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How to Write a Successful Admissions Essay

Written by: Jeffry Jones at 25 Jun 2014   


A hand which writes an essay with a penApplying for a college, university, graduate school, or exchange program can be a big worry. After all the paperwork, securing grants/scholarships, getting visas and passport information in order, you still have to worry about one last paper: your admissions essay.

Despite your stellar grades and your obvious fit for the program you’re hoping to enter, you still have to justify on a single page why you’re the right person for their school, and we will help you with that.

You may find yourself staring at a blank screen and watching the cursor blink as time flies by without a word jotted down. If you find yourself panicking, don’t. Take a deep breath and calm down. Even though this may seem like the hardest part of the application process, it’s really the easiest. You’ve already done the work and you probably don’t realize it. All you have to do is break it down into manageable steps.

Step One: Get Messy

The admissions essay is weird. It’s part formal, part creative. Formality can be applied, let’s start by getting creative.

Get away from your computer (or whatever you use to compose documents). The formality of the situation may be giving you some unneeded anxiety. Instead, try starting out informally. Grab a pad of paper or a favorite notebook and start jotting down ideas.

It can be really hard to start an essay because we expect to go start to finish and have it fit in a form perfectly. In reality, this never works out. A notebook or scratch pad that doesn’t look as formal as your friendly word processor will help you get out of the dire mindset and let you loosen up to start writing.

Even if you find it hard to start writing about the topic you’re supposed to be writing about, start writing whatever comes into your mind on that notepad. It doesn’t matter; you’re going to throw it away anyway.

Step Two: Ask Questions

Now that you’re all warmed up and have pages upon pages of useless writing it’s time to get a little more formal. Don’t worry, we’re not even in the first draft yet, so we don’t have to get too official. Keep your language conversational. If English isn’t your first language, keep writing in your native tongue.

Admissions essays are about you. They explain the journey you’re taking, how it leads you to their school, and where you hope it’s going afterward.

Start a new page and jot down the following questions:

1. Who are you?

2. What is the most important thing to have happened in your academic career so far?

3. What is the biggest personal change you’ve witnessed in the past year?

4. What was the cause of that change?

5. What were you most afraid of in the last year?

6. How did you overcome it?

7. Where do you see yourself in three years?

Spend a little time (and a lot of paper) answering these questions. Get as loose and as informal as you want. Get downright silly. The point is to get words down on the page and see what you can use afterwards.

Step Three: Connecting the Dots

By now you should have a lot of scrap paper around and a lot of words on them. Most of them are going to be useless, but hopefully you’ve answered the questions above in a way that will give you a little inspiration.

Past performance is a great indicator of future performance. This is your shot to sum up your past performance and feed it to the admissions board in a new, exciting, and compelling way. They want a narrative. Sure, they want facts and figures too, but they got all that in the rest of the paperwork that you had to fill out. What you’re doing here is building a story. This is your first impression to a group of people you’re just meeting.

So, as you’re reading through your scraps, what’s the story that jumps out? When you find it, start writing it down. Don’t worry if it’s not quite there yet, just find that narrative thread and get back to your computer and start typing.

Step Four: All Together Now

Alright, get to work. You should have a pretty good rough draft, or at least the start of one. From here shaping it will be pretty easy. Now that you’re not staring at a blank page, it will be a lot less scary too.

This is where the formal stuff comes in. You’ve got a great and compelling personal narrative that explains who you are, where you’re going, and how you got there. Now all that you have left to do is tweak it. We need to make sure it fits their parameters, it has the right tone, and that the language is precise and clear. You should be well on your way to perfection.

Good luck!


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