Tried and True: 3 Evergreen and Tangible Tips for a Compelling College Essay

By Maxine Seya

I can’t stop seeing headlines that scream “OMG, Covid has upended college admissions forever!”

Once you read 6 similar news headlines, you start thinking college admissions has really changed forever.

And in some ways, it has.

No test scores means more time for other activities — or more room for uncertainty.

No extracurricular competitions means teacher recommendations matter more than big accolades.

No campus tours means we’ve had to get a lot more imaginative, more resourceful, and more patient with yet another virtual event.

But pandemic or not, some things don’t change.

The steps to writing a well-crafted college essay haven’t changed since Covid.

Nor has the value of compelling essays in getting into college.

Admissions officers at selective colleges are reviewing more applications than ever before, so you can’t put them to sleep reading your essay.

We want your application evaluator’s heart rate to go up, eyes to well up, jaw to drop — and run to their coworker yelling “stop everything and read this applicant’s essay now!”

The good news is that we know timeless strategies that contribute to a memorable and punchy essay.

Make an analogy that no one has ever heard before.

High school writers know about similes and metaphors. The better high school writers are familiar with the typical analogies: “she slept like a baby,” “his face was white as a sheet,” or “he danced like no one was watching.” But imagine reading 10,000 essays that all have some variation of these commonly-used analogies. Boring, right? So the tip here is not to “avoid clichés” — which is a cliché itself — but to make an analogy that no one else has heard before.

When people make surprising analogies in their stories, they surprise the reader. Surprise is emotional. Emotions lead to bodily changes like sweaty palms, heightened heart rate, and furrowed eyebrows. Changes to the body make a reader’s experience memorable.

Analogies can be as short or simple as surprising similes: “my dad’s face looked as white as the teeth I wish I had, before my coffee addiction started” instead of “his face looked as white as a sheet.”

Or they can be bigger allegories to historical figures or events, for example, likening one’s experience to that of a fictional superhero.

Here’s what happened when an admissions director at Lynn University read a surprising analogy to Clark Kent in a college application:

“The analogy that he came up with was just remarkable. He described how when he was in high school, his freshman year and sophomore year, he was more of a Clark Kent, more of an introvert, shy, who’d just go through the process, who’d do what he had to do and wouldn’t go above the extra mile. Then something clicked with him towards the end of his sophomore year and he mentioned how he became Superman. He founded a club and organization, he became the captain of the baseball team, he was voted homecoming king. He described his evolution from Clark Kent to Superman and I will always remember that essay to this day.”

Go beyond being “unique” and be relatable.

This one goes against common advice. High schoolers are constantly being told by everybody and their moms that they need to “stand out,” “be unique,” or “be different.”

But when it comes to college essays, being relatable to the reader can make it a compelling experience for him or her.

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Maxine Seya
Maxine Seya is a former investigative journalist, college consultant, and admissions interviewer. She studied at Peking University (Beijing, China) and Université Paul-Valéry (Montpellier, France) and investigated for CNN and Huffington Post before graduating from Northwestern University. She founded SocratesPost to share the human stories behind the admission gates and offer parents clarity as they help their teens with college.