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The Only Four College Essay Writing Tips You’ll Ever Need

Each year, about half of our applicants submit their application in the last few days before the deadline. Even our ED early birds seem to know how to procrastinate. So as our November 1 ED deadline approaches, I thought I’d write to you, future applicants everywhere, and give you four easy tips for a great college essay. Here we go!

1. It’s time to be a little self-centered: Despite the often bad rap, I find seniors in high school have a hard time being self-centered when it comes to writing their college essays. Often your instinct is to write about something else – an experience, another person, a favorite activity – rather than your personality, passions, or quirks. This makes sense; your writing experience up until this point has consisted of essays on books you’ve read or concepts you’ve learned. But now we need you to look inward. Fight the urge to focus on your athletic practice schedule, the grandparent you admire, or the community service experience from last summer. You may use these people or experiences as launching pads to discuss yourself, but that is all they should be. What kind of teammate are you? Is grandpa the reason you’ve always got a harmonica in your purse? Did the service trip spark a deep interest in a specific social issue that now drives your academic study? These are better areas of focus than the sport, grandparent, or trip themselves.

2. It’s all about detail: As I see it, you have two options when exploring a topic in your college essay: go broad or go deep. Let me give an example: in writing about your budding interest in art history, you could write that you’ve always loved visiting museums, and how your art history course in high school solidified the interest. Then you could list your favorite artists. That’s going broad. OR, you could geek out about Edward Hopper. You could write about his lonely, minimalist paintings and how they make you feel, and you could tell the reader that you’ve always admired his talent for telling a whole story with only a few seemingly unimportant characters. You could write about your own storytelling and how it is inspired by Hopper. That’s going deep. One is better than the other (I’ll give you a hint: it’s the second one). By focusing on details, you set yourself apart; many people love museums and could list some artists that they like. Not many have taken the time to geek out about Edward Hopper on paper.

3. Write how you speak: If your friends, family members, and teachers would describe you as silly, outgoing, and uninhibited, why would you submit a collection of essays all written in a formal, subdued tone? (The same goes for you, introverts: if you’re quieter in person, write a quieter essay! Thoughtfulness, introspection, and an unassuming tone make for great college essays too!) Many college essay writers choose to tell me outright that their personality is this way or that way. Telling me that your friends would describe you as silly and outgoing is, unfortunately, not enough. As the admissions officer reading your application, I need proof – in the form of a written tone that matches your spoken one. As I read through your essays, I am crafting an image in my head of the person who will arrive on our campus in the fall if admitted. Your job is to arm me with examples of who this person is. Do this through not just in what you say but how you say it.

4. Show your essay to two people, and no more: Often the worst thing that can happen to a college essay is editing. Of course editing is important (spell check people), but when you have many different people giving you feedback, you often lose your voice in all the changes. You’re hidden behind perfect grammar, sterile language, and phrases thrown in because “it’s what admissions officers want to hear.” Let me demystify something for you: I hate the things you write because “it’s what admissions officers want to hear.” They’re boring. And forced. And misguided. Sometimes you need to disregard the conventions of English essay writing to make sure your tone and style are prominent. Then show your essays to two people – one who is a strong writer, and one who knows you really well (they can tell you if your essay is genuinely YOU). After that, I beg of you, stop.

There you have it! Follow these four guidelines and I guarantee you’ll have the essays of a stellar college application. You’ll also have more fun throughout the writing process and feel satisfied with your essays because they will represent your true self. And that’s quite an accomplishment among all the stress and pressure of the college application process. Go you!

Do’s & Don’ts of Writing a College Admission Essay

After three years of high school, you would probably be glad to never write an essay again. If you plan on going to college, however, you should know that essay writing is one of the more important things you need to get out of your high school experience. Simply put, you can’t get through college without it.

If you are wondering how to get into college, you should know that the college essay is one of the most important parts of your application. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but it’s not all bad news. College admissions essays and personal statements give you the chance to tell your story. The decision the admissions office must make is about more than just your grades and your extracurricular activities. They want to know about your interests, your values, and your character. They have to decide whether you are a good fit for their school and its community.

You must have other things on your mind besides your essay with college on the horizon. We have inside information to help you with those matters, too. You could be working on your college application checklist, wonder how to apply for fafsa, or when college applications are due. Or you may be nervous about your last year of high school—which is why we offer advice for high school seniors: keep your head up!

So, for now, how do you create a college application essay, personal essay, common app essay, or whatever you need to write to get in? These tips will get you most of the way there—you’ll just have to come up with the exact words.

How do you write a college admission essay?

Just get started

The hardest part is the first part. Starting early is key to writing a college essay, so you should get started the summer before your senior year.

Worry about the college essay length and word limit later. If you can get your essay finished during this summer, you’ll have plenty of time to adjust it or rewrite it, as well as to get started on other essays, as well. Plus you’ll be in a position to apply for early decision deadlines by the winter, which is always a good idea.

Find an idea wherever you can

Application essays tend to be a source of hesitation more than inspiration. Most colleges, as well as the Common Application, will have the topics for their essays available online.

Look them up, and then start looking anywhere and everywhere for ideas. You can also look forward for college essay examples online, just to get you started. It’s always good to pull ideas from your own experiences. Think about what you’ve accomplished and what you feel defines you.

Think about parts of your background that have shaped your life. Ultimately, every application essay you write will be about you, as it should be the easiest thing to write about, and it will give admission officers an idea of who you are.

If you’re stumped, don’t be afraid to ask for help. You can start will the closest sources, like friends and family, and don’t forget about your teachers, either. If you’ve written essays for them before, they’ll know your strengths and weaknesses and can steer you towards essay topics they know will work for you.

Make a plan

It may be tempting to dive in and write, like pulling off a bandage. The smarter move, however, is to strategize. Be sure you have a main idea you want to get across and that it’s present throughout the essay.

What is the point of your story; what one thing do you want to make sure the reader gets from the piece? So, how long is a college essay? Most college admission or application essays are required to be pretty short, anywhere from 200 to 900 words. You want to make the best use of that limited number of words, so you should map out what you want your essay to look like in some form. That may be a traditional outline, or it may be just a matter of breaking the essay into pieces and working on it one section at a time.

U.S. News & World Report says, “If students are having a hard time getting started, they should focus on their opening sentence … an essay’s opening sentence, or hook, should grab the reader’s attention.” You should also plan to write multiple drafts. Going with your instincts is good, especially because you are the subject of the essay, but you owe it to yourself to evaluate your drafts and rewrite them, even if it’s just to prove to yourself the first round was best. Build time into your plan for that process.

What should be included in a college essay?

Answer the question

This sounds obvious, but it can be easy to forget. Because personal essays are about you, you may find yourself on a roll re-living your memories. Your personal reflections are the key to keeping the reader invested, but don’t let them carry you away.

Stay focused on the essay prompt—for example, a question about an experience outside the classroom that shaped who you are. Make what you write about what you learned from the experience, not the exact details or context of the story.

Remember, this is more of a written job interview than a first date in paragraph form.

The genuine article only

Everything is significant when it comes to telling your own story. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been or what you’ve seen, and this is not a time where a reader is judging your list of achievements.

The most crucial factor of your college admissions essay is that you’re writing about what’s truly important to you. Have confidence in your own choices—what music is special to you, the authors you most value, the activities you participate in.

Your enthusiasm for wood carving, slam poetry, Coen Brothers movies, or whatever, is what will jump off the page. You can’t make up that passion, and you shouldn’t try.

Word order means more than word choice

You need to check, double-check, sit for a while and check again to make sure your admissions essay is as polished as possible. Basic grammar is really, really, important; it won’t get you into a school on its own, but without it, you could cost yourself a spot.

Making sure you have the right punctuation in the right place and using active voice over passive is vital. That said, make sure your good grammar doesn’t keep the essay from sounding like you.

Don’t push to use fancier language or longer sentences than you normally would. Use the simplest word you need to get the point across—every time. Sell yourself as you really are, so that reading your writing and having a conversation with you both feel like meeting the same person.