Your words, only better

Extreme Makeover: College Admission Essay Edition


I love those Home makeover shows, with their dramatic “Before” and “After” shots of rooms. I enjoy my version of “the reveal” with students I assist, although we generally have 3 or 4 “Reveals” before the essay is ready for its “After” shot.

Here are some essay writing tips taken straight from a designer’s bag of tricks…

Choose a Focal Point
Many students make the mistake of writing too broadly about several topics. Instead, distinguish yourself by zeroing in on ONE specific incident, story, or support for the prompt.

EXAMPLE- BEFORE
It’s been a demanding couple of years: surviving the pressure of high school, keeping my GPA high, completing those strenuous IB requirements, leading the HHS Big Red Band to superior performances, competing on the HHS varsity girls soccer team, taking SAT classes, enduring my fathers absence due to his change of job, and above all, staying sane.

EXAMPLE- AFTER
I stepped nervously onto the stand and scanned the field, my heart pounding a loud drum beat in my chest. I raised my arms and all 132 members of the marching band looked up at me, waiting. I wondered, “What have I gotten myself into?” But as I signaled for the music to begin, and the drum line started tapping and the trombones and trumpets joined in, the nervous jitters were replaced by feelings of exhilaration.

You’re a good student? Well, so are “they.” And “they” also take AP and IB classes, play in the band, run on the track team, volunteer at the animal shelter. So don’t write a broad essay about several of your accomplishments. You’ll sound just like all of “them.” Instead, make your essay shine and stand out by drawing the reader’s gaze to one single focal point.

Details, Details
Add details to your essay, name names. Give those specific, vivid details. These are to your essay what pillows, photo frames, and curtains are to a room- they make it personal, they make it yours.

EXAMPLE- BEFORE
At the age of 14, I learned that a leadership title does not make you a leader. Four years ago, my soccer coach named me team captain. This was a proud moment for me. The thought of being given this honor felt great, but it came at a cost.

EXAMPLE- AFTER
“Come on, John! You���ve got to make that save,” I shouted at our soccer team’s keeper as a ball brushed past his fingertips and darted into the net. John shot me a dirty look, which surprised and hurt me. Ever since Coach MacIntosh had named me team captain, I’d struggled to keep our team “in line.” It didn’t seem to be helping.

Notice how the “After” essay names the keeper and the coach? If you mention someone else in your essay, give his/her name. These details further personalize your essay for the reader.

Make Bold Choices
Ever see a professional decorator paint a wall white? I don’t think so. In the realm of application and scholarship essays, plain old boring vanilla doesn’t cut it. Be creative and willing to take a risk. The caveat here is- make sure it works!

EXAMPLE- BEFORE
As a Kellogg student, I would actively participate in the Canadian club, and encourage others to become involved in similar activities. Essentially, I would strive to promote an environment where people would feel comfortable and proud to share their cultures and backgrounds with others.

EXAMPLE- AFTER
Dear Stacy,
I hope everything back in Richmond is going well. I just returned from my trip with the Canadian Club here at Kellogg. Like I mentioned in my last e-mail, I have become heavily involved in sharing aspects of Canadian culture to students here as well as promoting the Kellogg program to students in Canada. I’m grateful for my background, as it has enabled me to foster deep connections with others here. Students in my classes hail from so many different countries – it’s very similar to the environment at Capital One, in fact.

This last essay was written like a letter home to a friend, as if the student was already attending Kellogg. He’d done enough research about the school and the clubs he wanted to become involved in there that the letter home approach truly worked. It allowed him to convey what he hoped to add to the campus while not sounding just like everyone else applying to the MBA program there. He was accepted, so I’d say this creative approach worked!

Heather Tomasello