Steps to a Great College Application Essay



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Steps to a Great College Application Essay

  • According to Peterson’s and The College Board

The Role of the Essay

  • The Common Application
    • Recommended form for more than 240 colleges and universities
    • Personal Statement section
    • This personal statement helps us become acquainted with you as an individual…(p4 Peterson’s)
    • 5 choices

The Role of the Essay

  • How important is the essay?
    • The closer you are to the borderline, the more significant a role the essay will play in the admission decision.
    • Will someone even read my essay?
      • It depends…size of school, type of school, deadline, applicant pool, GPA and SAT scores

Role of the Essay

  • Who will evaluate my essay?
    • At least one admission officer
      • Typically alumni, then perhaps another officer or perhaps the admission director or assistant director
      • Some colleges have admission committees comprised of 5 to 7 people (admission officials, faculty members, and possibly students)

Role of the Essay

  • How do schools evaluate the essay?
    • Methods vary
    • Larger schools tend to use multiple-scoring system (content, style, mechanics)
    • Other schools may take more of a holistic approach, relying on written comments by evaluators as well as conversation among committee members

10 Steps to a Great Essay

  • 1. Learn more about yourself
    • Interview friends and family
      • Best thing about me?
      • Worst thing about me?
      • Most unusual thing about me?
      • How would you describe me to someone who does not know me?
      • What was your initial impression of me and how has that changed?

10 Steps continued…

  • 1. Learn more about yourself
    • Record your dreams
    • Write down your thoughts and feelings about issues that are most personal and immediate
      • Self-esteem
      • Identity
      • Independence from parents
      • Academic and extra-curricular success
      • Acceptance by peers
      • Loyalty, trust, honesty
      • Physical appearance, attractiveness, sexuality,

10 Steps continued…

  • 2. Do some serious brainstorming
    • Record observations in a “believe it or not” notebook-try to see the unusual in the ordinary as Jerry Seinfeld has mastered.
    • Become a keen observer of human behavior
      • Introversion vs. extroversion
      • Aggressiveness, assertiveness, and passivity
      • Friendliness and unfriendliness
      • Intelligences, talents, skills
      • Competitiveness and cooperation
      • Self-affirming and self-defeating behavior

10 Steps continued…

  • 2. Do some serious brainstorming
    • Read the editorial section of the newspaper
    • Scan the magazine rack in the library
    • Check out college related internet resources
    • Surf the web for interesting articles and essays
    • Read essays by the great essayists
    • Revisit essays of your own

10 Steps continued…

  • Great essayists
    • Contemporary-Calvin Trillin, Anna Quindlen, Dave Berry
    • Modern-John Updike, H.L. Mencken, Tom Wolfe, George Orwell
    • Not-so-modern-Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jonathan Swift
    • Writers who write about writing- William Zinsser, E.B. White

10 Steps continued…

  • 3. Check out the college’s own resources for essay ideas
    • Read college newspaper
    • Read alumni publications
    • Tour the campus with eyes wide open
    • Investigate the history
    • Talk to current students
    • Read what the admissions application says about the essays
    • Contact the admissions staff with unanswered questions about the essay
    • Visit the school’s website

10 Steps continued…

  • 4. Avoid overused ideas: Seek out overlooked ideas
    • Essays about personal relationships and influences consider…
      • Your favorite teacher
      • Your coach
      • Distant relatives
      • Your arch-rival at school
      • A neighbor
      • Penpals
      • A member of a friend’s family
      • DO NOT write about your dog or cat!

10 Steps continued…

  • 4. Avoid overused: seek overlooked
    • Essays about issues
      • Avoid the environment, world peace, prejudice and discrimination, drugs, crime
      • Consider individual rights (right to die, AIDS, abortion, gun control, free speech), consumerism and materialism, fairness, justice, and equality, free trade among nations, internet issues (privacy, alienation, education, commerce)

10 Steps continued…

  • 4. Avoid overused:seek overlooked
    • Essays about your experiences, activities, or significant events
      • Avoid the college admissions process especially the SAT and essay writing
      • Avoid your big trip to somewhere far away especially if you focus on cultural awareness, yucky food, acceptance of others, there’s no place like home.
      • Avoid wilderness and survival experiences
      • Avoid winning or losing the big game
      • Avoid how all your hard work paid off
      • Avoid summer camp
      • Avoid a part-time job
      • Avoid your most unforgettable experience

10 Steps continued…

  • 4. Avoid overused: seek overlooked
    • Seek other personal experiences
      • A seemingly ordinary trip that turned into an unexpected adventure or self-defining event
      • A song, poem, novel, or other serious literary work that made a genuine and deep impact
      • The time you received an unexpected gift from an unexpected source, or the time you spontaneously gave of yourself to someone or something
      • A white lie , an off-the-cuff insulting remark or a discourtesy that helped you to grow and mature in your understanding of yourself and others

10 Steps continued…

  • 4. Avoid overused:seek overlooked
    • Seek other personal experiences cont.
      • A contribution or accomplishment of yours not motivated by a potential external reward
      • An informal social situation that holds special meaning to you, not holidays, weddings, or proms
      • A time when a teacher or other authority figure enabled you to approach him like an equal and friend

10 Steps continued…

  • 4. Avoid overused: Seek overlooked
    • Essays about your own personal qualities
      • Avoid lists of your favorite things or least-favorite things
      • Avoid your determination and tenacity and how it allows you to always accomplish your goal
      • Avoid how diverse you are in your interests and endeavors

10 Steps continued…

  • 4 Avoid overused: seek overlooked
    • Seek those little habits of yours that sometimes annoy others
    • Seek that time you really put your foot in your mouth
    • Seek a personal possession to which you have grown irrationally attached
    • Seek particular study habits that you would like to change
    • Seek your unusual awkwardness in certain social situations

10 Steps continued…

  • 5. Observe these do’s and don’ts for theme and content
    • Do write an essay that only you could write-originality
    • Do convey a positive message overall
    • Do strive for depth, not breadth
    • Do think personal and anecdotal
    • Do reject your first idea or angle
    • Do be interesting, but be yourself
    • Do write about what you know and have observed or experienced firsthand
    • Do write about something you feel strongly about
    • Do write about others as well as yourself

10 Steps continued…

  • 5. Do’s and don’ts
    • Don’t let others decide what you write
    • Don’t tell the reader “the way it is” Don’t try to prove anything
    • Don’t try to write a scholarly purely informational essay on some researched topic
    • Don’t try to guess what the admissions committee wants you to write
    • Don’t write about things that are found elsewhere in the application
    • Don’t appear overly idealistic; recognize the merits of all sides

10 Steps continued…

  • 5. Do’s and don’ts
    • Don’t explain blemishes or deficiencies on your application
    • Don’t write anything that might embarrass the reader
    • Don’t write an essay that reads like a newspaper editorial
    • Don’t mention popular t.v. shows, movies, musicians, or actors
    • No references to Dr. Seuss

10 Steps continued…

  • 6. Write, write, and write some more
    • Try stream of consciousness speed drills
    • Keep all of your drafts
    • Start with the four common app ?’s
    • express your ideas openly on the internet
    • Know when you are finished

10 Steps continued

  • 4 common application questions plus
    • Evaluate a significance experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you
    • Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you
    • Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence
    • Describe a character in fiction, an historical figure, or a creative work that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence
    • Topic of your choice

10 Steps continued…

  • 7. Impress with style not gimmicks
    • Equally concerned with format, structure, syntax, tone, and word choice as subject matter
    • Structure and format
      • Shorter is preferable-concise
      • Use paragraph breaks appropriately
      • Do not use a 5 paragraph essay format
      • Avoid poetry
      • Do not draw on essay
      • Essays as essays not contracts, court documents, or lab experiments

10 Steps continued…

  • 7. Impress with style not gimmicks
    • Find an appropriate and genuine style and tone
      • Strive to write in a casual, conversational tone
      • Don’t try too hard to be funny, no puns
      • Be forceful and opinionated but not insulting or offensive
      • Avoid whining, complaining, or appearing bitter, sarcastic, or angry
      • Avoid coming across as overly humble

10 Steps continued…

  • 7. Impress with style not gimmicks
    • Hook
      • Strive to engage the reader immediately
      • Do not write “Hello, my name is…”
      • Don’t ask for permission to tell about yourself
      • Stay away from the term paper style introduction reiterating the topic or question or itemizing the points you will make in subsequent paragraphs
      • Begin as a comedian would…

10 Steps continued…

  • 7. Impress with style not gimmicks
    • Begin with an enigmatic statement that makes the reader wonder to what or whom you are referring
    • Begin with an obscure quotation
    • Begin with a thoughtful question
    • Begin with a trivial observation that anyone can relate to but no one would think to use in a hook
    • Begin with a paradox
    • Begin with a gross generalization
    • Begin with someone else’s opinion or theory
    • Begin with a confession
    • Begin with an overly obvious statement

10 Steps continued…

  • 7. Impress with style not gimmicks
    • Essay endings (not summary or conclusion!)
      • Do provide closure-”bookends” or come full circle
      • Do answer any posed question or end any created suspense
      • Do use short, forceful sentences
      • Don’t address the admissions committee
      • Don’t use words like “finally” or “in conclusion”
      • Don’t repeat or sum up in any way
      • Don’t end your essay with a quotation

10 Steps continued..

  • 7. Impress with style not gimmicks
    • Include a title for your essay only if it helps to communicate your message or if you have an irresistible idea, otherwise DO NOT title your essay
    • Use effective word choice
    • Avoid certain words:responsibility, goal, interact, develop, role, integrity, leadership, excellence, interpersonal
    • Avoid slang and currently popular buzz phrases
    • Avoid superfluous words:obviously, somewhat, I think or I believe, first, second, etc., however, thus, in conclusion
    • Avoid technical, scientific, and obscure “SAT-style” words

10 Steps continued…

  • 7. Impress with style not gimmicks
    • Do’s for stylistic devices
      • Do use analogies
      • Do incorporate dialogue
      • Do mix up sentence length
      • Do use logical paragraph breaks
      • Do use the active voice

10 Steps continued…

  • 7 Impress with style not gimmicks
    • Don’ts for stylistic devices
      • Don’t tell the reader explicitly “I am a unique and interesting person”
      • Don’t parody a well-known writer or literary work
      • Don’t use alliteration
      • Don’t start too many sentences with the word “I”
      • Don’t use “a lot of”
      • Don’t necessarily write entirely in complete sentences

10 Steps continued…

  • 8. Avoid careless errors and grammatical blunders
    • Actually read through for spelling/word usage errors
    • Get the school name right!
    • Have someone read it for grammatical errors

10 Steps continued…

  • 9. Obtain useful feedback and fine-tune your essay
    • Ask someone to read it and respond to the question, “If you didn’t know me, what would you say about the person who wrote the essay?”
    • Set the draft aside for several days, then reread
    • Post pieces of drafts on relevant internet newsgroups and bulletin boards for feedback-don’t let on that it is for an application
    • Don’t ask for too may perspectives on your essay
    • If described as “cute, humorous, or clever” revise so it is not!

10 Steps continued…

  • 10. Package and present your essay appropriately
    • If permitted present essay on a separate sheet of paper
    • Number each page and include a header with your name and social security number
    • Assemble your essays properly
    • Comply with page restrictions
    • Don’t worry too much about word counts
    • Type every essay using readable fonts and ample margins
    • Think twice before submitting supplementary materials
    • Do not submit essays on video or audiotape


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