Guide To Writing College Essays

Although Halloween usually marks the start of the holiday season for America’s retailers, if you are a Senior applying to college, the day signals the unofficial start of the college application season.

Regardless of your grades or test scores, you will likely struggle writing your personal statement, commonly known as “the college essay.” Here are six tips that will help you through this stressful, but essential part of the college application.

1. Follow directions. Make sure that you address the recommended topics and answer the questions asked. Also, heed word or page limits. Good writing does not necessarily mean lengthy writing. Rarely do four single-spaced pages impress very busy admissions officers who must make quick judgments of your candidacy. If you are using the Common Application, I recommend that your personal statement not exceed one and a half pages.

2. Use the appropriate format. When applying online, your essay will automatically be formatted to fit standard guidelines. However, if you decide not to send the application electronically, follow these guidelines:

  • Use single space.
  • Use Times New Roman in a 12-point font.
  • Make sure that each page has your name, high school and date of birth.
  • Print on only one side of the page.

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3. Start with a catchy first sentence. It is always a good idea to have a catchy first sentence. If it grabs the reader’s attention, he or she will be encouraged to read on. If you are experiencing writer’s block, skip this first sentence, and work on the rest of your essay. Explore your theme and brainstorm examples. Then, go back to the beginning and nail it.

4. Avoid clichés. Do you see commonly used phrases in your essay that you’ve heard frequently in casual conversation? If so, these are probably clichés. Clichés usually sneak in when you are trying to be descriptive. Sadly, clichés dilute your distinctive voice. For example, you may write: “it was raining cats and dogs.” Instead, you could share the same idea with the sentence: “heavy raindrops fell, blinding my view.” Rewrite overly-used statements in an original way so you can stand out.

5. Use the active voice. This is a challenge for all writers. As a matter of style, writing in an active voice energizes an essay. Avoid the passive voice. Word processing programs often provide assistance with converting passive sentences to the active tense.

6. Use your conclusion to recapture the main points of your essay. Your conclusion should leave a lasting statement that reminds the reader of your essay’s key points. Reiterate the main themes of your essay, but say it in a different way than you did before. Make sure that you do not bring up new ideas in your conclusion.

I hope these tips help you write a great college essay. As solid writing only comes with practice, I recommend that you invest time in your personal statement. To start, complete a first draft of your essay at least one month before the deadline. Then, take a break between revisions. A few days between each draft will allow you to think clearly and not be overwhelmed. Share copies with your friends, teachers and parents to get their feedback. With continual proofreading and editing, you’ll be able to see a fresh perspective.

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Unlike every other aspect of the application, you control your essay. Make sure that the glimpse you give the admission committee into your character, background, and writing ability is the very best possible. Here are seven tips to help you focus and make the most of your application essay.

In our experience, the main worry that applicants have is that their essay won’t stand out. This is a legitimate concern as you will likely compete with numerous applicants who have backgrounds similar to yours. Therefore, follow these tips to ensure that your essay shines in the competitive admissions process.

1. Analyze the prompt thoroughly

Take three minutes to think about the prompt. If needed, divide the prompt into phrases and look at each aspect. Why would the admissions officers ask this prompt? What do you think they want to know? How does that information relate to your ability to excel in college? Next, leave the prompt for a while and then return to it. Do you see something new? 

With so many other things in your schedule, this process can initially seem like a waste of time. However, it will save you a lot of time in the long run. If you later realize that you misread the prompt, you might need to start the writing process from scratch. 

2. Organize your writing

Like the first item, this isn’t something that should take a lot of time. This is another step that can initially seem completely skippable, but organizing your writing can save you considerable stress and frustration. A good writing plan can streamline or even eliminate the need to do any significant rewrites.

Brainstorm your anecdotes. Create a rough outline, including approximately how long each paragraph needs to be in order to complete the essay within the word count limits. Finally, figure out when you’re going to write. A paragraph a day? The whole thing next weekend? Creating a schedule, even if you need to modify it later, gets your brain in motion. 

3. Show instead of telling

When selecting anecdotes for your essay, pick vivid ones that you can tell succinctly. If a story would require 450 words of a 600 word essay, then you’re not going to have a lot of space to express self-reflection and analysis of the situation. Remember that the admissions officers are more interested in your perspective of what happened than the events themselves.

In addition, keep in mind that the admissions officers don’t know you personally, and that’s why they’re reading your essay. They want to get to know you, and the essay is your first introduction. Because of this, don’t tell them that you’re passionate about public service. Show them through strong examples. Help the admissions officers envision each example as if they’re experiencing the situation alongside you. 

4. Know your vocab

Your admissions essay should reflect command of college-level vocabulary. One of the most common mistakes that we see in essays is using advanced vocabulary almost correctly. Even among synonyms, there are shades of meaning. If you’re using a thesaurus, look online for examples of that word in action. Will it still fit into your sentence?

Avoid overdoing it. Advanced vocabulary should be the spice of the essay to give it flavor, so you’ll use plain language most of the time. Essays that are riddled with advanced vocabulary can seem pompous or even inadvertently comical to the reader. 

5. Write succinctly

Can you say what you need to say in fewer words? Can you substitute an advanced vocabulary word for a phrase? Writing concisely expresses to the admissions officers that can organize your thoughts and that you respect their time. 

6. Combine like ideas into more sophisticated sentence structures

The vast majority of the sentences in your essay should be compound, complex, or a combination of both (compound-complex sentences). Save simple sentences for instances when you need to create impact.

7. Seek qualified second opinions

You should absolutely ask others to take a look at your essay before you submit it. As we work on things, we become blind to mistakes that will be glaringly apparent to others. However, limit the number of people you ask to two or three. Asking too many people for feedback will only confuse you and result in a lower quality essay as you revise the essay according to each person’s advice. Therefore, look to individuals who have background and expertise in the college admissions process.

 

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