Application Essay Composition Guide: Part III

(In order to keep things bite-sized, this application essay composition guide will be in three parts! This is part three.)

image by Bill Waterson {link to}

After you have gained an understanding of the function of the application essay (see part I) and considered how you should or shouldn’t approach the prompt and topic selection (see part II), you are ready to begin drafting a superb essay! It would be futile to deny that drafting is often the most difficult bit of the writing process. You may have some ideas, but how do you start to put them to paper? How do you control your language and find your own voice? Let’s demystify essay drafting step by step.

Brainstorming and Organizing

First of all, write down your potential topics or things like anecdotes and significant quotes (we will discuss quotes again later!) which you would like to include. You do not absolutely need to do your brainstorming on paper if you have a clear idea of what you want to write, but it can help you become more comfortable before starting the real draft. When brainstorming, try different techniques and formats. Application essays and academic essays are not the same, so the outlining method you used for book reports may not help you when devising the structure of your personal statement. What lets your ideas flow most freely: typing or handwriting, an outline or a word-map/web, writing in full sentences or jotting down a few words and phrases?

Once you have established which elements you want to use, try to group them by subject, if you haven’t already done so, and put them into the order in which you want to address them.

In the beginning

Next, you need to face that blank page and start crafting a draft. Beginnings are important, but remember, you can rewrite the paper as many times as you need to, so if you can’t think of a great opening line now, just start writing what you can and revise it later! Here is my number one tip for shaping an introduction:

  • Let your ideas flow and write a few paragraphs or a full draft before you try to solidify your introduction. After writing until you feel like you have expressed and explained your main idea, read what you have. Which sentence or passage most clearly articulates your idea? Start working with that as your introduction and use it as a thesis to ensure that you integrate your topic right away. My English teachers had me do this all the time. Most my introductions were originally buried three paragraphs into the essay because it took me that long to refine my idea!

    anatomy of a great opening image by The Hairpin {link to}

    anatomy of a great opening image by The Hairpin {link to}

The structure of your introduction is as important as its subject matter. Admission officers, because of the sheer number of essays they read, typically read them very quickly without necessarily giving them their full attention. If you can start your essay with an attention-seizing or intriguing line or two, they are more likely to give your essay due consideration. Here are some impressive ways to begin you essay:

  • Narrative or Story: If your topic centers around a story, or if you want to include an anecdote, begin with the story. Think of some of your favorite books; authors have several ways of starting stories, but the most common ones are starting with and introduction of the setting, characters, etc… , starting chronologically (“start at the very beginning, it’s a very good place to start”), or jumping into the action, starting with a bang, and then adding details once you have grabbed the reader’s attention.  For a good example of the last option, check out the first paragraph of the essay that got one student into six of the county’s most competitive schools.
  • Get on topic: Starting with your topic immediately can be the perfect way to make your metaphorical entrance into the reader’s mind. However, this doesn’t mean you can begin “My topic is…” or “I am writing about…” like you did in fourth grade. Instead, form a sentence that expresses your relationship with the topic or a theme you plan to incorporate. For example, I started my essay about how my crusades in baking reflected my taste for a challenge with the sentence “Try as I might, I have yet to master the art of macaron making.” With this sentence, I made it clear that my essay would be about pastry-making and how I strive to conquer the most complicated recipes.
  • Description: Are you writing about a place, person, or object that is significant to you? Try opening by describing it to give the reader a glimpse of what you see. For example, say you are writing about an old book you got from your grandmother as a family heirloom, you could begin, “Its spine has grown so weary from long years on many bookshelves that the once taunt and polished leather of the binding could now just as easily be a scrap of any old suede boot rather than the the wrappings of a book.”
  • Any questions?: Have you noticed how often I begin paragraphs with questions? Posing a question forces the reader to consider an answer, it is a grand psychological trick. Integrating questions into your essay engages the reader, but it also demonstrates your thought process and the workings of your mind, something very important to colleges everywhere. Let’s pretend, for example, you are writing about how you worked up the courage to do something you had never done before which taught you a lot about yourself, try starting “Just what made me do it?” The admissions officer will have to ask, “What made you do what?” and is bound to be intrigued.

Develop Your Ideas

The middle and end portions of your essay should expound upon the central idea from the first paragraph. Make sure that you stay focused on your topic and on yourself, because the admissions officer wants to learn about you through your topic not about your topic through you. Giving the reader a great account of the camping trip during which you learned how to canoe or a wonderful description of your love for button collecting isn’t going to convince him or her to admit you unless you also explain how such things are a part of who you are as a potential student.

Consider the connection between your subject and the positive trait you want to describe (see part II of the guide for more on this!) and treat that as the thesis which you need to prove and support throughout the essay. For example, if you hope to describe how raising goats proved your responsibility and attention to others’ needs, provide examples that demonstrate these things and explicitly state that raising goat has developed those traits. Try, for instance, “Though getting up at 6:30 every morning to feed Billy the goat and clean the cut on his ear from the time the cat attacked him may not have been what I wanted to do, I knew that it was what I needed to do to accept the responsibility of keeping and caring for my own pet.”


At this point, we must surrender to the word limit: there is not much room for a true conclusion. Most successful essays will continue developing the main ideas until the very end but then close with a brief restatement of the thesis idea—which should be reworded or reworked to include a new dimension—or, or perhaps additionally, looking ahead to further personal growth. Consider this conclusion from a John Hopkins applicant named Caroline (don’t mind the sloppy attribution, here is a link to her essay and several other examples. Jane Eyre fans, check out “The Red Room”; this girl’s parents even named her Brontë!):

To me, the Italian language holds an essential connection to my past, but also a constant goal for the future. It is likely that I will never fully master the vernacular and colloquialisms, yet learning this language will stimulate me intellectually and culturally for life. I believe I can claim Italian as mine now, but there is still so much more to learn. Italian is a gift that I will hold dear forever, and I am glad that I received it so early in life. -Caroline

Morsels of Writing Advice

  • Know your sentence structure: Why did you have to learn how to categorize subjects and predicates and divide sentences into dependent and independent clauses? That knowledge lets you control your writing while maintaining logical constructions. Here some basic structure variations that can enhance your writing:
  • Vary sentence type: As my high school art teacher said nearly everyday for the two years I had him, variation creates interest. Use more complex sentence structures to develop ideas, providing more information in additional clauses—I also like to set comments off with parenthesis or dashes to add a personal touch. Sometimes you will want to express a significant idea after some longer sentences of description and exposition leading up to it. Make important sentences short.
  • On another note, remember your transitions: Use transition words or phrases to guide the reader through your essay and make sure that the end of each paragraph flows into the beginning of the next.
  • Use a thesaurus, sometimes: If you find yourself repeating a word or feel that another word could yield more clarity to your statement, look it up in a thesaurus or on an online thesaurus. Swap some words, but know that admissions officers will not be impressed if you use jubilant instead of happy or platitudinous instead of boring just to sound more intelligent.
  • Avoid cliches like the plague: It may be as easy as pie to use cliches in writing because everybody is doing it, but just don’t.
  • It is okay to use “I” and “you”: You will almost need to use the pronoun “I” in your essay (I can’t think of how you would do without it). The trick is not to use “I” in every single sentence, because that will become monotonous. When using “you,” be careful of how you use it. In your essay, it will probably be best applied in phrases like “you may think” that address the reader politely and draw his or her thought without saying “you should admit me” or demanding anything.
  • Integrate questions:Use questions to engage the reader or depict your thought process.
  • Use quotes carefully: I love a good quote, but I hate a bad one. Good quotes will relate to you and your topic. Perhaps you wrote about your favorite book, then include a quote from it. Maybe one of your teachers had a motto which you have always admired, then include that motto. Be wary of trite motivational quotes which tend to kill any speech or essay. Either before or after your quote, give some context and an explanation of how it is connected to your topic.

Revision and Proof-reading ideas

  • Read aloud while revising: Reading a draft aloud exposes awkward constructions and forces you to pay closer attention to what you have written as you search for errors.
  • Let it simmer a bit: After you create a satisfactory draft, wait a few days and then review it again. Confusing ideas or rickety transitions may only be obvious after some time away from the draft.
  • Ask everyone to proof-read your essay: Once you are happy with your draft, ask your parents, friends, and teachers to read it too. They can look for errors you may have missed and give you their opinion on how accurately the essay reflects your personality.

Happy writing!

image by Paige Parker on Henry Harbor {link to}

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