How to make your college essay stand out

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

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.

Montage essay with a major symbol and minor symbols
Main symbol: A Lord of the Rings Monopoly set = “fellowship” and “family”

Supporting symbols:

  • Story 1: Chipped and mismatching collectible Gandalf the Grey coffee mugs surround the Monopoly board during a lazy weekend
  • Story 2: A folding card table supports our family’s mobile Monopoly game while the family plays at a campsite
  • Story 3: An extended edition LOTR box set plays in the background during Thanksgiving feasts with extended family. We have a Monopoly competition after dinner.
  • Story 4: Matching Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry Halloween outfits are proudly worn by me and my family members. We always play a game of Monopoly the afternoon before going out together to our town’s annual Halloween carnival.

In the example below, a student depicts “The Monster,” an imaginary symbolic figure that represents the student’s jealousy.

Narrative essay with a major symbol
Main symbol: “The Monster” = envy from comparing myself to others

Main idea: I have been on a quest to slay the Monster, the toxic envy that overtakes me when I compare myself to one of my friends.

Narrative: I remember first encountering the Monster in second grade when Laurel bobbed her hair. Everybody raved about how cute she looked. The Monster had plenty to say about how ugly, unpopular, and undesirable I was compared to Laurel. After that day, the Monster never seemed to leave my side.

The Monster followed me into middle school and high school, consuming more of my mind and heart, creating desperate feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness. However, with the help of a compassionate and insightful school counselor, I found the courage to confront this tormenting beast. Now, when the Monster comes knocking at the door, I don’t answer.

Extended metaphor

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.

Example of a simple metaphor
Baking is my home.

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.

Extended metaphor in a montage essay
My mind is a museum, with different sensory exhibits showcasing facets of my identity.

  • The Sight Exhibit: Flashback illustrating how racial discrimination led to my identity as a writer
  • The Sound Exhibit: Snapshots of musical memories, identity as a musical theater lover
  • The Smell Exhibit: Scents of my family’s Thanksgiving meal, identity as a daughter, granddaughter, and member of the Arimoto family
  • The Touch Exhibit: Feel of warm water washing away academic and extracurricular worries while washing dishes, identity as a level-headed honors student
  • The Taste Exhibit: Taste of salty sweat while bike training with a friend, identity as an athlete

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.

Extended metaphor in a narrative essay
My educational journey is a river. At times, it rushes forward into difficult-to-maneuver rapids that leave me overwhelmed and on edge. Other times, it approaches narrow passageways and blind bends that don’t allow me to see what lies beyond them. Sometimes, I’ve even unexpectedly flipped my kayak and had to struggle to find my way back in. Nevertheless, the beauty of the river is that no matter what happens along the way, I trust I’m moving in the right direction on a never ending journey of learning and self-improvement.

Storytelling devices

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.

Example of in medias res
Though my muscles scream for rest, my mind is focused on my breathing. The girl running beside me is also struggling to tackle a steep hill on a cross-country course. I can see the crest of the hill just beyond my reach. Coach always said to “pump the gas” right at the top of the hill to psych your opponent out. I do it, and it works.

Flashback

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.

Example of a flashback
As I step out of bed, the pain shoots through my foot and up my leg like it has done every morning since “the game.” That night, a defensive linebacker tackled me, his 212 pounds landing decidedly on my ankle. I heard the sound before I felt it. The next morning, I awoke to a new reality—one without football—announced by a stabbing sensation that would continue to haunt me every morning of this semester.

Dialogue

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.

Example of dialogue
“Don’t forget,” my mother whispered to me before closing her eyes for the last time. “No! Don’t go,” I gasped feebly, unable to hold back my tears. “She’s gone,” my father whispered, as he held my shoulders to give me a small sense of comfort in this madness.

Quotes

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.

Example of using quotes
Whenever I worried about my “macaroni” nose that didn’t match the noses of models in Teen Vogue, my mother would always say, “Well, at least you have a nose.” While her words at first seemed obvious and harsh, I found comfort in being thankful for having a basic thing一a nose一rather than focusing on comparing my nose to others’.

Imagery devices

You can use both figurative and literal imagery throughout your essay to paint a clearer, richer image in your reader’s mind.

Similes

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.

Example of simile
Playing guitar is like my own private island, a place where I can temporarily escape my trouble.

Five senses

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.

Example of five senses
The blades of grass gently poked my bare calves as I lay on the freshly mown lawn I had just cut. The sun’s rays chased away my goosebumps and comforted my soul on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Personification

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.

Example of personification
As I walked, the wind pushed violently past me as if I were blocking its path. The willow trees looked as if their 9-to-5 had taken a toll on their energy, while the sky seemed angry with its ominous gray clouds and distant thunder.

Tone devices

Here are a few tone devices to help improve your essay’s authenticity and voice.

Colloquialisms

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.

Example of regional colloquialism
Even though I was tired as all get-out, I managed to stay up all night to finish the assignment.

Hyperbole

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.

Example of hyperbole
I would run to France and back just to see Stromae in concert again.

Sentence-level devices

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.

Device Definition Example
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.

Is this article helpful?
Kirsten Courault

Kirsten studied political economy at U.C. Berkeley and has seven years of experience as a writer, editor, and English teacher. She cherishes helping students unearth their unique stories for college admissions essays.

1 comment

Kirsten Courault
Kirsten Courault (Scribbr Team)
October 25, 2021 at 3:11 PM

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