10 Tips on Writing US Essays

It is not a Mr Universe or Ms World Pageant

Many applicants misconstrue that the essay is where you “showcase” yourself – flex your muscle, strut, impress and astound. Truth – it isn’t. Surprise!

Hence essays should never be used to impress. I am not serious right? I am.

The essay is where you have an opportunity to give a context to how the rest of the application can be read – in your own words.


This is not the Man-Booker Prize Award

Many again believe that the essay is the be-all and end-all of admissions. Follow up to the prior point – the US application is incredibly extensive, with a whole load of information: from results, curriculum, extra-curriculars to recs. The essay is one part of all these and allows you to provide some personal context for the admissions officers to contemplate your application.

People will tell you, or books will say, that these are the essays that will get you into XYZ schools. Little truth in that. You have read the essays of people admitted to XYZ school – but you have not read the rest of the app, which usually constitutes more than 80% of the reading material an AO has to review for one applicant. Some applicants, despite fairly ‘normal/lacklustre’ essays, are still admitted in spite of it all. Why? Because the essays are just one component and the rest might just be so astronomically impressive.


You remember those short answers?

Some schools ask short questions and applicants attack them as if the fate of humanity rested on them. But some of these questions were meant to be fun. Some believe it is a litmus test to see how seriously you take things – like how you spend a free day! Save the world! (We do not all live in the world of the Walking Dead you know)


Hence do not over-do and over-think the questions

A parent once protested to me that her child’s essay was ‘not-serious-enough’ because it sounded like something an 18-20 year old might write. Seriously? She asked: which school would want to admit someone who was so interested in watching independent films rather than wax lyrical about intellectual stuff.

I think sometimes adult forget how you go to college at 18, not 42 or 53. Not everyone would write like Chaucer (heaven forbid) or philosophize like Descartes.


Not like Chaucer

Have you read Chaucer? He is great (I lie, I did not like him)! But you need not write like him, or in iambic pentameter, or without punctuation. (I bet you do not know who this writer is.)

In admission essays, we are not looking for great vocab, complex sentence structures. We really want to hear your voice, so we might know you a little better as a human being, as an individual. Have you ever seen someone with over-styled hair and go – oh lord that does not look natural! Yes, the same can be said about your essay. And we do not want people to focus too much on our hair right? It is about us.

Just write in a way that is comfortable to you. Where I can ‘hear’ you.

Hence write the essays yourself.


Witch Snack


Precisely. An essay isn’t about grabbing attention.

I went in and had a chat with the two ladies manning the shop. I went away feeling that they thought it was the ‘wich’ in sandwich.

It was in Morocco, so I suggested to them maybe they could change it to “Sandwitch Snack’. Hur hur.

Yes – it got my attention. But no – I did not eat anything there.

You get my point?

Because all they served was just ordinary fare, at the end of it, that didn’t really impress me. First impressions only go so far.

Maybe next time.

Yes – maybe next time I will finish the rest of the remaining 10 things (if you have not noticed). Because my Eurorail train has entered a tunnel and I feel an incredible urge to play Kingdom Rush on my iPad.

Till then. (Also, at 683 words, which increases as I type this out, I have overshot the commonapp word limit.)

Kevin Sim

Resident Counselor at Raffles Institution. Part-time traveler. Writes nonsense sometimes. Hunts coffeeshops.

View All Posts