When To Start Writing College Essays

Just recently, I sent out an email blast to the rising seniors with whom I work, urging them to begin working on college application essays NOW. If you are a rising senior (or a parent of one), I can imagine a few of you saying, "What! Aren't you being a little 'anal?' It's too early to do that."

"Au contraire," my friends. The reason to start working on essays now is that summer months are predictably less fraught with the academic, sports and other activities that fall semester usually brings. Summer, rather than later, is a good time to start because students have the time to:

  • Carefully think through how to answer essay questions
  • Brainstorm ideas
  • Write first drafts
  • And, do the all-important editing and re-editing

THE ROLE OF ESSAYS IN COLLEGE ADMISSIONS

To that point, I want to say a little bit about what role essays have in college admissions. While student grades and test scores are critical factors in admissions, application essays can be an even more important factor, especially for private, liberal arts colleges and the more selective universities. Like nothing else, essays give readers a sense for how students express themselves and especially how they are unique and different from other applicants. Essays help students stand out from the crowd.

And, much to the surprise of many applicants and even parents, writing good application essays takes time... a lot of time, and drafts and editing. This is because although writing can and often is fun, it is also challenging. As someone with five published books, and ongoing involvement with a number of blogs, I admit that sometimes I love writing and at other times I hate it.

Personally, I am always looking for that magic piece of advice another writer has that will get me through predictable writing blocks, and the students I work with have also repeatedly asked for advice on how to get started or continue. So, here is what different writers have shared with me about how to spend more time loving rather than hating writing. I hope you find this as useful as I have.

6 TERRIFIC PIECES OF ADVICE

1. Write as if you are talking to the reader.
I think that the best advice I have ever received about writing came as a result of attending a writing conference. A publishing executive said at the beginning of her talk, "To write easily and well, simply be yourself. Be natural; write as if you are talking to your reader on paper." As soon as I returned home from the conference, I started doing what she said and never looked back. You can do the same with your college application essays. Remember, the purpose of answering the application questions is to help the college admissions officers get to know you. What better way of doing that is there than to write as if you are talking to them?

2. Offer readers a story.
When I attend college admissions conferences, I almost always attend sessions on application essays, where college admissions officers talk about what they look for. Inevitably it is revealed that they love reading applicants' personal stories and anecdotes. Frankly, the stories can be about anything ranging from a conversation with a grandparent, to the best or worst day of your life, to a special talent or involvement or something that changed how you think. Stories help illustrate points that you may be trying to make to your readers and help show more about who you are as a person.

Every child in every family has stories about themselves. If you have trouble coming up with some, try having a brainstorming session with your parents at dinner some time.

3. Use the first person.
Many writers tell me that in order to write authentically, they had to unlearn a lot of what they were taught in school. Among their most important "unlearnings" was to limit using third person pronouns (he, she, they, it), and start using the first person, I. Because college admissions people want to hear about you, you need to write in your own, unique voice. And that means saying such things as, "I have loved numbers ever since I was a little kid. My mother tells me that at the grocery store, I would sit in the cart and add up the item prices she placed next to me to see if I could come up with the same amount as the cash register." This is a lot more personal and interesting than saying, "Some students have known that they were good with numbers since they were little kids."

4. Show, don't tell. Be specific, descriptive and offer plenty of details.
Skillful writers say that the key to alive, good writing is to "show, not tell." Rather than saying that you love animals, write something such as, "Whether a tiny, slithery salamander or a magnificent Arabian horse, I am simply nuts about animals. Since I was very young, I have spent a lot of my time rescuing, raising, caring for and loving them." Author Natalie Goldberg says, "...a writer's job is to make the ordinary come alive."

5. Avoid generalities, clichés and philosophical or psychological babble.
It is so easy to fall into writing something that ends up saying nothing or is trite. To not do that, keep in mind the following:

  • Generalities: Rather than saying, "I'm very hardworking," describe a situation that demonstrates how diligent you are. For example, "When it comes to special academic projects, I am the kind of person who both starts way in advance and at the end sometimes stays up all night to make sure that an assignment is the best that it can be."
  • Clichés: Rather than saying, "I like working with people and want to save the world," how about saying, "I joined the Diversity Club at school because I wanted to get to know students from different cultures, learn about their families, religion, traditions and even their food. I also wanted to find out how we are alike and unalike. I believe that when people really get to know one another, they have a better chance of getting along."
  • Psychobabble: Rather than saying, "I get really ADD when it comes to studying," say something such as "When I do homework in the evenings, I often find it difficult to concentrate, get easily distracted and don't seem to be able to focus." By the way, in case you didn't notice, the quote in the first paragraph about "being anal," is another example of Psychobabble.

6. Make sure that your essay is free of spelling, grammatical mistakes and improper use of words.
There are few things that negatively stick out more on college applications than errors. I cannot stress this enough! Grammar and punctuation errors are like a huge red flag on your application. Make sure that the final person to read your essay is a great proofreader, and ask them specifically to look for errors. Careless mistakes are one of the quickest routes to negatively impress application readers and may result in you're getting a rejection letter from a college.

College essays can reveal a lot about how you think and who you are, things that college admissions officers want to know. Students who take the time to pen original, thoughtful, well-written essays truly enhance their college admissions possibilities.

Next week I will show you how to write a captivating, one-of-a-kind application essay.

Follow Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/admissposs

You already know how to write an academic essay: you start with an introduction, throw in a thesis statement, find about three paragraphs’ worth of evidence, and wrap it all up with a tidy conclusion…

Now forget all that, because a successful college application essay is totally different.

Here's the thing: your college application essay needs to breathe life into your application. It should capture your genuine personality, explaining who you are beyond a series of grades, test scores, and after-school activities. But that’s not nearly as scary as it seems, because you get to choose what to share and how to share it.

Take a minute and think about the college or university admission officers who will be reading your essay. How will your essay convey your background and what makes you unique? If you had the opportunity to stand in front of an admission committee to share a significant story or important information about yourself, what would you say? The college application essay is your chance to share your personality, goals, influences, challenges, triumphs, life experiences, or lessons learned. Not to mention why you're a good fit for the college or university—and why it's a good fit for you. These are the stories behind the list of activities and leadership roles on your application.   

One of the most common struggles students encounter is resisting the urge to squeeze everything they’ve seen, done, and heard into their essay. But your application essay isn’t your life story in 650 words. Instead, pick one moment in time and focus on telling the story behind it.

Admission officers realize that writing doesn’t come easily to everyone, but with some time and planning, anyone can write a college application essay that stands out. One way to do that is to work step-by-step, piece-by-piece. The end result should be a carefully designed, insightful essay that makes you proud. Take advantage of being able to share something with an audience who knows nothing about you and is excited to learn what you have to offer. Brag. Write the story no one else can tell.

1. Get to know your prompt

Ease yourself into the essay-writing process. Take time to understand the question or prompt being asked.

The single most important part of your essay preparation may be simply making sure you truly understand the question or essay prompt. When you are finished writing, you need to make sure that your essay still adheres to the prompt.

College essay questions often suggest one or two main ideas or topics of focus. These can vary from personal to trivial, but all seek to challenge you and spark your creativity and insight.

  • Read the essay questions and/or prompts. Read them again. Then, read them one more time.
  • Take some time to think about what is being asked and let it really sink in before you let the ideas flow.
  • Before you can even start brainstorming, define what it is you’re trying to accomplish. Is this essay prompt asking you to inform? Defend? Support? Expand upon?
  • If it doesn’t already, relate the question back yourself by asking, “How does this—or how could this—apply to me?”
  • Avoid sorting through your existing English class essays to see if the topics fit the bill. These pieces rarely showcase who you are as an applicant.

2. Brainstorm

Get your creative juices flowing by brainstorming all the possible ideas you can think of to address your college essay question.

Believe it or not, the brainstorming stage may be more tedious than writing the actual application essay. The purpose is to flesh out all of your possible ideas so when you begin writing, you know and understand where you are going with the topic.

  • Reflect. You have years to draw from, so set aside time to mentally collect relevant experiences or events that serve as strong, specific examples. This is also time for self-reflection. “What are my strengths?” “How would my friends describe me?” “What sets me apart from other applicants?”
  • Write any and all ideas down. There’s no technique that works best, but you’ll be thankful when you are able to come back to ideas you otherwise might have forgotten.
  • Narrow down the options. Choose three concepts you think fit the college application essay prompt best and weigh the potential of each. Which idea can you develop further and not lose the reader? Which captures more of who you really are?
  • Choose your story to tell. From the thoughts you’ve narrowed down, pick one. You should have enough supporting details to rely on this as an excellent demonstration of your abilities, achievements, perseverance, or beliefs.

3. Create an outline

Map out what you’re going to write by making an outline.

Architects use a blue print. A webpage is comprised of code. Cooks rely on recipes. What do they have in common? They have a plan. The rules for writing a good essay are no different. After you brainstorm, you’ll know what you want to say, but you must decide how you’re going to say it. Create an outline that breaks down the essay into sections.

  • All good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Shape your story so that it has an introduction, body, and conclusion. Following this natural progression will make your essay coherent and easy to read.
  • Strategize. How are you going to open your essay? With an anecdote? A question? Dialogue? Use of humor? Try to identify what the tone of your essay is going to be based on your ideas.
  • Stick to your writing style and voice. It’s particularly important when writing a piece about yourself that you write naturally. Put the words in your own voice. By planning the layout of your essay ahead of time, you’ll avoid changing your writing style mid-story.

Related:College Application Essays: A Step-by-Step Example

4. Write the essay

Once you are satisfied with your essay in outline format, begin writing!

By now you know exactly what you will write about and how you want to tell the story. So hop on a computer and get to it. Try to just let yourself bang out a rough draft without going back to change anything. Then go back and revise, revise, revise. Before you know it, you will have told the story you outlined—and reached the necessary word count—and you will be happy you spent all that time preparing!

  • Keep your essay’s focus narrow and personal. Don’t lose your reader. Start with your main idea, and follow it from beginning to end.
  • Be specific. Avoid using clichéd, predictable, or generic phrases by developing your main idea with vivid and detailed facts, events, quotations, examples, and reasons.
  • Be yourself. Admission officers read plenty of application essays and know the difference between a student’s original story and a recycled academic essay, or—worse—a piece written by your mom or dad or even plagiarized. Bring something new to the table, not just what you think they want to hear. Use humor if appropriate.
  • Be concise. Don’t use 50 words if five will do. Try to only include the information that is absolutely necessary.

5. Proofread

The last step is editing and proofreading your finished essay.

You have worked so hard up until this point, and while you might be relieved, remember: your essay is only as good as your editing. A single grammatical error or typo could indicate carelessness—not a trait you want to convey to a college admission officer.

  • Give yourself some time. Let your essay sit for a while (at least an hour or two) before you proofread it. Approaching the essay with a fresh perspective gives your mind a chance to focus on the actual words, rather than seeing what you think you wrote.
  • Don’t rely solely on the computer spelling and grammar check. Computers cannot detect the context in which you are using words, so be sure to review carefully. Don’t abbreviate or use acronyms or slang. They might be fine in a text message, but not in your college essay.
  • Have another person (or several!) read your essay, whether it’s a teacher, guidance counselor, parent, or trusted friend. You know what you meant to say, but is it clear to someone else reading your work? Have these people review your application essay to make sure your message is on target and clear to any audience.
  • Read your essay backwards. This may sound a bit silly, but when reading in sequential order, your brain has a tendency to piece together missing information, or fill in the blanks, for you. Reading each sentence on its own and backwards can help you realize not only typos and mistakes in grammar, but that you may have forgotten an article here and there, such as “a” or “the.”
  • Read your essay out loud. This forces you to read each word individually and increases your chances of finding
  • a typo. Reading aloud will also help you ensure your punctuation is correct, and it’s often easier to hear awkward sentences than see them.
  • Check for consistency. Avoid switching back and forth from different tenses. Also, if you refer to a particular college in the essay, make sure it is the correct name and is consistent throughout the piece. You don’t want to reference two different schools in the same paper!

6. Tie up loose ends

Celebrate finishing what you started.

Writing the college essay takes time and effort, and you should feel accomplished. When you submit your essay, remember to include your name, contact information, and ID number if your college provided one, especially if you send it to a general admission e-mail account. Nothing is worse than trying to match an application essay with no name (or, worse, an e-mail address such as donutsarelife@domain.com) to a file. Make sure to keep copies of what you sent to which schools and when—and follow up on them! Be certain the college or university you are applying to received your essay. You don’t want all that hard work to go to waste!

Looking for more college application essay help? We have tons—tons—here, including lots of real-world examples!

P.S. What did you end up writing your college application essay about? We wanna know! Leave a comment or get in touch here.

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