The essay is an opportunity for you to provide information about yourself that does not appear elsewhere in the application. Follow these steps and your essay will help you get admitted:
1. Write about YOU.
Colleges want to know about YOU. No matter what prompt they give you for the essay, the underlying question they are asking is "Who are you?" If, for example, the prompt asks you to name people -- living or dead -- whom you would like to go to dinner with and explain why you would choose them, or asks you to describe the profound influence that certain people have had on you, the admissions office really wants you to focus on the YOU part of the question. They don't want to know about the dinner guest or the one who has influenced you as much they do want to know about why you would choose that particular person, or what impact the person has had on your life. Similarly, if the prompt invites you to write about a world event or an historical figure, they seek to know the impact the event or the figure has had on YOU. Remember this as you write so that you do not get carried away and spend too much time on the event or the figure or the dinner guest. Write about YOU.
2. Separate yourself from the pack.
These days, selective colleges receive close to 20,000 applications, but can admit only a fraction of the candidates. If even 2,000 get in, that means that 18,000 good students get turned away. If your application merely blends in with all the others, your chances of getting admitted are not good. Your goal is to make the admissions office notice you -- not with some crazy gimmick -- but with a great essay that jumps out of the pile. There is something special about you -- there is. You may not be able to identify it right now, but if you think hard enough and review your accomplishments and views of the world, it will come to you. What makes you special may not be one single characteristic or talent or experience -- it may be a combination of characteristics or talents or experiences. If, for example, you play the sax, that may separate you a bit, but not as much as it would if you played the sax one special night with the Bruce Springsteen band. Or perhaps you get great grades -- that certainly does not separate you much in the competitive applicant pools these days. But if you are also a National Merit Scholar and an accomplished writer who has won a national writing contest and had your poetry published, then you are in a much smaller pool. It is not necessary to have high academic awards if, for example, you can cite some other major accomplishments -- say, all-star athlete in the state, or first violin in the local symphony, or newspaper intern at the hometown newspaper, or the like. You do not have to be a star as much as you have to be different -- separate yourself from the pack. And write about it in your essay.
3. Grab the reader's attention with a startling opening.
Here's the deal -- it's 2 a.m. and the admissions officer has just read about 150 application essays. He's ready to pass out from reading the same old stuff -- "I was the editor of the newspaper," "I was the captain of the cheerleading team," "I really learned a lot from band camp," and so on. Now he reaches out and takes your essay from the pile. What is the first sentence going to say? If it's anything like the others, you're sunk. You have failed to make a significant impression. You are just like the other 150 ho-hum writers. But if you say something that startles him, something that reaches out from the paper and grabs him by the throat, now you've got a very good chance to find yourself in the "admit" pile.