How to Make Your College Essay Stand Out | Tips & Examples
While admissions officers are interested in hearing about your experiences, they’re also interested in how you present them. An exceptionally written essay will stand out from the crowd, meaning that admissions officers will spend more time reading it.
To write a standout essay, you can use literary devices to pull the reader in and catch their attention. Literary devices often complement each other and can be woven together to craft an original, vivid, and creative personal essay. However, don’t overdo it; focus on using just a few devices well, rather than trying to use as many as possible.
This article gives an in-depth introduction to which literary devices are the most effective in college admissions essays. You can also check out our college essay examples for further inspiration.
Essay structure devices
You can frame your essay with symbolism or extended metaphors, which both work well in a montage or narrative essay structure.
Symbolism is the use of tangible objects to represent ideas. In your college essay, you can use one major symbol that represents your essay’s theme. Throughout your essay, you can also intentionally place related minor symbols to communicate ideas without explicitly stating them. The key is to use original, meaningful symbols that are not cliché.
For example, if your essay’s theme is “family,” your symbol could be a well-worn beloved Lord of the Rings Monopoly game set. Rather than directly saying, “The Lord of the Rings Monopoly game has brought my family happiness,” share stories with this game to demonstrate your family’s closeness, joy, and loyalty.
In the example below, a student depicts “The Monster,” an imaginary symbolic figure that represents the student’s jealousy.
A metaphor directly compares two unrelated objects, giving deeper meaning and multi-dimensional imagery. Since metaphors create a new reality between two objects, use them sparingly throughout your essay to avoid overwhelming the reader with too many comparisons.
You can also use an extended metaphor, which builds upon a simple metaphor throughout the essay with other literary devices and more in-depth descriptions.
To brainstorm your extended metaphor, you should first identify feelings or values associated with your story and then brainstorm images associated with these feelings.
Keep the following in mind when crafting your extended metaphor:
- Keep the comparison simple.
- Use a few other literary devices such as imagery or anecdotes to enrich your extended metaphor.
- Avoid making cliché comparisons.
- Don’t exaggerate or make an unrealistic comparison.
In the example below, a student uses the extended metaphor of a museum to explore the theme of identity. Each anecdote is framed as an “exhibit” that tells us something about her life.
In the next example, a student uses the river as an extended metaphor for his educational journey. The different parts of the river’s course represent different challenges he has overcome.
Here are the most effective literary devices to enrich your storytelling in college essays.
Into the midst of things, in medias res
In medias res, Latin for “into the midst of things,” is a device that involves starting in the middle of the action. Then, important details are added to fill in the story. Similar to the beginning of an action or thriller movie, in medias res immediately drops the reader into a scene, allowing them to discern the story through sensory imagery.
Unlike a linear chronological narrative, flashbacks can be used to transport your reader from the present moment to a key past event to give a clearer understanding of your current personality, values, and goals.
Dialogue is a conversation between two or more people. Using dialogue in your essay can sometimes create suspense, transport readers into a scene, or highlight an important message. However, it should be used sparingly and strategically to avoid an anti-climatic or redundant moment.
Famous quotes should be avoided since they are overused, but using quotes from important people in your life can be original, personal, and powerful. But make sure the quote adds value to your essay.
You can use both figurative and literal imagery throughout your essay to paint a clearer, richer image in your reader’s mind.
Similes, like metaphors, compare two unrelated objects but use the words “as” or “like.”
In a metaphor, the two objects are considered the same, but in a simile, the word “like” or “as” creates some distance between the objects.
Illustrate your five senses with descriptive language to help your readers quickly imagine your story in a vivid, visceral way. Sensory language also helps to convey your interest and knowledge of a topic.
Personification uses human characteristics and behaviors to describe inanimate objects, animals, or ideas. This can help show your emotional connection to something in an original and poetic way.
Here are a few tone devices to help improve your essay’s authenticity and voice.
While most slang is too informal for college essays, regional colloquialisms can sometimes improve your essay’s authenticity when used strategically, enhancing your ability to connect with admissions officers and adding a memorable element.
However, you should ensure that they don’t seem shoehorned in or otherwise affect the flow, clarity, or professionalism of your essay. If applying to schools outside your region of origin (or if you’re applying as an international student), be sure the colloquialism is one that will be widely understood.
Hyperbole is dramatic exaggeration to express the intensity of your feelings about something. Use hyperbole sparingly to ensure the greatest impact and avoid sounding overly dramatic. Make sure to be original, avoiding overused comparisons.
Sentence-level devices are useful for dramatic effect or to highlight a point. But use them sparingly to avoid sounding robotic, redundant, or awkward.
To have the greatest impact, use these devices against the backdrop of varying sentence structures and at a critical or vulnerable moment in your essay, especially during reflection.
|Alliteration||The repetition of the first or middle consonants in two or more words throughout a sentence.||As I kept refreshing my inbox, I waited with anticipation, anxiety, and agitation.|
|Anaphora||The repetition of a specific word or phrase at the start of different clauses or sentences to highlight a particular feeling or concept.||Why did my little brother always get the attention? Why did my parents always allow him, and not me, to break curfew?|
|Asyndeton||The intentional omission of conjunctions to achieve faster flow.||I faked left, and the goalie took the bait. I spun right, I kicked, I scored!|
|Polysyndeton||The deliberate use of additional conjunctions to slow down the pace.||I was wet and hungry and exhausted.|
Frequently asked questions about college application essays
- What are the components of a great college admissions essay?
A standout college essay has several key ingredients:
- A unique, personally meaningful topic
- A memorable introduction with vivid imagery or an intriguing hook
- Specific stories and language that show instead of telling
- Vulnerability that’s authentic but not aimed at soliciting sympathy
- Clear writing in an appropriate style and tone
- A conclusion that offers deep insight or a creative ending
- Why is it so important to have a standout college essay?
Your college essay accounts for about 25% of your application’s weight. It may be the deciding factor in whether you’re accepted, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurricular track records.
- How important is writing style in a college essay?
Though admissions officers are interested in hearing your story, they’re also interested in how you tell it. An exceptionally written essay will differentiate you from other applicants, meaning that admissions officers will spend more time reading it.
You can use literary devices to catch your reader’s attention and enrich your storytelling; however, focus on using just a few devices well, rather than trying to use as many as possible.
- Can I use humor in my application essay?
You can use humor in a college essay, but carefully consider its purpose and use it wisely. An effective use of humor involves unexpected, keen observations of the everyday, or speaks to a deeper theme. Humor shouldn’t be the main focus of the essay, but rather a tool to improve your storytelling.
Get a second opinion from a teacher, counselor, or essay coach on whether your essay’s humor is appropriate.
- Can I swear in a college essay?
Avoid swearing in a college essay, since admissions officers’ opinions of profanity will vary. In some cases, it might be okay to use a vulgar word, such as in dialogue or quotes that make an important point in your essay. However, it’s safest to try to make the same point without swearing.
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