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College Application Essay Organization Tips

So you want your college essay to show admissions how amazing you are, but you don’t want to say, “Hey admissions—I’m amazing!”

Displaying your accomplishments without bravado is harder than most people think, especially in an assignment like the college application essay, which, when done well, can be a vehicle for highlighting some of your best assets and triumphs. Admissions truly wants to know what distinguishes you from the competition, but who wants to read 650 words of someone tooting his or her own horn? (Not me!) Talking about yourself requires a fine balance between humility and horn tooting.

Over the course of my 12 years of essay advising, I have worked with teenagers of all styles and comfort levels when it comes to presenting their talents and achievements. There are those who routinely undersell themselves (“Sure, I raised $10,000 for cancer research last year, but it’s not a big deal.”), and those would fill a sheet of paper long enough to reach the moon with the details of their every last exploit if you gave them the chance. (“I once decided not to kill a spider in the house and released it back into the wild instead, because I have so much respect for other living things.”) In between these extreme ends of the spectrum, fall the many students who feel moderately comfortable talking about themselves and their successes, but don’t know how to do it in a way that doesn’t feel braggy or self-important.

But it is absolutely possible to land in that sweet spot between overly humble and obnoxiously self-congratulatory. Here are some tips for displaying your landmark successes and defining these moments with grace and without the risk of leaving a sour taste in the mouth of an admissions officer.

Describe your actions and let your accomplishments speak for themselves. This is an offshoot of the classic “show—don’t tell” rule. Telling is boring. Showing engages. It reveals an understanding of the event or activity in question and can reveal thoughtful details about your involvement. Are you a Model United Nations champion? Describing the process of preparing for a tournament—your methodical preparation and bizarre-but-hilarious pre-competition rituals, for example—will allow admissions to grasp your level of investment in the activity, your sense of pride in your mastery of a subject, even your sense of humor. Revealing the process behind your passions can even show an admissions officer why you are so good at what you do. Admissions officers are insightful. They don’t need you tell them how to interpret your achievements. Describe your actions and let admissions infer their value.

Don’t list your activities. Instead, detail your motivations. Providing admissions with a list of your résumé’s greatest hits is a surefire way to sound like a self-impressed blowhard. Also: Zzzzzzzzz. These activity inventories are sure to appear elsewhere on your application (like in the Activities section of the Common or Coalition applications). What admissions will find truly impressive and interesting about your service initiative or your fundraiser or your gold medal at the math fair isn’t the fact of your accomplishment or participation, but rather the reasons behind your actions. Qualities like empathy, self-reflection, and determination don’t reveal themselves on your transcript, so show admissions your personality and humanity by shedding light on why you do what you do. Is there a reason you volunteering for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society instead of, say, Memorial Sloan Kettering? Why do you wake up at 4 a.m. to dive into a freezing cold pool every morning? What drives you, and how do you apply that motivation to your interests and goals? That is what admissions wants to know.

Be grateful. Do you feel lucky to have organized a book drive that has given underserved members of your community access to some of your favorite novels? Does debating the safety of long-term cell phone use on a Sunday afternoon make you nerdily giddy? How can you show admissions that you enjoy life, that you’re invested in your commitments, and that you think about how you have come to be in the place you’re in? Expressing gratitude is a surefire way to contextualize your standout moments and signal that you understand the importance, not just of your own actions, but of their relation to the bigger picture.

Related: 3 Big College Essay Taboos—and When to Break Them Anyway

Ultimately, no matter who you are and what you have done in the first 17 years of your life, representing yourself with confidence in the college essay is crucial. You don’t have to have a heavy hand with the self-praise (and probably shouldn’t), but this is the time to give yourself some credit and show admissions what you’re made of beyond your transcript, test scores, and activity lists. There is a balance to be found in the presentation of your finest qualities and most impressive triumphs. I know you can achieve it because—as admissions will soon find out through your own subtle cues—you’re pretty amazing.

Stacey Brook is a writer, admissions expert, and the founder and chief advisor of College Essay Advisors, an education company that offers online courses and in-person college essay advising to students around the world. Brook has over a decade’s worth of experience and teaches the Supplemental Essay Writing course at nytEducation: The School of The New York Times. She has helped more than 1,000 students build lifelong writing skills while crafting compelling and effective admissions essays.

Awesome application essays: how to organize an essay

Amy says: Once I decided on a topic, I wrote a first draft of my essay really fast. But when I asked my favorite teacher for editing help, he said he thought it was too scattered. I started freaking out. I didn't want to start over.

I calmed down when he suggested that I focus on one story in the essay, and make that into the whole thing. Instead of starting over, I focused on the details of that story and what it showed about me.

The thesis statement

Eventually, you want to be able to write a single sentence that sums up the main point of your argument. This is the thesis statement of your essay. You must state your thesis clearly and directly. It is the one most important sentence of your essay!

If you were to continue with our brainstorming example about studying law, you might end up with a thesis statement like this: "Although I grew up surrounded by family members on the police force, it was only after personal experiences with injustice that I realized I had a deep interest in the law." Of course, that is only one possible thesis. You may discover that it's easier to think of essay topics than you expect, and harder to settle on a single argument and thesis.

The introduction

Once you have written a possible thesis sentence, write a couple of sentences to introduce your topic more generally. For example, after the thesis statement above, you might go on to explain who in your family was a police officer, and how you felt about the law before the personal experiences mentioned.

Lots of people have a hard time writing an introduction. Sometimes it's hard to crystallize your thoughts about the essay as a whole before you've written it. If it is taking you too long to write an introduction, skip it for now. You don't have to write your essay in the order people will read it!

The body of the essay

Remember those ideas you brainstormed and wrote down? Now that you've decided on an argument, take another look at them. Will they work to support your argument as examples, or as part of a narrative? In the case of our imaginary essay about studying law, several of them could work for this. These will be your paragraphs for the body of the essay.

In this case, you might have a paragraph about growing up in a family of police officers, and another paragraph about how "the law" used to feel like something abstract and solid, thanks to a love of Law & Order and similar shows. Then you could take several paragraphs to explain the injustice mentioned in the brainstorming list, and how it changed your interest and opinion of the law.

The conclusion

Conclusions can be just as hard to write as introductions. In most essays, conclusions should restate the main points of the body of the essay, and then explain why these points prove your thesis.

How would you conclude our example essay? You could write a paragraph acknowledging that you don't know what you want to do with a law degree specifically, but that you know that it opens many doors.

The editing process

Finally done writing a complete essay? Congratulations! You've earned a break, but don't waste your hard work by submitting your first draft. Show your essay to a trusted mentor, such as a teacher, family member or adult friend. Ask them to read it and give you whatever help they can. Ask for suggestions about the structure, the topic, the grammar, the spelling and the tone.

Take a break from the essay for a day or two, and then come back to it with fresh eyes. Read it from beginning to end, and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is my essay about?
  • Did I answer the question?
  • Does my sentence length vary?
  • Do I use transitions when needed?
  • What is the most memorable part of my essay?
  • What is the weakest part of my essay?
  • Is my writing clear?
  • Is every sentence crucial to the essay?
  • What does this essay say about me?
  • Could anyone else have written this essay?

With outside feedback and your own fresh reaction, you can begin revising your essay to improve it. College admissions staff members see thousands of essays every year, and they can tell when an essay has just been thrown together. Revising and rewriting really does make for a better essay, so make sure you keep working until you feel proud of what you've written!