How to Outline a College Admissions Essay
By the time high school graduation comes around students should have acquired a solid working understanding of the basic essay structure. Unfortunately, not all high school English departments are created equal, and some students may find the prospect of writing their college admissions essay more than a little daunting. But if we take some time to review the basic essay structure, and consider how to approach your admissions essay, you will be well on your way to a successful submission.
Sample of a Basic Template Structure
Before we delve to deeply into the process, let's review the basics. The standard essay format that you have been writing in high school, and will be expected to write in college, has a basic structure of five paragraphs. A standard essay consists of an introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs and a final paragraph presenting your conclusion. Obviously, you can have additional body paragraphs depending on the breadth of your argument, but the five paragraph essay is a working model best suited to our current purpose. It is through this simple essay structure that you will present, defend and conclude your argument in a neat and cohesive manner.
The typical introductory paragraph for any essay will present your thesis statement, which will clearly define the subject and purpose of your essay. For example, a simple thesis statement might be, “Switching to a paperless office model will not only save the company money, it will also reduce wastage and create a more efficient workspace while helping the environment.” As you begin your introductory paragraph you will want to approach your topic broadly, bring it into focus over the course of the paragraph and present the reader with your thesis. By the time the first paragraph is finished you should have introduced the reader to your subject, suggested your supporting points of discussion and interested them in your argument.
Formal Body Paragraphs
As you move on in your essay, you will want to dedicate a paragraph to each of the salient points you wish to make to support your thesis statement. Once again, the traditional model includes three paragraphs for developing your argument but this is not a hard and fast rule. As you progress in your essay writing while at college you will find much longer essay forms will be needed. The paragraphs making up the body of your essay should be ordered to reflect your supporting points as addressed in your initial thesis statement. Each paragraph should be supported with research and original ideas that defend you initial assertion.
When you are preparing the outline for your essay, you will want to briefly jot down the supporting points for each paragraph, and list examples or research points you want to include that will prove your original thesis statement. When you look over your outline, you should recognize the skeleton of your finished essay. Your outline will also allow you to see and address any holes in your argument, and to take note of any supportive points that are either too light or too heavy on information.
The final paragraph of your essay is where you will summarize your argument and present the reader with your ultimate conclusion. The standard format for an essay's conclusion is to restate the thesis, and then concisely demonstrate how your supporting points have proven your original assertion. It is important that the conclusion of your essay be strong and definitive. In the end, you want to present your reader with a coherent and concise essay that demonstrates your knowledge of the topic at hand, and your ability to reason and argue clearly and with precision.
Preparing for your college admissions essay may seem daunting at first. But with an understanding of an essay's basic structure, and a detailed outline, you will be able to present the college admissions board with a cohesive essay that will impress the judges and move your application at the top of the acceptance pile.
You’ve taken the tests, requested the recommendations, completed the common app, and now it’s finally time to refocus on what you’ve been putting off: the essay.
While most students spend days, sometimes weeks, perfecting their personal statements, admissions officers only spend about three to five minutes actually reading them, according to Jim Rawlins, director of admissions at the University of Oregon.
High school seniors are faced with the challenge of summarizing the last 17 years into 600 words, all while showcasing their “unique” personality against thousands of other candidates.
“It’s hard to find a balance between sounding professional and smart without using all of those long words,” says Lily Klass, a senior at Milford High School in Milford, Mass. “I’m having trouble reflect myself without sounding arrogant or rude or anything like that.”
The following tips will help applicants make the leap from ‘average’ to ‘accepted’:
1. Open with an anecdote.
Since the admissions officers only spend a brief amount of time reviewing stories, it’s pivotal that you engage them from the very beginning.
“Instead of trying to come up with gimmicky, catchy first lines, start by sharing a moment,” says Janine Robinson, writing coach and founder of Essay Hell. “These mini stories naturally grab the reader … it’s the best way to really involve them in the story.”
Let the moment you choose be revealing of your personality and character. Describe how it shaped who you are today and who you will be tomorrow.
2. Put yourself in the school’s position.
At the end of the day, colleges want to accept someone who is going to graduate, be successful in the world and have the university associated with that success. In your essay, it is vital that you present yourself as someone who loves to learn, can think critically and has a passion for things—anything.
“Colleges always say to show your intellectual vitality and curiosity,” Robinson says. “They want kids who are going to hit the ground running—zoom to class and straight out into the world. They want them hungry and self-aware.
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3. Stop trying so hard.
“One of the biggest mistakes students make is trying too hard to impress,” Robinson says. “Trust that it is those every day, specific subjects that are much more interesting to read about.”
Colleges are tired of reading about that time you had a come-from-behind- win in the state championship game or the time you built houses in Ecuador, according to Robinson. Get creative!
Furthermore, you’re writing doesn’t have to sound like Shakespeare. “These essays should read like smart, interesting 17-year-olds wrote them,” says Lacy Crawford, former independent college application counselor and author of Early Decision. “A sense of perspective and self-awareness is what’s interesting.
4. Ditch the thesaurus. Swap sophistication for self-awareness
There is a designated portion of the application section designated to show off your repertoire of words. Leave it there.
On the personal essay, write how you would speak. Using “SAT words” in your personal statement sounds unnatural and distances the reader from you.
“I think most students are torn between a pathway dividing a diary entry and a press release. It’s supposed to be marketing document of the self,” Crawford says.
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5. Write about what matters to you, not what matters to them
Crawford recommends students begin by answering the question, “if you had 10 minutes to talk to them in person, what would you say?” The admissions teams are looking for authenticity and quality of thinking.
“Theoretically, I think anything could be ‘the perfect topic, as long as you demonstrate how well you think, your logic and ability to hold readers’ attention,” Crawford says.
6. Read the success stories.
“The best advice is to read essays that have worked,” Robinson says. “You’ll be surprised to see that they’re not winning Pulitzers; they are pieces of someone. You want your story to be the one she doesn’t put down.”
Once you find a topic you like, sit down and write for an hour or so. It shouldn’t take longer than that. When you write from your heart, words should come easily.
Rawlins recommends showing the essay to a family member or friend and ask if it sounds like the student. “Take a few days and come back to it. But only do that once,” Rawlins says. “Reading it over and over again will only drive you nuts.”
7. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not.
While colleges tend to nod to disadvantaged students, roughing up your background won’t help your cause.
“It’s less about the topic and more about how you frame it and what you have to say about it, Robinson says. “The better essay is has the most interesting thing to say, regardless of a topic that involves a crisis or the mundane.”
The essays serve as a glimpse into how your mind works, how you view the world and provides perspective. If you have never had some earth shattering experience that rocked your world, don’t pretend you did. Your insights will be forced and disingenuous.
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8. Follow the instructions.
While the directions on the applications may sound generic, and even repetitive after applying to a variety of schools, Rawlins points out that every rhyme has a reason.
“They have to know that college put a lot of thought into the instructions we give them—so please follow them!” he says. “We’ve given a lot of thought to the words we use. We want what we ask for.”
9. Use this space to tell them what your application can’t.
Most colleges don’t have the time or bandwidth to research each individual applicant. They only know what you put in front of them. “If they don’t tell us something, we can’t connect the dots,” Rawlins says. “We’re just another person reading their material.”
Like Crawford, he recommends students imagining they are sitting next to him in his office and responding to the question, “What else do I need to know?” And their essays should reflect how they would respond.
At the end of the day, however, Rawlins wants students to know that the personal essay is just another piece of the larger puzzle. “They prescribe way too much importance to the essay,” Rawlins says. “It makes a massive difference—good or bad—to very few out there, so keep it in context.”
Paige Carlotti is a senior at Syracuse University.
admissions essay, college applications, Paige Carlotti, writing, VOICES FROM CAMPUS