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Here's Your Guide to Writing a Great 500-Word Essay

Ah, the good old 500-word essay. This essay, which colleges and universities often require for you to submit along with the rest of your application, is often considered a small but mighty contribution. 

Unlike your SAT/ACT scores, GPA, and transcript, the college admissions essay is one of the few pieces of your application where you have the opportunity to tell your story, what makes you tick, and show why you will be a great fit on campus. When reading your essay, college admissions officers generally search to answer the following three questions:

  1. Who is this person? What are they like? 
  2. Will this person positively contribute to our campus? 
  3. Can this person get across their ideas in a succinct, put-together manner?

Therefore, it is crucial to make sure that your essay checks off a few major boxes before you go and hit “submit”.

Your 500-word essay should…

1. Be an honest and accurate portrayal of yourself 

While there is certainly never an appropriate time to bend the truth, this is even more so the case when writing your admissions essay. The whole point of the essay is that it is supposed to show admissions officers the “true you”. Officers are looking for proof that you possess the qualities of a strong and qualified applicant (think: empathy, perseverance, creativity, etc), so be sure that whatever story you tell highlights your strengths! 

2. Have a concrete theme (though you don’t need to reinvent the wheel)

One common misconception about the college admissions essay is that you need to write about a HUGE time or event that completely altered your life and the entire universe. This is far from the truth! While your topic or story does not have to be about something so big, it should be something that is personally important to you. Regardless of the topic you choose to write about, you should be writing with a clear theme and message in mind that wraps your story together. 

3. Show, not tell 

If you are writing about a certain summer job you had and how it impacted you, the one thing you should AVOID doing is plainly stating what you did and the impact it had. Be specific in telling your story, and explain the significance of the job through the details. Your goal should be to write as if you are allowing the reader to physically be in the room with you, witnessing what you went through in those moments. If you feel that this is an area you may need help with, your English teacher can likely provide some extra tips and tricks! 

4. Be free of FLUFF 

Because the essay is generally limited to 500 words, every single word counts! This means that you must be extremely careful to ensure that you are only including words and sentences that are relevant to telling your story. This is where it is important to differentiate between information that is crucial for the admissions officer to know (so that they can fully understand your story) and information that might be helpful to know but will not “make or break” the overall message. 

5. Entice the reader from the very first sentence

Although it depends on the size of the school and how many applications are received, it is safe to say that admissions officers read A LOT of essays (think: hundreds, or even thousands!). Because of the sheer volume of essays they receive, it is your job to differentiate yourself as much as possible through your style and story from the very first sentence! Starting your essay with something along the lines of “Once upon a time…” or “Five years ago, my life changed forever” is probably not going to make you stand out. Get creative with your introduction to get your readers hooked!

6. Be free of cliches 

This one goes along with the fact that admissions officers read so many essays each season. You want to avoid making your essay sound predictable, and you certainly don’t want your admissions officer to roll their eyes at a play on words you made that is corny or overused. Since you are trying to prove to your readers that you are going to bring a fresh and new perspective and ideas to campus, make this evident through your style.

7. Be well planned, edited, and proofread

Imagine you sit down one Saturday and decide to tackle your college admissions essay. You spend the next few days thinking about ideas, planning, writing a draft, and then you submit it. What is wrong with this picture? The answer is a lack of editing and proofreading before submission! You may spend a sufficient amount of time brainstorming and planning your essay, but that won’t matter in the end if you submit an essay full of spelling or grammar mistakes. Therefore, it is important to make yourself a checklist before you get writing so that you don’t forget to spend an ample amount of time planning, editing, and proofreading your essay before you submit it. 

Now that we have covered the essentials of what your college admissions essay SHOULD include, let’s touch on a few important and common questions that students tend to ask

Does my essay have to be exactly 500 words?

The answer is, it depends! Some prompts might specify that your essay should be “at least” 500 words, while others may say something like “In 500 words, tell us a story about a time when…”. The general rule of thumb is that if the prompt says something like “at least” or “no more than” 500 words, be sure to adhere to those borders. However, if the prompt does not specify, then you should aim to be as close to 500 as possible, but don’t worry about hitting it exactly on the dot. 

What kind of tone does my essay need to have?

Students tend to get the idea that the 500-word essay must be the most professional-sounding and seriously written piece of work in their repertoire. This is not the case! While it should sound polished and it should definitely be edited and proofread, the tone of your essay can be whatever you feel like will get the message across the best. After all, you want admissions officers to hear your voice through your writing. 

How unique does my topic have to be?

While it would certainly be to your benefit to write about something that is unique to you, if nothing terribly unique comes to mind in your brainstorming, consider writing about a pivotal event or experience in your life, but doing so with a unique or uncommon approach. 

In conclusion… 

While the 500-word essay, or personal statement, may seem daunting, it certainly does not have to be if you save yourself an adequate amount of time to brainstorm, draft, write, edit and proofread before submitting. Ultimately, your essay should be 100% unique to you, and it should help admissions officers gain a better idea of what kind of person you are and what you bring to the table. Therefore, your essay should sound like it is written by YOU, and not by a robot or third source. Remember that while there is no “correct” structure, format, or tone that you must write your essay in, at the end of the day, it should tell a true and engaging story that shows your personality and who you are. Now that you have the tools and knowledge to write a killer 500-word essay, happy writing! 

(Bonus resource: If you are looking for some inspiration to get your creative juices flowing, check out these 26 Outstanding College Essays!)

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