Too often, a student submits an essay that recounts an event, step by step, without providing enough of their own voice. Remember—what happened is not nearly as important as your perspective on what happened. How did it make you feel? What did you learn? Did you change? How did this impact you, not just immediately, but in a broader sense?

Not only does writing this way make for more effective and illuminating essays for an admission counselor (because we can learn more about you), it also opens up a world of potential topics. An interesting story does not make for an interesting essay if you have nothing to say about it.

Before even reading a word, the form of your essay can set an expectation for the reader. As someone who reads a thousand essays a year, my heart drops when I scroll to the writing sample section of that Common App and see one long block of text. It is not a welcoming sight, and I become less excited to read its content.

By simply providing a title for your essay, and organizing your thoughts in paragraphs, your essay immediately becomes easier to digest and enjoy. This will also show that you meet a level of writing proficiency a college or university expects from its incoming students.

Beyond the basics, though, form can also be a way to grab a reader’s attention immediately. If you feel comfortable doing so, get creative with how your writing sample is formatted and presented. Lists, dialogue, lyrics, and poetry—if used effectively—can all pay off by differentiating an essay from the rest.

Play to Your Strengths
A college essay can have personality: Just make sure that it is yours. Do you love to make people laugh? Go ahead and add some humor. If not, steer clear of the knock-knock jokes because they will feel out of place. Does your extensive vocabulary allow you to beautifully wax-poetic about a given topic? Then wax on (a Karate Kid reference too old for anyone reading this, I know!). However, if you have relied heavily on the thesaurus to ensure that your essay sounds smart, those big words will probably stick out like a sore thumb, distract the reader, and lower the overall quality of your writing.

Basically, don’t write about what you think we want you to write about, and don’t write the way you think we want you to write (without ignoring basic rules of grammar). Play to your strengths, and let them work for you.

Tim See is an Admission Counselor within Butler’s Office of Admission. Tim works with students living in Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, and West Central Indiana.