College Essay Tips

By the time you get around to writing your college essay, you have probably written at least a hundred other essays already---position papers and research projects in history, literary analyses in English---essays that were much longer and that took hours of researching or poring over the pages of a novel or the lines of a poem. They were challenging, all right.  But compared to writing a college essay, they may seem like a piece of cake.

In the first place, when you wrote those papers, you knew who your audience was: your teachers, for the most part; and you knew pretty well what they wanted to see in the paper: how long it should be, what topics were acceptable, how much research to do--and knowing all this made it easier to write. But the college essay is a whole different matter.

First of all, you don’t know who is going to read it. On top of that, you are writing about a completely different--and more complicated--topic: yourself. And then there’s the small fact that there’s more--much, much more--than just a grade riding on it: this essay may be the key to getting into the college you’ve been dreaming about for years. Put all this together and it’s like going on a blind date to get married!

Here are a few college essay tips on how to write a college essay that will stick in the mind of a college admissions reader.

A college admissions officer once pointed out to a group of college juniors that if he could easily fill his freshman class with students who had straight A’s, a string of AP classes and perfect scores on their SATs--and he wouldn’t have to leave his home state to do it. Like you, they know there is much, much more to you than your accomplishments--and this is what they are reading your essay to find.

Just think about all the students you know who have aced their classes and SATs and AP exams and have a foot-long list of achievements in clubs and athletics. Think about how different they are from each other.   Then ask yourself which of those people do you actually want to spend a lot of time with--and why? Now you are getting an idea of what it’s like for college admissions officers reading your essay. They already have lots of students who have met the minimum academic requirements. Now they are trying to figure out what you will be like as a member of their community--a classmate, a roommate, a friend.  Your job is to help them do this.

How to approach the essay:

Think of this as a piece of performance art, a verbal postcard or photograph. It should sound like you; it should present vivid impressions of you. If classmates read it without knowing who wrote it or even knowing about the events or positions it describes, they should be able to identify you as the writer because your personality--your voice--comes through so clearly and so authentically.

Write in the first person and be yourself. Tell a story about yourself. Describe an event that made you realize something about yourself or someone else, an event that changed you in some way.

How to get started:

Look for a story. The story doesn’t necessarily have to be about you--but it should definitely be about something that left a strong impression on you. Go through your journals, Facebook page, family scrapbooks and photographs--anywhere you can get a glimpse of yourself in action or call up memories of people, events, places, and the impressions they left on you.

Think of an event or idea that you have thought about more than once in the last six months: chances are it means something to you--and that writing about it will not only reveal something about you--it will reveal something to you.

Freewrite. Brainstorm. Mind map. Write down all your ideas. Take some for a test drive; see how much you have to say about them and how it feels to write about them.

Above all, give yourself plenty of time to write and revise and review your work. The inspiration that comes from a looming deadline can help sometimes----but this is not the time to put your fate in the hands of a muse. They are notoriously fickle.

Find or create an audience; use your audience.

When you write, you always have an audience--even when you are writing in a journal no one else will ever see, you have an audience in mind: yourself. And even when you don’t know who that audience is, you need to know what they expect and need from your writing. So the clearer you can be about what your audience expects, the more clearly you know what to say and how to say it.

So conjure up your ideal college admissions officer--someone who already likes what s/he knows about you and who is interested in getting to know you better--and pretend you are writing to her or him. Or try writing for the audience you already know: your friends and family, coaches, and teachers--people you like and respect and feel comfortable talking with--and who feel the same way about you.

How do you know when you are on the right track?

First, you are having fun as you write: if you find that you are excited or moved, you have probably found a good topic to write on. If your essay has no impact on you, it probably won’t have one on your audience.

Second, when you read you essay aloud to your “test audience”--family, friends, teachers--they enjoy listening to it and you enjoy reading it. Ask them what details they recall and what parts they most enjoyed, and use this feedback to continue revising and building your essay.

And remember that if you need or want  assistance writing your admissions essay, you can always hire an expert writing tutor to help ensure that your college essay communicates the unique ways in which you will contribute to the school community.

Following these college essay tips will likely help you make the impression you want on your target college.