By the time you're putting the applications together, you may not have much control over your test scores, grades, and teacher recommendations. However, the essay is your blank slate to show the admissions officers why they should want you at their school.
Here are some pointers I've developed over the years to help students shine on this part of the application:
1. Remember that this is an essay about you.
Whether the application asks about a defining moment in your life, or for page 237 of your autobiography, or for a nutritional analysis of your favorite breakfast cereal, the goal is the same. They want to learn about you as a person. What would you like to tell them besides your grades and test scores? What may your teachers not have thought (or known) to include in their recommendation letters? Use this as a chance to show -- not tell -- them who you are and what you have to offer.
2. Be conscious of your reader.
All writing is addressed to an audience and written for a purpose. You just thought about your purpose as you read #1 above. Who is your audience? You're writing to one or more college admissions officers who will spend many long days and nights reading application after application. At the most competitive schools, the vast majority of applicants are turned away. Therefore, you don't want to blend into the crowd. You want to stand out. Hit your reader with an attention-grabbing first sentence, one which will make her want to keep reading.
3. Capture a moment; paint a picture.
Since you need to show, and not just tell, the admissions officer something about you, it helps to put her in your shoes. Let your reader see herself at that point in your life, or between the lines of your autobiography, or there at the breakfast table eating Corn Flakes with you. Then, use these images to support the points you'd like to make. How did this experience help to shape the person you are -- and the person you'd like to become by attending your dream school?
4. Don't be afraid to get personal.
When it comes to college admissions, few topics are off-limits. Admissions officers read many essays every year about how sitting in the front row in biology class and paying close attention enabled a student to get the most out of his education. Delve deeper. Write about your emotions, your innermost thoughts, things most people don't know about you. Be honest and authentic; let your reader see the real you.
5. Leave an impression.
Essays that the admissions officer is still thinking about while he's cooking dinner are the ones that beat the competition. Keep this in mind throughout the essay, but pay particular attention to your last few sentences. After sifting through dozens of applications, they start to all look the same. Give the reader something by which to remember you at the end of the day.