College Essay Writing Tips

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College Essay Writing Tips

I meet with a lot of students; those who struggle to make average grades to those whose grades exceed a 4.0 GPA. One thing is for certain, almost all of my students dread writing the main personal essay. There are a few eager students who look forward to it but, by and large almost all of them, no matter their writing skill (or grade in English) are surprised at how difficult this writing can be and the number of edits it can take to tell their story.

Steven Pinker of The Wall Street Journal author of an article titled, “When Being Too Smart Ruins Writing” discusses the assumption people make when presenting information to an audience. He calls it “the Curse of Knowledge: a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.”

Students working on their essays sometimes fall into this trap because they don’t write enough description into their story to allow a college admissions counselor the chance of knowing what they do about themselves and their story. They forget their audience knows only what their transcript and test scores say about them.

So why is essay writing hard for students? Because the main personal essay is just that: personal, and most teens find that intimidating. They often times tell me there really isn’t anything special about them and they struggle to see what makes them uniquely them. Also, the essay is a first person narrative; a story about an experience or something of importance to and about the student. This is generally not something students are comfortable with or even well versed in doing.

So, here are my tips for writing an essay and making it less of a chore.

Top 5 College Essay Writing Tips

1) Free write. Stream of consciousness if you will. When you have finished one thought start a new paragraph and write another thought. If you get interrupted in one thought because another popped into your mind, write about that and go back to the other later. Write in complete sentences but, don’t worry about turning what I call a “brain dump” into a polished paper. It isn’t time for that, yet. The most important part of this step is to get your content down.

2) Write your story like you’d speak it. Post a picture of your best friend above your computer screen and talk out loud, while typing your story. Don’t edit your words or thoughts just talk. The greatest storytellers are those who can weave words together and draw you in. That is what you want to do with your essay: draw the admissions counselor in with a strong opening sentence that sets a scene.

3) Forget the prescribed thesis + topic sentences + evidence + conclusion writing your English teacher wants and break some rules. Use first person “I” sentences. Start a sentence with ‘and,’ ‘but,’ or ‘so.’ Lose, wording like, ‘in addition,’ ‘however,’ ‘in conclusion, I believe.’ Avoid passive writing: “My dance routine was not liked by anyone” instead state: “No one liked my dance routine.” Write in a conversational tone; it makes for better reading and communicating your story.

4) Write in fits and spurts. You’re busy. You have piles of homework, extra-curricular activities and other things going on in your life so, it’s important to carve out dedicated time to the writing process. The best writing is often in 15-30 minute intervals. Write. Walk away. Do something else. Return. Write or edit some more. Walk away. Repeat.

5) Edit, edit, edit. And edit once more. Once you have your content, edit for tone, style, and grammar. Find one person to help you with this process, ideally someone who is knowledgeable in college admissions essay writing. Your parents may not be the best resources; while they know you and love you, their perspective and input on what you’re writing about can get in the way of you focusing on your voice. Similarly your English teacher may not be the best editor either (unless they are experienced with college admissions essays). They may rely too heavily on the formulaic style resulting in edits to your story making it sound like an expository paper rather than a first person narrative.

If you dedicate the time and dig deep identifying something important about you that an admissions officer needs to know, soon enough your essay will be in final format and you can check that off your college application list of things to do.





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