is a big decision. It is also a time to pause and reflect on the first two stages of education (elementary and middle) as you look forward and set goals for the next two (high school and college.) This three-part blog series aims to break down several parts of the application process to hopefully make it less overwhelming and more joyful.
Click here to read Part One: Getting the Most out of your School Visit and Nailing the Interview Process

Part 2: Tips on Writing an Effective Essay

You have to write an essay for a school application, and maybe you have to write more than one. Perhaps some of the essays you have to write are shorter or longer in length, and maybe you are writing them for multiple schools. The hardest part of essay writing is getting started and deciding what to write. Here are some tips on how to write a great essay that reflects who you are and how to tell a school about you.

Essay types: Usually, essay writing is for a secondary school application or a college application. This involves school-specific essays, or for colleges, it could be the Common Application essay and possibly supplemental essays. These essays cover a range of essay topics, from why you are applying to the school, writing about an obstacle or challenge you have overcome, sharing an experience that is important to you, or discussing your identity and how you would add to the school community. Or you may be asked to write about a time that you challenged a belief or idea, how you showed growth from an event, or even an essay of your own choice.

Why am I writing this essay? The purpose of the essay is for the school to get to know you better. It’s a time for you to think about yourself, demonstrate good writing skills, and tell your story.

Where do I start writing? In answering the essay question, first, reflect on yourself then try to tell who you are. An admission representative at a recent college fair I attended shared a helpful exercise, of writing “I am ______” ten times on a piece of paper, to begin thinking of who you are as a person. This exercise will help you focus on your identity, what you enjoy doing, how you view yourself, what your values are, what is important to you, and ultimately what you want to write about and how you will answer the question. Choose to write about what excites you!

Read the question and answer what is asked:

  • Read the essay question carefully and thoughtfully and respond to that question.
  • For “challenge,” “lesson learned,” and “reflection” essays, be sure to give many details about the challenge/adventure/obstacle (build the scene for the reader). Then, explain the struggle during the challenge (what did you face personally?) by sharing anecdotal stories. Then, share your personal reflection of what you learned by taking us through the step-by-step process you took and how you are moving forward.
  • For the “why do you want to attend our school”/ “why is this the best-fit school”/ “how do you see yourself engaged here” essays, go beyond the question asked. You need to address your personal goals and do very specific research about the school through their website and social media research, campus visits, and reaching out to current students and alumni to fully understand the school and its particular offerings. In the essay, you should be able to communicate to the school very specific reasons why you are interested in attending, and not just general things like “the faculty is good,” “your classes are small,” “your campus is beautiful,” or “you have study abroad programs.” These reasons can include particular courses, professors, programs, resources, clubs, and activities that are unique only to this school and mentioned by name. These are important factors to consider for the interview as well.

Write your story: Many admission readers will tell you that we want to learn about you and hear you tell your story. Craft your essay as though you are telling someone a story about yourself. Your story does not have to be about something exceptional, it can be something as simple as a moment spent with a family member or talking about an object of importance. Writing in your own, authentic voice is most compelling. An author shared this piece of advice: if you dropped your essay in your school’s cafeteria without your name on it, the person who picks it up and reads it should know right away that the essay was written by you!

Keep your essay organized: Make sure you thoroughly answer the question and stay within the word limit. If the question requires a shorter response, write a brief, concise, specific answer. If the essay requires a longer response, organize it into paragraphs with a beginning (introduction of your story or response), middle (main point or details of your essay), and end (conclusion with some reflection of what you have learned and will apply to future situations going forward). Write clearly and logically.

Write with proper grammar and punctuation: Admission readers will expect good writing skills. Watch for such things as spelling, sentence structure, grammar, punctuation, and typos. Be sure to correctly spell the name of the school where you are applying!

Let your personality shine through: Use anecdotes and details to support your points. Write with distinctive vocabulary, alternate your sentence structure, and start with an attention-grabbing introductory sentence, which will complement your compelling storytelling. Add details and names of people, places, and things to add context to your story and make it personal.

Provide background: Assume the reader does not know the subject or topic about which you are writing. Provide some background on your subject matter before hitting your main points. Otherwise, “Skiing for AVSC” will mean nothing to the reader.

Show your interest in the school: Find ways to work your interest in the school and how you will contribute to the school, if appropriate to the essay question, even if the essay does not ask for this information.

Don’t overedit: Don’t have your teacher, counselor, or parent overedit your essay to the point that it is “over-polished.” It’s ok to have someone read through your essay, but overediting takes away your voice – then your essay becomes someone else’s voice.

Other Tips:

  • Don’t exceed the word limit (use your computer to check this)
  • Use Grammarly and Spell Check to check for writing errors
  • Be careful about writing about controversial topics
  • Read your essays out loud to see if they make sense – can a listener understand what the question was?

Julie Wiley is the Associate Director of Admission at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School. She is the former Assistant Director of Admission at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Over the past 15 years, she has read many hundreds of admission essays.

Tags from the story

Admission, College Counseling

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