Here’s a tip: Choose a topic you really want to write about. If the subject doesn’t matter to you, it won’t matter to the reader. Write about whatever keeps you up at night. That might be cars, or coffee. It might be your favorite book or the Pythagorean theorem. It might be why you don’t believe in evolution or how you think kale must have hired a PR firm to get people to eat it.
A good topic will be complex. In school, you were probably encouraged to write papers that took a side. That’s fine in academic work when you’re being asked to argue in support of a position, but in a personal essay, you want to express more nuanced thinking and explore your own clashing emotions. In an essay, conflict is good.
For example, “I love my mom. She’s my best friend. We share clothes and watch ‘The Real Housewives’ of three different cities together” does not make for a good essay. “I love my mom even though she makes me clean my room, hates my guinea pig and is crazy about disgusting food like kale” could lead somewhere
While the personal essay has to be personal, a reader can learn a lot about you from whatever you choose to focus on and how you describe it. One of my favorites from when I worked in admissions at Duke University started out, “My car and I are a lot alike.” The writer then described a car that smelled like wet dog and went from 0 to 60 in, well, it never quite got to 60.
Another guy wrote about making kimchi with his mom. They would go into the garage and talk, really talk: “Once my mom said to me in a thick Korean accent, ‘Every time you have sex, I want you to make sure and use a condo.’ I instantly burst into laughter and said, ‘Mom, that could get kind of expensive!’ ” A girl wrote about her feminist mother’s decision to get breast implants.
A car, kimchi, Mom’s upsizing — the writers used these objects as vehicles to get at what they had come to say. They allowed the writer to explore the real subject: This is who I am.
Don’t brag about your achievements. Instead, look at times you’ve struggled or, even better, failed. Failure is essayistic gold. Figure out what you’ve learned. Write about that. Be honest and say the hardest things you can. And remember those exhausted admissions officers sitting around a table in the winter. Jolt them out of their sugar coma and give them something to be excited about.
10 Things Students Should Avoid
REPEATING THE PROMPT Admissions officers know what’s on their applications. Don’t begin, “A time that I failed was when I tried to beat up my little brother and I realized he was bigger than me.” You can start right in: “As I pulled my arm back to throw a punch, it struck me: My brother had gotten big. Bigger than me.”
LEAVE WEBSTER’S OUT OF IT Unless you’re using a word like “prink” (primp) or “demotic” (popular) or “couloir” (deep gorge), you can assume your reader knows the definition of the words you’ve written. You’re better off not starting your essay with “According to Webster’s Dictionary . . . .”
THE EPIGRAPH Many essays start with a quote from another writer. When you have a limited amount of space, you don’t want to give precious real estate to someone else’s words.
YOU ARE THERE! When writing about past events, the present tense doesn’t allow for reflection. All you can do is tell the story. This happens, then this happens, then this happens. Some beginning writers think the present tense makes for more exciting reading. You’ll see this is a fallacy if you pay attention to how many suspenseful novels are written in past tense.
SOUND EFFECTSOuch! Thwack! Whiz! Whooooosh! Pow! Are you thinking of comic books? Certainly, good writing can benefit from a little onomatopoeia. Clunk is a good one. Or fizz. But once you start adding exclamation points, you’re wading into troubled waters. Do not start your essay with a bang!
ACTIVE BODY PARTS One way to make your reader giggle is to give body parts their own agency. When you write a line like “His hands threw up,” the reader might get a visual image of hands barfing. “My eyes fell to the floor.” Ick.
CLICHÉS THINK YOUR THOUGHTS FOR YOU Here’s one: There is nothing new under the sun. We steal phrases and ideas all the time. George Orwell’s advice: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
TO BE OR NOT TO BE Get rid of “to be” verbs. Replace “was” in “The essay was written by a student; it was amazing and delightful” and you’ll get: “The student’s essay amazed and delighted me.” We’ve moved from a static description to a sprightlier one and cut the word count almost in half.
WORD PACKAGES Some phrases — free gift, personal beliefs, final outcome, very unique — come in a package we don’t bother to unpack. They’re redundant.
RULES TO IGNORE In English class, you may have to follow a list of rules your teacher says are necessary for good grammar: Don’t use contractions. No sentence fragments. It’s imperative to always avoid split infinitives. Ending on a preposition is the sort of English up with which teachers will not put. And don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction like “and” or “but” or “because.” Pick up a good book. You’ll see that the best authors ignore these fussy, fusty rules.Continue reading the main story
Sometimes the blinking cursor on the screen can seem like a curse (pun intended). It just keeps flashing, on and off, on and off, mocking you. Never is this truer than when you’re trying to start your college admission essay, a high-stakes writing task unlike anything you’ve ever had to write before.
Don’t let the blinking cursor get you down – we’ve got some great tips to help you write a stellar college application essay.
Tip #1: Show, Don’t Tell
Which is better:
There were 9 other students competing in the tournament. I was very nervous, but I knew that I had practiced my hardest. When I jumped in the cold water, all I could do was to swim my fastest.
I stood at the pool’s edge alongside nine other students, each hoping to bring home a state champion’s medal. My heart beat a nervous tattoo as I waited for the starting signal, and I took a deep breath, reminding myself of the endless hours of practice that I had put in for just this moment. The pistol rang out, I leapt into the pool, and the cold water rinsed away my apprehensions: I swam like there were nine toothy sharks behind me instead of nine high school swimmers.
The first example tells a story. It’s clear, it’s concise, and it’s effective. But it’s also sort of boring. The second example includes imagery that allows the reader to really picture the sequence of events. This is what we mean by the phrase “show, don’t tell”: Use your language to paint a picture for your reader.
Tip #2: Use a Thesaurus – But Don’t Sound Like a Thesaurus
Part of using your language to paint a picture will require vivid and sophisticated word choice. You want to demonstrate a college-level vocabulary, which can be helped along with judicious use of a thesaurus, but you don’t want to go overboard. It can be easy to come off sounding pretentious by using overly complex word choice, and you don’t want to sound like you swallowed a thesaurus. Use a good variety of words and be cognizant of the overall style of your essay so that each word you use suits the essay as a whole.
Tip #3: Variety (of Sentence Structures) Is the Spice of Life (and Good Writing)
Simple sentences are choppy. Choppy writing is awkward. Awkward essays are not fun to read.
Be sure to utilize a variety of sentence structures in order to make your writing flow from one thought to the next. If you find yourself subconsciously relying on simple sentence structures, utilize the revision process to combine some of those sentences in order to incorporate greater variety in your writing.
Tip #4: Get a Second Opinion
The college application essay is very personal, and it can be easy to overlook how a perfect stranger might perceive you based on your essay. This is one reason why a second opinion from a qualified source (like a teacher, counselor, or tutor) can be incredibly useful. You know exactly what you mean to communicate to your reader, but it’s entirely possible that your word choices or the details you incorporate might inadvertently send a message that you didn’t intend. An honest outside opinion can help you to refine your essay so that it tells the reader exactly what you want the reader to learn.
Tip #5: Think Outside the Box
College admissions officers read literally hundreds of essays each day, all based on the same or similar essay prompts. A lot of trends in topics begin to emerge, making many essays boring. Avoid clichéd topics at all costs. Be sure to check out these posts because some clichéd topics may surprise you:
Top 5 College Application Essay Clichés
The Top Clichéd College Essay Topics to Avoid
Tip #6: Narrow It Down
It can be really difficult to pick just one topic, accomplishment, or story to tell, but it’s important to create a strong focus in your essay. Avoid trying to cram as many things as possible into your essay. Instead, focus on just one accomplishment or one story to write about, and write about that one thing in depth.
Tip #7: Just Write
That annoying blinking cursor isn’t going anywhere. Don’t stress about getting your essay right the first time – just write. The resulting draft will probably be somewhat disorganized, disjointed, and imperfect, but that’s why we call it a rough draft. In the beginning, just focus on getting your thoughts on paper (or, more accurately, on the screen). You can refine and polish to your heart’s content once the initial content is down.
Tip #8: Be Economical
You’re more likely used to minimum length requirements than to maximum length requirements, which can make college essays particularly challenging. For example, the Common App, used by more than 500 schools, limits essays to 650 words. That sounds like a pretty big number when you haven’t started writing yet, but once you get going, you’ll probably find that you need to make quite a few cuts and revisions in order to streamline your essay and get it under word count. When you first start writing, don’t pay attention to length. Get everything out, then worry about cutting and rearranging during the revision process.
Tip #9: Highlight Your Strengths
The essay is the one place on your application where you get to speak directly to college admissions counselors. This part of the application isn’t about a number on a page, a list of activities, or what someone else has to say about you – this is about what you have to say about yourself. Make the most of the opportunity by finding a story that really highlights one or more of your biggest strengths. For example, if you’re writing about overcoming failure, don’t focus on the failure – focus on the resultant success.
Tip #10: Remember Your Audience
Your audience is college admissions officers. These are educators who are invested in creating a freshman class that will (hopefully) reinforce a strong sense of community in the school. You want your essay to demonstrate that you are a person who is not only capable of the level of academic achievement necessary for scholastic success, but also one who will contribute something meaningful to the school’s community. They read between the lines seeking intangible qualities like dedication, motivation, passion, and interest in the hopes of admitting students who will join clubs and organizations, be actively engaged in the classroom and on campus, and represent the school well as a future alumnus.
Be sure to check out our free webinar, College Essays That Work, for more tips and tricks to help you craft amazing essays!
Blog Author: Ashley Zahn
Ashley joined C2 Education in 2008. Since then, she has been instrumental in developing C2 Education’s unique line of curriculum materials, helped hundreds of students through C2 Education’s college admission essay help service, and shared her expertise in the fields of education and college admissions through the C2 Education blog.