Feb 10

College Essay -- Tips

(Photo credit: YWP Photo Library, photo by semacdonald, Sheldon, VT)

One of the most frightening things to write is the College Essay. How in the world can I write a compelling essay that will get me into college? A couple of things to keep in mind:
  • This is a part of your overall application. It's not the be-all and end-all; don't put a lot of pressure on yourself.
  • Be real -- don't make stuff up.
  • Within the essay, or perhaps even at the beginning , tell an anecdote, something that shows something about you -- your values, your growth, your humor, your personality.
  • Don't worry about it. Be you.
Hah, you say. Easy for you to say!

Well, yes, no, maybe. We've been there. And we've talked to a lot of experts -- people who read these essays. And here are some highlights of their advice:
  1. Brainstorm: Give yourself time and space to consider what you want to write about. Look over the Common App questions and decide which one or two would be best for you.
  2. Make a list of everything you've done well, and things you've learned from. Think of pivotal moments in your life. What comes to mind with the specific questions in the Common App? Consider which ones you should hang on to and which ones you should toss. Toss freely. Hint: Choose what interests you the most.
  3. Begin. This is the hardest part becauae you never feel like you've got enough. But you do. Just write.
  4. To prevent panic, imagine you are writing this essay for one person you trust, someone who doesn't judge you. Don't think about the unknown college admissions reader. 
  5. Write several drafts and then ask that trusted mentor or a teacher or adviser to read the essay and give you some specific reaction.
  6. Give yourself time between drafts; your brain will keep thinking about it and have faith that when the time comes to do the final edits, you're mind will see all sorts of places to cut or enhance.
  7. Tips for the Final Edit:
    1. Voice. Does your voice come through in the writing? Does it sound like how you talk? Avoid a stilted, stuffy, knowing (basically, boring) tone -- you know, the kind of thing you "think" admissions officers would want to hear from you. No, actually, they want to get a sense of YOU. A fresh voice -- in any writing -- is the best voice.
    2. Avoid humor writing, or cracking a few jokes. Not to say that your essay can't have humor, but you also don't want to come across as not taking it seriously.
    3. Does it show some reflection and understanding, that is, do you come across as confident and self-aware?
    4. Write clearly and with purpose. Choose your words carefully -- each word counts in this efficient writing exercise. Avoid the passive voice -- use active verbs and language. 
    5. Avoid repetition.
    6. Answer the question. But don't repeat the prompt. Jump right into the story with no preamble.
    7. Check for spelling and grammatical errors.. Ask your eagle-eyed mentor or teacher to help.
    8. Avoid cliches. You know what they are. Scrap them, no matter how much you like the sound of them.
  8. And if your eyes haven't glazed over yet, click here for some "unofficial tips" that we liked from a Harvard student named Dan Milaschewski, who says of himself, "I am a shmuck. But I am a shmuck here for you."
  9. And we have some other tips for "personal essays" here if you want some additional ideas.