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How to Write a Compelling College Essay

Apply to your dream college without hesitation.


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Shubhrika Dogra

3 years ago | 5 min read

College application season is about to begin for those aiming to apply for Fall 2022. It's about to get real and yes, it is scary. I think it's time to stop sugarcoating it. Writing a statement of purpose is by far the most daunting aspect of the college application process.

Although it is the most difficult part of the application, it is also the most important. Technical documents like your resume don’t offer the flexibility to talk about your personality or your experiences. The essay is the one place to do it.

But how do you get it right? I went through an entire year of research looking for the right programs at the right universities, getting the perfect GRE score, appearing for IELTS (and nailing it!) among other daunting things.

Writing those essays was the toughest yet the most enjoyable time of the year. There’s little information out there to guide students in writing the perfect essay. It seems impossible at first, but it doesn’t have to be.

One-for-all doesn’t work here

Most students apply to more than three schools when applying for undergrad or grad studies. They usually have similar curriculum yet the course codes, faculty, research projects or on-campus opportunities are different for all of them. Almost every school has its own unique set of highlights.

Then, there are the safety schools — the ones we call our Plan B. The story for each of those is also different. Some schools require an interview to be cleared, some don’t. Some are looking for candidates with a great GPA, while some want better co-curricular activities on your resume.

The idea is clear though — one size does NOT fit all. One SOP could be written to draw all the snippets from. Every school has its own set of questions. Copy & paste does not work well here. Whoever told you that you could just write ONE essay for all was lying. You inevitably have to customize your essays for each school.

You don’t need a thesaurus

The good ones tell you about this explicitly. University website guides also scream about this repeatedly yet, students often end up using big words in order to impress the recruiters. Sadly, most of the time these big words are misused and recruiters can easily tell the difference among students who know what they’re talking about and the ones that used a thesaurus.

The good news is, you don’t need it. All you need to do is to get your point across. Tell your story well. Use the right grammar. Ensure that all relevant points are covered under the essay. Stick to the point instead of beating around the bush. Be as direct as possible. Chances are that you would end up cutting out way too many of your experiences, anyway.

When you’re smart, you don’t need to sound it. Remember to share all that matters in plain English (or whatever language you’re writing in).

Negative experiences aren’t always bad

A lot of times, students hesitate to share the negative experiences. These could include getting into trouble in high school or even getting fired from a job. Yes, if you got fired because you weren’t doing a good job or did a blunder — don’t share that but if you got fired simply because the project was shut down or the company went bankrupt, there’s no shame in sharing that.

Negative experiences matter a lot as long as you made lemonade out of them. Recruiters on the other end understand that you’re human. They want to get to know you so as to decide if you’d be a good fit as a student.

It's simple — what happened to you is not important. What you made of it, is. Share the experiences of which you came out stronger. If you ever sent out a wrong email (like the HBO intern did) but learnt something from it, long as it's relevant to your field of study — feel free to share it.

It's not your auto-biography

Thankfully, these essay questions have a word limit attached to them. Yet, it's easy to make the mistake of writing an essay that sounds more like your daily diary. It's not your life’s story. It's a college essay, designed to convince recruiters that you’re the right fit for the university and deserve a chance to be considered. Treat it like an essay. Once you get selected, your recruiters, professors and classmates will have ample of time to get to know you.

Stay relevant and move on. Stick to the question. Read your essay over and over again with the question prompt to make sure that you’re mentioning the right things. Remember — admissions teams read thousands of such applications. Think of how you can make yours unique.

Keep the study program in mind

Keep in mind what your study program is going to be while writing your essay. I understand that major life events might have led to your decision of undertaking ‘X’ program at ‘Y’ university, but tiny details are much more important to you than they are to your recruiter.

Figure out an angle that’s related to your program directly — maybe a certain professor and their background can offer exactly what you want to learn from this program. An internship opportunity offered by the school could be the contributing factor to apply to a specific university. You could narrow it down to a particular job profile you want to work as after the program.

Even the university’s location could be an influential factor. Find angles like these that are directly related to your study program and your career. Add a personal angle to it by mentioning a role model of yours and the reason you would want to pursue a specific job role in ‘X’ company.

Tell the truth

This is by far the most important aspect of writing a personal statement. Since recruiters do this day in and day out and have done it for years, it's a cakewalk for them to identify students who write their own essays and differentiate them from the ones who outsource the writing.

Most schools now also include a video essay as a part of the application. Your speaking pattern, choice of jargon and body language gives away a lot in relation to your essay as well.

In fact, a personal interview might also be a part of your selection process — make sure you’re telling the truth on your essay as it is easy to make things up while writing but that won’t be possible when you deliver a live personal interview.

Telling the truth doesn’t mean confessing every single mistake you’ve ever made. All it means it to share your opinions and beliefs truthfully. If you are a suitable candidate for the school, your opinions won’t matter much however they might end up differentiating you from the rest of the applicants.

Start writing your college essays now because you’re gonna be editing them a million times before finalizing it to be uploaded on your dashboard. Get writing. Most importantly, don’t forget to edit.

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Shubhrika Dogra

Shubhrika Dogra is a published poetess, a digital marketer by profession and an artist at heart. She published her first free-verse poetry collection in April 2020 and has so far sold over 200 copies of her book. She tries to put herself in challenging situations as an avid traveler & carefree soul.


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