Here’s a brutal truth about applying to college: On paper, most teenagers are not very unique. Some three million high school graduates send applications into universities every single year, and that’s just within the United States. Seasoned admissions officers—particularly at elite schools—know how to spot cookie-cutter applicants and toss them into the reject pile in seconds.
Luckily, you do get a modest chance to distinguish yourself. Universities in the US and across the world are increasingly looking away from test scores and grade point averages and toward one particularly unique component of students’ applications: the essay. If done exceptionally well, it’s a catapult to an acceptance offer. So what exactly is the best way to sell oneself to Harvard in a thousand words or fewer? Reporters and editors across Quartz’s newsroom have come together to offer some foolproof advice.
Forget “writing from the heart”
Parents and teachers will often tell students who are just starting out on their essays to “write sincerely,” “write about your feelings,” “write about what matters to you.” That advice, while well-intentioned, is not helpful. An essay can be completely heartfelt—and terrible.
Instead of starting from such a broad place, begin with the narrow strategy of researching the worst college-essay clichés; that way, even if you don’t have the faintest idea what to write about, you at least know what you have to avoid. Examples of hackneyed essay characteristics that immediately make admissions officers roll their eyes include:
- Dictionary definitions (“Webster’s defines ‘courage’ as…”)
- Epigraphs or references of famous writers (“It was the best of times…”)
- Sound effects (“Whizz! Snap! Whew! went the rocket that I built…”)
- Sentences that are just strings of SAT words (“The fortuitous phenomena that transpired on the fortnight of…”)
- Overused metaphors
- “Let me tell you a story”
- Repeating information from other parts of your application, i.e. re-listing all your extracurriculars
- Talking about the university instead of yourself
- Over-using passive tense, instead of telling an engaging story
- Sticking too close to the prompt (“A time I overcame an obstacle was when…”)
Don’t be interesting. Be interested
Now, what to write about? Essay prompts are intentionally open-ended, and there are several ways to go about choosing a topic. Here’s a nearly foolproof one: Write about a person, place, or idea that you genuinely—perhaps to the point of geeky, nervous-laughter embarrassment—love.
“Write about what you’re interested in, not what you think is interesting about you,” says Quartz lifestyle reporter Jenni Avins, who wrote about her part-time job in high school making crepes in a coffee shop: “I was really interested in the people who came into this creperie, and this little world. It was an observational piece about having this window on a community.”
But this doesn’t mean you should ramble on pointlessly for five paragraphs. Make sure your topic reveals something about yourself, or why you want to study and pursue the things you do. Jenni’s essay highlighted her curiosity toward others. Quartz science editor Elijah Wolfson wrote his essay about pizza joints in New York—but it was really a tale of moving across the country and coming to terms with loss.
Yale’s dean of admissions Jeremiah Quinlan told Quartz last year that the university is explicitly “looking for passion” in the kids it admits; you can bet that the admissions offices at Stanford, MIT, and other top-tier schools are hunting around for the exact same. Don’t worry about your topic sounding too boring or pretentious—the raw emotion underneath matters more.
Pull out unflattering memories
It can be instinctive to paint the best picture of yourself possible in your essay, but put aside vanity and pride for a moment. You’ve already spent the rest of your college application flourishing your immaculate GPA, club leadership, and volunteer work. Oftentimes, the most powerful essay topic is one that lets some of your imperfections seep through.
You can start by thinking of a time that you struggled, made a mistake, or were embarrassed. Quartz technology reporter Mike Murphy, for example, wrote his essay on being stranded at the bottom of the Grand Canyon as a kid. He begins by setting up the scene: “I’m sorry, but 3:30 a.m. is never the same as 4:00 a.m.” He goes on to explain how he and his relatives were accidentally separated on the trip, walking the reader through the challenges he faced on his way back to safety, and ending on a tone of humility and lesson-learning.
Good essays don’t all need to hype up an applicant’s superpowers: They can expose weaknesses, demonstrating subtlety and self-awareness.
Tell a story—however you want to
When it comes to the college essay, taking a risk—however small or big—is better than playing it safe. Try writing different versions of your essay, maybe in completely different formats, just to see if one of them resonates more than the others.
“Admissions officers have to read so many essays that physically look the same. An essay that stands out is simply more memorable,” says Quartz growth editor Jean-Luc Bouchard. “I wrote a series of thematically linked poems for my admissions essay, and even though the poems were probably pretty bad, I think I got points just for trying something different.”
You may recall the news this spring about Ziad Ahmed, a student who got into Stanford by writing “#BlackLivesMatter” a hundred times on one of his essay prompts. Such ventures may come off as gimmicky—and we certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone repeating this exact idea in a future year—but they’re effective at one thing: grabbing the reader’s attention. Ziad, who had interned for Hilary Clinton and was recognized by Barack Obama at a White House dinner in 2015, was already more than qualified. What his essay did was make admissions officers pause in their tracks for a moment, and peer a tad more closely at the rest of his application.
Tinker with your essay. Think of it not as an essay in the academic sense, but an unlined blank canvas you can use to present whatever you want. That said, no sound effects—please.
Run your essay through spellcheck. Ask a teacher, friend, parent, or counselor to read it over—then ask five more people to do the same. Admissions officers barrel through dozens of essays a day, and the rote tedium of it can cause them to be hyper-critical of even the smallest of typos and grammatical errors. Show them this small respect, and you’ve already beat out many others kids for that coveted acceptance letter.
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The essay should not be the most dreaded part of the application process for any university. Maybe these tips will help you find that you can do this writing task with ease.
1. Tell Your Story In Your Own Voice.
Now is the time to market yourself to the best of your ability. Your college essay gives our admissions officers an insight into what makes you unique beyond your high school grades, test scores and extracurriculars. Your essay tells us how you will add something to UF’s freshman class, what you can bring to our community of leaders, learners and thinkers, and what sets you apart. This is the story of YOU!
2. Does the Essay Matter?
UF will receive more than 30,000 applications for the approximate 6,500 seats in the freshman class. There will be many outstanding students with similar scores and grades—too many to admit. Your essay helps us learn what makes you unique from other equally talented students.
3. Who Reads ‘Em?
Various officers throughout the UF Division of Enrollment Management are trained to read essays, and each essay will be read at least twice by randomly assigned readers. Keep in mind that these individuals may read more than a thousand essays, so it is important to try to catch the readers’ attention quickly with the most interesting example or point at the beginning of the essay. Here’s an example:
When I was in high school, I played the violin in the high school band. It was my favorite activity, and I never missed a practice or a performance. But one day, to my horror, I left my thousand-dollar violin on the school bus…
(from the book, Heavenly Essays)
4. Make the Story Unique to You
If you believe 10 or 20 or 100 students could write your exact essay, then it’s time to rethink your topic. Work on being distinctive. Here are some overused topics that essay readers have seen many (many) times:
- Winning or losing the big game
- Loss of friendships or relationships
- Critiques of others (classmates, parents)
- Pet deaths
- Summer vacations
Think about what you would say in three to five minutes to a total stranger to impress or inform them about your terrific qualities or unusual experiences.
5. Show and Tell—Be Vivid with Your Words
If you recall show and tell at school, your essay should follow the same principle. Remember when the student went to the front of the class with something of interest inside the plastic sack? You hear the story. You see the object. With essays, you need to draw the reader out beyond the straight text and use words that trigger imagery and the senses.
6. Big Words Are Just Big Words.
Impress us with your content and who you are; not your ability to use a thesaurus. Most of our readers would prefer if you wrote, “I hung out with a group of friends” instead of, “we congregated as a conglomerate of like-minded individuals”.
7. Don’t Repeat.
Don’t repeat what you’ve already supplied in your application—grades, test scores, etc. Your essay serves to fill in the blanks beyond what you have supplied.
8. This is your essay, not your English class.
We will be reading your essay more for your words and information and less for your grammar. We know you’ve learned to limit use of contractions, eliminate sentence fragments and not to split your infinitives. However, no text-lingo, such as “lol” “ttyl” “kk” etc. We won’t judge you heavily on grammar, but we ask that you keep it appropriately professional. Pick up a best-selling book, and you’ll find that many authors no longer write by the rules. It’s your story that counts!
9. Have Someone Else Read It.
It’s always wise to have someone else read your draft before you submit your essay. You’ll be much more relieved knowing you submitted your very best work.
10. Now, go fine tune your drafts, tell us your story and be confident in your submission.
If you follow these tips, they will take you far on the UF application.
University of Florida’s Current Essay Topics
- Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
- Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
- Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?
- What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
- Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.