Dear QB: What makes a college essay stand out?

DearQBThe essay and short answer sections of the National College Match application offer several opportunities to showcase your life story, interests, and personality. You have a unique story to tell, and we want to hear it!

Our QuestCast answered your burning questions about the essay section. The panel featured the perspectives of admissions officers from Stanford and Pomona, two QuestBridge staff members, and a QuestBridge Scholar.

Today, we’re highlighting the three most popular questions to help you get started (or re-started!) on your essay. You can watch the full QuestCast here.

1. As a selective program or school, you get piles of attractive essays. When you’re choosing one candidate out of 10 competitive candidates, what are your deciding factors regarding the essay?

It’s important to remember that the essay is just one part of a holistic application process. Your answers are important because they help provide context that probably won’t exist in other parts of your application. However, essays are not compared side-by-side because no two students are the same.

In general, the panelists discussed that essays should be:

  • Well-written
  • Structured and formatted properly
  • Authentic and honest
  • Consistent in tone and style

2. Would it be better to write about a series of events or a single moment in my life?

Unfortunately, there will never be enough space to tell your complete life story. Instead, you should use a common thread to illustrate the main point you want readers and admissions officers to understand about yourself.

It’s also very important to stay focused on you throughout the essay. Although other people (family members, friends, teachers, etc.) may have played key roles in your story, make sure that you are the main character.

Before you put pen to paper, take a moment to reflect on these things:

  • When readers finish your essay, what is the one thing you want them to remember about you?
  • What moment(s) in your life help reflect that that one thing?
  • Is there a theme that can tie all the moments together?

3. For the short answers about favorite books and movies, are you expecting our academic favorite or what we actually like? Would it hurt our chances if we list our favorite book is Harry Potter?

Harry Potter fans rejoice! If Harry Potter is what you enjoy, then that is what you should list. This is an opportunity to showcase your personality. Don’t feel tempted to list what you think the readers and admissions officers “want” to see listed. Don’t write about Aristotle unless you are truly an Aristotle enthusiast. And, if you are an Aristotle fan, it is likely that this interest area will shine through in other parts of your application.

What admissions officers truly want to see listed are the books and movies that are influential to you. Unusual or atypical books or movies will help shed light on your interests and personality.

As Pomona Admissions Officer Ashley Pallie said in the QuestCast, “I’m a goofy person so I like to find my kindred spirits in applications as well. So if your [list] is a little goofy or interesting in some way … there will be some of us who meet you there.”

Looking for more essay writing resources? Check out our helpful writing tips with detailed information about crafting the perfect essay.