8 Steps to a Powerful Application Essay

by | Mar 30, 2022 | Admissions

How to Write a Powerful University Application Essay: A Guide for African Students

Writing a college application essay can be an arduous task!

If you are planning to study abroad, there is a high chance that you will be required to write a number of essays to support your application. As an African student, you might wonder why you have to write anything at all. Aren’t your grades enough proof of your competence?

While they are indeed a critical part of your application to study abroad, academic grades alone do not say much about you as a person. By looking at your transcripts, the admission officers cannot tell what your ambitions are, what motivates you, or what you have done to make your community a better place.

This is where application essays come in. They help the admissions officers understand who you are and how suited you are to their school. Essays also illustrate how well a student  can communicate–a skill that is highly esteemed in most Western universities.

Additionally, essays are crucial in differentiating students who may have similar achievements in academics and extracurriculars. For instance, the Common Application essay, also known as the personal statement, gives students a chance to reflect on and show how an event in their lives has proved crucial to their growth.

Now that you know the importance of university application essays, the next question is how can you prepare the most powerful college application essay that will boost your chances of getting that coveted admission letter?

We’ve put together eight simple steps to help you write your best application essay.

Step 1: Read and Understand the Prompt 

The first mistake students make when it comes to writing essays for their applications is rushing through the prompt. This means that they do not understand it well and hence end up writing an essay that is completely unrelated to the prompt.

Before anything else, make sure you read the prompt several times to understand exactly what is being asked. Responding to a question that has not been asked shows the admission officers that you are someone who is careless and doesn’t bother to follow instructions. This reflects poorly on your overall application and may lead to a rejection.

Universities ask a wide range of essay questions. As an example, most students who are applying to American universities at the undergraduate level are required to write a 650-word essay on one of the following topics:

  • Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  • Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  • Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  • Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

The essay you produce in response to one of these prompts is known as the Common App essay or the personal statement. Besides this main essay, some colleges also ask for several, often shorter, essays that are called supplemental essays. These give you the opportunity to elaborate on your extracurricular activities, your hobbies, and your intellectual interests.

Below are a few examples of supplemental essay prompts:

As you work through your applications, you will realize that some colleges will have similar prompts for the supplemental essays. For instance, it is quite common for many colleges to ask students to elaborate on one of their extracurricular activities. In these instances, you are welcome to repurpose such an essay for different colleges.

Step 2: Brainstorm Different Ideas

Once you have read and thoroughly understood the essay prompt, the next step is to jot a few different ideas down. A big mistake you can make is jumping directly into writing before you weigh a few different ideas. If you do this, you may find that the idea that you initially thought was compelling is not all that great.

There are several ways of conducting a brainstorming session effectively. Below are a few examples:

  • Asking questions – Get pen and paper and ask yourself some basic questions about the topic you want to write about. For instance, if your essay is about extracurricular activities, some questions to ask yourself would be: When did I begin doing this activity? How much time do I spend doing it? What are the biggest challenges I have faced so far? What have I accomplished?
  • Noting down some specifics – Concrete details are important in anchoring your piece of writing. If, for example, you are writing on your intellectual interests, note down some specific books or ideas that you like. These will come in handy when you start drafting.
  • Floating your ideas to other people – Do not underestimate the power of discussing your ideas with other people. Mention what you’re planning to write about to a peer or a friend and see how they react. Discussing your ideas with someone else can be a source of insight and inspiration.

Once you have conducted your brainstorming, you now need to pick one idea and write about it. The most important thing to keep in mind is that the best idea is what is most authentic to yourself.

Do not pick an idea that you simply think is what is expected from you. For instance, many African students often write about the struggles they faced in their pursuit of education. While there is nothing wrong with that, do not simply write about it because you think it is what the admission officers want to hear. Write something genuine that you actually care about.

Step 3: Create an Outline

An outline is a structure that your essay will follow. You can think of the outline as a map that will guide you as you arrange the ideas you have on the page so that they make logical sense. An outline is useful because it saves you time when you are writing and helps you avoid repetition.

What goes into an outline? This really depends on the nature and length of the essay that you are writing. In general, longer essays such as personal statements should have these core elements:

  • Introduction – A good university application essay must have a clear introduction. This is usually the first paragraph where you give the reader a clear idea of what you are going to talk about in the rest of your essay.
  • Exposition – In this part, which usually follows the introduction, you take time to elaborate and give context to your writing. So, for example if you are writing about your intellectual interests, this is the part where you give the details of how and where those interests began.
  • Rising action – Your essay is just like a story– it needs to show some movement. In this part, you focus on building a conflict. You show the reader something in which there were high stakes. For example, if you are writing a story about the time you were a member of the school choir, this is the part where you talk about how anxious you felt as the choir prepared for its first performance in a national competition.
  • Climax – This is an important part of your essay structure where you resolve the conflict that you have raised in the previous paragraphs. For instance, if your story is about the national competition you took part in, this is the part where you show how tough the competition was and how you finally emerged among the winners.
  • Falling action – This part comes after the climax and here, you begin winding down on your story. This is the part where you emphasize the lessons or growth that you have experienced through the story you are telling.
  • Conclusion – This is the final part of your story. Here, you need to focus on the key takeaways from the experience you have shared and how it is going to continue playing a role in your life.

As you create your outline, think of all these five components and what specific details you are going to put in them.

Step 4: Create a Strong Hook 

A hook is a literary device that draws in the reader and encourages them to keep reading your work. Now, plenty of different things can form great hooks. One of the most common ways to create a hook is to use an anecdote – that is, a memorable story. For example, if you are writing an essay about your love for boxing, you could begin with a story of how witnessing a match between two professional boxers made you feel.

Another common tactic used in creating strong hooks is focusing on the granular sensory details. Begin with a particular moment and what you saw, felt, smelled, or heard. If you properly immerse the reader in these details, he/she will most likely want to know what is coming next.

To get an idea of what a hook is, look at these examples below from some of the best written works.

  • Some years ago, John Yarbrough was working patrol for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. It was about two in the morning. He and his partner were in the Willowbrook section of South Central Los Angeles, and they pulled over a sports car… 
  • In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me… 
  • The collie wakes me up about three times a night, summoning me from a great distance as I row my boat through a dim, complicated dream.

As you can see from the examples above, the reader is given a clear incentive to keep reading. In the first example (from an essay by Malcom Gladwell), the author begins with an anecdote of two police officers pulling over a car. Naturally, you want to know what happens next. This is the essence of using a hook.

In the second example, the reader is similarly incentivized to find out what made the author become so hated. The hook here comes from the unconventional nature of the claim that the author makes.

In the final example, the author relies on granular details to draw the reader into the story. While you are not required to produce a literary masterpiece for your university application essay, you are still expected to show some level of creativity and innovation in how you present your story and this is why you need to create a strong hook.

Step 5: Be Concise and Specific

A powerful university application essay needs to have specific details and clear examples. In other words, you need to show, not tell. Telling the admissions committee that you are good at mathematics is unlikely to persuade them of your prowess in that subject. But if you show them that you are good at math by mentioning the number of Olympiads you have attended and the medals you have won, they’re more likely to see your point.

An essay that lacks clear details and examples is going to undermine your application. Before you begin working on your essay, take time to jot down the examples that you are going to use to illustrate your key points.

Besides providing specific examples in your essay, make sure you avoid cliches. If you are wondering what cliches are, here are some common examples: “It was raining cats and dogs,” “at the speed of light,” “as red as a rose,” “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” etc.

While there is nothing technically wrong with these phrases, they have been used so much over the years that they have lost their originality. To see examples of concise and cliche-free writing, check out our essay example below.

Step 6: Be Introspective

Admission officers are not looking for a story that serves as mere entertainment. Instead, they want to see you reflecting deeply about your experiences. They want to see a sense of critical thinking – your essay needs to portray you as someone who is capable of reflecting on an experience, drawing lessons from it, and becoming a better person.

If you have read Aesop’s fables, you probably know that all of them have a moral lesson of some sort. As you plan for your college application essay, your goal should be similar – let there be a lesson of some sort in the story that you are going to tell. If you realize that your story did not contribute to your growth, then you should probably not be writing it in the first place.

Step 7: Get Someone to Proofread Your College Application Essay

Once you have finished working on your draft, the next step is to get someone else to proofread it. This is important because the last thing you want is to submit your essay with careless grammar and spelling errors.

While it is important to have someone proofread your essay, ensure that your work is not excessively edited or reworked by someone other than you. Admission officers can usually tell when your writing is not genuine– and this can only work against your chances of getting admitted to the college of your choice.

Step 8: Know What to Avoid

As you prepare to work on your university application essays, there are certain topics and modes of writing that you need to avoid. Below are some common ones that you should aim to avoid in your writing:

  • Avoid making your essay about other people – Remember whether you are writing a personal statement or a supplementary essay, the focus should always be on you. This is not an essay about your parents, siblings, or friends.
  • Avoid talking about experiences that depict you in a negative way– Avoid talking about experiences such as using drugs or breaking the law, particularly if you are not using them to show what life lesson you learned or how you managed to overcome them.
  • Avoid excessive colloquial language – While you may want to show off your mastery of your local street lingo, the college application essay is not the best place to do so. College application essays are formal by nature and you should try to keep the writing formal.
  • Avoid exaggerating and lying about your achievements – Some students think that it is a bright idea to lie about what they have achieved in their college applications. They think that colleges will not be able to verify these claims. But you should never lie about what you have achieved no matter how meager you think your real achievements are. Some people have paid a heavy price for doing just this–some have been stripped of their credentials long after they have graduated from college and others have had their admissions revoked.
  • Avoid excessively technical language – There are students who think that if they use all the obscure terminologies they know, the admissions committee will perceive them as especially intelligent. This is not true.
  • Avoid typos and grammatical errors – Needless to say, grammar errors and numerous typos portray you as a careless person who does not pay attention. Before you submit your essay, make sure that you review your work carefully to eliminate all grammar and spelling mistakes.

College admission essays are a core part of your application. As we have mentioned above, they help admissions officers to understand you beyond your academic accomplishments and test your ability to communicate well. Essays also give you an excellent opportunity to explain something that may not be immediately obvious through your recommendation letters and academic transcripts.

As such, you need to take the college essay writing process seriously. For the best results, follow the steps we have outlined here and take a look at our essay templates for further guidance.


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