While test scores and GPAs speak to a student’s academic abilities, the application essay is the part of the application where a student’s personality can shine through.

The college essay is important when it comes to help setting an application apart from the pile, especially now with more and more schools eliminating mandatory test scores from their admission criteria. If you stay up-to-date on essay trends, you can craft yours to make the best possible impression with potential schools. Here are the latest trends to keep in mind.

Show, Don’t List

In the past, there’s been a lot of application focus on building a résumé of extracurricular activities. While being well-rounded and involved are still important, what colleges are looking to see in your essay is the impact one of these activities had on you. “For example, many students volunteer, but what you really want to provide is evidence of the impact it had on you,” says Daryl Hawkins, the former dean of students at Eastern University. Use your essay to talk about how something changed you or how you’ve applied what you learned from that activity in a bigger sense. The shift from valuing a list of activities to writing an essay that explains the value of a single activityallows a student to pursue something meaningful to them” and share their values with the admissions officer, says Hawkins.  

“They want you to come to college ready on Day One.”

– Erin Goodnow

Demonstrate Growth

Erin Goodnow, co-founder and CEO of Going Ivy, says that admissions officers rely on the essay to show the maturity level of a potential student. “With the growing popularity of gap years, many more colleges are asking for essays that allow you to explain how you’ve grown either in your traditional high school experience or through time away from school. They want you to come to college ready on Day One,” she says. Instead of focusing your essay solely on an important event from three years ago, shift the thrust of your essay to explain how this event has changed you, what you’ve learned and how you’ve applied those learnings to display your thoughtfulness and maturity.

Get Specific About the School

Many colleges are now heavily weighting demonstrated interest in their admission criteria and the essay is a prime place to demonstrate yours, according to Rachel White, a former assistant dean of admissions at Swarthmore College. “Mention the specific things that draw you to the school — professors and research, clubs, classes, majors or traditions,” she says. Admissions officers want to admit students who are genuinely excited about the school. While you can demonstrate that with campus visits and reaching out to the admissions office, the essay is the opportunity to showcase your interest as part of your application.

Submit a Graded Paper

Goodwin says that some schools are ditching the SAT® or ACT® essay requirement and “are starting to ask for a graded essay from high school.” This demonstrates your writing skills and shows what kind of work you can produce in an academic setting. “If a highly competitive college is on your dream school list, make sure you do a great job on that AP® English paper,” she recommends.

Application essay trends can fluctuate, but one thing that hasn’t changed is that the essay is still the main way a student can express their personality to admissions officers. If you write an essay that’s in your voice and is specific enough that it can only be written by you, you’ll have a winning essay, no matter the current trends.

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