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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Silbernagel

Two Tips to Make Your College Essay Memorable

Updated: Jul 18, 2020

many essay papers

Picture this...

You are a 28-year-old admissions rep for X college. It's 9 a.m. on a Thursday morning in December. You have a stack of 200 applications to read through by 5 pm. After four hours of reading, three cups of coffee, a bagel, and a bio break you are thinking...

If I have to read one more essay about teamwork, the value of helping others, or the importance of committing to goals, I might have to physically injure someone.

Why do so many kids insist on using the word 'plethora'?

These kids are trying too hard. Every story involves learning an important life lesson.

Now imagine doing that for five days a week for 3-5 months.

These well-intentioned students are writing what Park Muthe, former dean of admission at the University of Virginia, calls the McEssay.

The McEssay is your typical 5-paragraph essay that consists mainly of abstractions and unsupported generalization. They are technically correct. They are organized, have correct grammar and spelling, but they are sort of boring. Sort of a like Big Mac. Muthe writes, "I have nothing against Big Macs, but the ones I eat in Charlottesville are not going to differ from the ones I eat in Paris, Peoria, or Palm Springs. I am not going to rave about the quality of a particular Big Mac, and the same can be said about the generic essay."

If an essay starts, ”I have been a member of the soccer team, and it has taught me leadership, perseverance, and hard work,” I can almost recite the rest of the essay without reading it. Each of the three middle paragraphs will give a bit of support to an abstraction, and the final paragraph will restate what has already been said. A McEssay isn’t wrong, but it’s not going to be a positive factor in an admission decision. It will not allow a student to stand out. Parke Muth, consultant: Essays, Education Lottery, and Books

So how can a student make their essay stand out? Do they need to have an impressive topic? Thankfully, no. An essay will stand out and be memorable, not because of the topic, but because of its voice and because it is written with a level of specificity and detail that no other student could have written it.

Tip 1 - Find Your Voice

Your essay should sound like you. Let’s say you were going to write an essay about how you struggled but prevailed in chemistry. Here are two different versions of a first paragraph:

Version 1

“Throughout our lives, we are often forced to confront challenges. Oftentimes, we

are able to learn the most valuable lessons from challenges that we successfully

overcome. I found this to be the case when I chose to enroll in AP chemistry my

junior year. In spite of my best efforts, I consistently struggled with chemistry (my

natural strengths are in English and history). But I persevered, and I’m very

thankful that I did, as I successfully completed the course and proved to myself that I

can finish what I start.”

Version 2

“In the middle of my junior year, chemistry and I were having irreconcilable

differences. The divorce was going to get ugly. Really ugly. I don’t know why, but

no matter how many days I spent after school while my teacher, Mr. Chapman,

patiently tried to help me, I just couldn’t get it. In fact, after finishing the class,

pretty much the only thing I’m sure about when it comes to chemistry is that I could

never be a chemist. Believe me, that’s good news for the scientific community.

This is the biggest difference between college essays and the academic essays you

write in your high school English classes. Academic essays are formal—your opinion

and personality shouldn’t be in them. But college essays should sound like you.

To keep from being too formal, ask yourself,

  • “Is this something I would actually say to someone else?”

To keep from being too informal, ask,

  • “How would I say this if I were describing it to my favorite teacher?”

Tip 2 - Own Your Story

“Owning your story” means that a story is yours—one that nobody else can tell. The way to take ownership of a story is to inject as much detail as possible so that

nobody else could tell quite the same story.

Check out these two examples:

Without detail:

“I was extremely nervous before the orchestra started playing. However, I knew that

this was an important performance and that I needed to play well. I took a deep

breath, relaxed, and did my best to concentrate.”

With detail:

“I was sitting there on the stage with my violin resting on my shoulder, and I was

sure I’d never been that nervous. I looked out into the crowd of 200 people and

somehow, I found my dad. He was holding his video camera, the same camera

that’s been in our family since I was ten. My dad loves recording everything I do

with that video camera. It’s the same camera he used to record my first home run in

little league and my entrance onstage in my first school play. Now, as I was about to

play as the first chair violinist in my community orchestra, there was my dad, once

again, with our family video camera ready to go. Something about seeing him there

just made me feel more relaxed and comfortable. I knew I was going to be OK. My

dad gave me a quick thumbs-up and mouthed the words, ‘Good luck.’ As the

conductor raised his wand, I smiled at my dad, nodded back at him, and started to


Ask yourself,

  • Could somebody else be telling this same story? If you put this in a pile of 5 other essays and asked a friend to read them all, could they figure out which one was yours?

If you can’t come up with enough details to take ownership of a story, it’s probably not a good story to share in a college essay.


Need help finding the right story to tell in your essay? I can help. Please reach out for essay brainstorming and topic selection support.


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Source: McMullin, Kevin. (2011) Storyfinders. Collegewise.


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