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    7 Tips for a Better Application Essay

    The best essays present a unique perspective without grammatical errors.

    Aaron Basko

    You're working your way through your college application, entering the easy information—name, address, school, activities. All is going well, until you get near the end and see one word: essay. You swallow hard. You want to do your best. You want the application committee to "meet" the real you. But how in the world do you do that in a few hundred words?

    No doubt about it: The college essay has caused more than a few high school seniors to break into a sweat. And it does need to be written well; the essay is no place for careless mistakes and sloppiness. But there is also no need to panic. So take a deep breath, relax a little, and check out these practical and easy-to-follow tips for putting your best foot (and essay) forward.

    Pick the Right Topic

    A few colleges will ask you to answer very specific questions, but most offer you a choice of very broad topics, like "Describe an event which had an impact on you and why" or "Discuss an issue of local or national concern." Many leave the essay topic up to you by giving you this option: "An essay of your choice." You would think this would result in a wide variety of essay topics for admission officers to read. This is not usually the case. In fact, most students choose some variation of the same three or four essays. Although these popular topics are legitimate subjects to write about, they are so overused that they put your essay at a disadvantage. If you can stay away from a few topics, your essay will have a better chance of standing out from the crowd.

    Avoid what I call "The Big Game" essay—some form of story about an important sports event in which you win the championship or learn about the value of teamwork. Also stay clear of "The Person I Most Admire," and the ever popular "What I Learned from My Service/Mission Trip." Again, these are perfectly valid subjects to care about, but the topics are so common that it's very hard to present them in a memorable way.

    The best topics are those that no one else—or very few other students—could write about. Which of your experiences sets you apart from your friends? What is it that makes you unique? Those are the kinds of topics that will most likely grab and keep the attention of your essay reader.

    Many essay questions will ask you to look beyond yourself to issues that are important nationally or internationally. Instead of just reiterating a common argument on a hot political issue, choose something that relates to you personally. If your family emigrated from Europe a few generations back, think about how your life might be different if they had stayed. What type of church would you worship in? Would you have heard the gospel at all? Do you feel any connection when you hear news from that part of the world? The essay should offer a small window into your soul, your values and your outlook on life.

    While many students write about events in their circle of family and friends, and some tackle large national or international issues, very few make a connection with their local community. One of the best essays I ever read was from a student who lived in a tourist town on the coast of Maine. He talked about the benefits tourism had on the local economy, including the fact that it provided his own job. But then he surprised me by contrasting these benefits with the negative aspects tourism brought to the community. He would work there for a summer job, then move on to bigger things in his life, but the community would not move on. It would remain a minimum-wage, one-season town; it gave very little economic stability to its citizens and would eventually run down and maybe even wither away. He wondered how to change his community. He admitted he did not have a developed plan, but was looking for ways to affirm what was still good in his community and to better understand what had gone wrong. His essay was thoughtful and well written, and the local connection suggested an unusual level of engagement with his community and an insightful perspective.


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