Are you struggling with writing your application for college? Don’t worry—that’s normal. When I was applying for college, I had no idea what I was supposed to do with my essays. It was the first time I had ever written to purposely make myself look better than anyone else. It was hard to get over the feeling that I was bragging. In my mind, I was just an ordinary girl. Why would my dream school actually want me there?

I did end up getting into my school of choice, Brigham Young University. I’m still not sure how, especially after looking back at my old essays, which were terrible. I can’t believe that I actually wrote them. But reading them again got me thinking about how I could have made my essays stand out more.

I started paying attention to other students’ application essays when they came into the Writing Center where I work, trying to see what works and what doesn’t. I saw three techniques that make an essay stand out for me.


1. Giving Specific and Personal Examples

This may seem obvious, but it takes a lot more brainstorming than you might think. Let’s say the essay question you are given is the following:

“Describe any special interests or passions you have and give examples of how you have developed knowledge or creativity in these areas.”

(This was a question from my college’s application.)

I can think of a number of interests that I had in high school: singing, swimming, and art, among others. So let’s say I decide to write about singing. What does being specific mean in this case? I’ll give two examples so you can see the difference for yourself. Keep in mind that all of my examples are written primarily to show my point, not to show an actual sample essay.

Draft One:

Throughout my life, I have loved to sing. Music has been a passion of mine since I first learned to sing nursery rhymes, and my dedication to music hasn’t wavered since then. In fact, it can only be said that as I grew older, my fondness of music grew deeper. Once I started high school, I knew that I wanted to take part in choir as much as possible. So I joined the women’s choir my freshman year and loved every moment. I learned . . .

Reading this, what did you think? It’s not terrible. I’m answering the prompt question, at least. I talk about a specific talent, and I try to give details about when I became interested and which choir I joined. Assuming I were to keep writing in this way, I would give specific lessons that I learned from choir, and how I grew.

But is it specific enough? Let’s read the next example to see how I could do better.

Draft Two:

All throughout my life, singing was a common pastime for me—anything from the Beatles pop songs to the 1993 pieces from Rigoletto. Music has been a passion of mine since I first learned the words to my favorite nursery rhymes. I can still remember when I was only five years old, I put on a concert for my parents to these words:

“I’m so glad when daddy comes home,
Glad as I can be;
Clap my hands and shout for joy,
Then climb upon his knee,
Put my arms around his neck,
Hug him tight like this,
Pat his cheeks, then give him what?
A great big kiss!” (“Daddy’s Homecoming” by Frances K. Taylor)

The smiles that radiated from my parents were the greatest rewards I could have gotten. It was moments like this—seeing the joy that my singing gave to those around me—that led me to my passion as a singer. My dedication as a musician hasn’t wavered since that moment. In fact, it can only be said that as I grew older, my fondness of music grew deeper. I started going to my church’s choir when I was eight and rarely missed a week. Once I started high school, I knew that I wanted to take part in as many choral classes as possible. So I joined the women’s choir my freshman year, loving every minute. I learned . . .

Notice the difference? Yes, my first draft was decent, and it did give some specifics. But how much more intriguing was it to read the second draft? Being specific and giving meaningful examples gets your reader’s attention, and it adds a more personal touch.  

So when you are preparing to write your essays, write down some of your favorite memories beforehand—those that will show how you learned what you did, not just what you learned.


2. Using Sophisticated, Yet Personable Language

If your experience is anything like mine, your teachers taught you to use sophisticated language since your very first middle-school writing class. But what exactly does that mean? The kneejerk reaction might be to add big words so that you look smarter than you really are: at least, that was my initial interpretation. But when you’ve read countless essays and seen all types of writing, it becomes pretty easy to tell who’s writing with their true voice and who’s just trying too hard. I’ll show you what I mean with a new answer for my school’s essay question.

Draft One:

One of my favorite things to do is art. Any kind of art: sketching, painting, crafting, etc. I’ve always had the brain for art, enjoying the pictures in every building I would visit. It wasn’t long after I learned to write that I started learning to draw my favorite things—particularly the strong and graceful bodies of horses. I would regularly sit outside under a tree with a picture from my favorite horse calendar and trace the lines of their face. Soon, I learned how to look at the picture and draw the same thing on my own. My interest in art was what I was known for among my relatives. One Christmas, I received one of my favorite gifts. An advanced how-to sketchbook! I spent hours with that book, learning . . .

Looking through my work here, the ideas are there, but the language isn’t quite at the appropriate level. I need to step up the language. I have incomplete sentences and use the most basic of words. (Tip: Stay away from the word “thing.”) So what might I do to fix this? Spice it up with some sophisticated-sounding words, right?

Draft Two:

One of my favored hobbies is art. I relish any kind of art: sketching, painting, crafting, and more. I have always had the brain for fine art, enjoying the paintings in every building that I would visit. It was not long after I learned to write that I started learning to draw my favorite subjects—particularly the resilient and nimble bodies of horses. I would frequently sit outside under a tree with a photograph from my equestrian calendar and trace the lines of each horse’s face. Soon, I learned how to study the depiction and then draw an equivalent on my own. My intrigue from art became one of my identifying markers among my relatives. One Christmas, I received one of my most revered gifts: an advanced how-to sketchbook! I spent hours with said book, learning . . .

Hmmm… Reading this now, it seems a little off, doesn’t it? If it seems almost like I just right-clicked every word and picked a more advanced synonym, that’s exactly what I did. And I know for a fact that many students have the same tactic. But like I said, experienced readers (most importantly, the admissions officers) will be able to tell. So let’s try again, this time with the same ideas but a more appropriate voice.

Draft Three:

Of all the hobbies that I enjoy, there is one in particular that keeps me coming back again and again: art. My attention has been riveted by many types—sketching, painting, even crafting. It seems that my brain is wired for fine art; I enjoyed looking at paintings even before I knew what to look for. In fact, it was not very long after I learned to write that I also started to learn how to draw.

As a budding artist, my favorite subjects were those of strong and majestic horses. I could never get enough of them. Often, I could be found sitting under a tree with my sketch pad and a photograph of a horse, taken from my favorite calendar. I started with just learning how to trace the lines of each horse’s face, and soon I was learning how to draw a horse on my own. My family saw my growing talent and gave me one of the most treasured gifts I have ever received: my first advanced how-to sketchbook. The hours I spent with that book resulted in . . .

Of the three, which sounds the most natural? The most intelligent? Hopefully it’s the third one. And why would it be? Well, there are certain writing techniques that affect how sophisticated an essay sounds. The most well-known factor is the vocabulary, which is what we changed between the first and second drafts. But there are other factors that are even more important: (1) tone, and (2) sentence structure. Focusing on these will have a greater impact in producing an essay that can hold its reader’s attention.


3. Making the Intro Unique and Attention-grabbing

I swear, no one in my entire high school career ever told me exactly how to make my writing “hook” the reader, but everyone always said that I needed to do it. Teachers said to think about what your reader wants to hear—what will grab their attention the most? But since I can’t get into my readers heads, how am I supposed to know what they want?

Based on what I knew from high school, I didn’t have any clue how to start out an essay written to such a life-changing audience as an admissions committee. Even now, I’m still only guessing when it comes to making a hook for the readers, but I at least know what not to do. The number one tip I’d give is to never start with “I.”

Yes, your college application is all about you. Its entire purpose is for you to show how you will be an asset to your school of choice. But at the same time, starting out with “I” is one of the quickest ways to lose your readers’ attention. You have not yet established a connection with them, so they have no reason to care. In fact, peppering your essay with “I”s does the same thing, as you’ll see in this example.

Draft One:

For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed swimming. The water has always drawn me to it, be it a pool, a lake, a river, or the ocean. Believe it or not, even my first word showed my connection to the waves, “fish” being my first intelligible sound. This shouldn’t have surprised my family, for after all, I was swimming laps twice a week by the age of six. . . .

Even trying as hard as I can to make this interesting, starting out with a sentence all about me doesn’t really catch the attention, does it? It just leaves the reader asking, “So what?” There’s no reason for readers to keep reading. Let’s see how we do on draft two.

Draft Two:

Dripping wet and too tired to speak—this might not sound very appealing to most people. But what about feeling freedom and accomplishment? That should sound like something worth working for. And in my case, water gives me that feeling of freedom more than anything else. It always has, since the very first time I stepped into the ocean as a baby and pronounced my first word: “fish.” My mom always told me that this was a sign of my true self; she loved calling me her “little fish.” When I started swimming laps with her at the age of six, I began to agree with her nickname . . .

What did you think about this one? My goal was to establish a connection with the reader as soon as possible, which I tried to accomplish with the question at the beginning. In this draft, I no longer focus on myself initially, but reach towards a broader audience to pull out something readers can agree with. By doing that, when I switch to my own story, readers’ interest is peaked enough that they keep reading.

That’s your goal. Connect with your reader as soon as possible, and they’ll be more likely to remember you.


Now Go Out and Rock It

By doing these three things, your essay can be one of the best that you’ve written. Definitely also check out the post “5 Things I’d Do Differently: Application Essay Edition,” for more advice.

Good luck! Remember, by giving specific and personal examples, using the appropriate language and voice, and making your first few sentences grab the reader, your essay will be able to stand as a sign that you are worthy of your school.


Want essay tips for a specific school? CollegeVine’s blog has that.

Christina Crosland

Christina Crosland

Christina Crosland is currently a senior studying Interdisciplinary Humanities at Brigham Young University. Since the day she was born, Christina has called the West her home, and she is proud to say that she graduated from a little high school in Idaho. And while her home lies in one place, her heart lies in the great unknown. Traveling has always been her interest and reading of fantastical journeys her passion.
Christina Crosland