Writing a winning college essay: some pointers

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You Control the essay section of a college application in a way that is not true of other elements, such as teacher recommendations, grades, SAT scores, and transcripts. Even if the topic on which you write is not explicitly autobiographical, you communicate important information about yourself through what you say and how you say it. College admission officers depend on the essays for this “inside information” about the applicant. We get a sense of what you care about, how you think, what you think about, and how you see yourself, as well as how well you express yourself and how well you spell and punctuate as you go. In short, admission officers look for essays – and therefore applicants – of substance and conviction, demonstrating energy, creativity, and self-discipline.
We want to see you at your most creative, most insightful, most articulate, stretching yourself, thinking hard, reflecting. You should relax a little and have fun, too, even as you keep in mind organization and clarity, intent and effectiveness, grammar and spelling.
On a more objective note, you should aim to create a specific effect or make a specific point in your essay. Choose a topic that interests you and conforms to suggestions in the application. Write in a style appropriate to you, the topic, and the purpose of the essay. Organize your essay so that the development of your ideas is clear and coherent from beginning to middle to end. Choose vocabulary that suits the topic and style and use words in accurate and appropriate ways. Unless your personal mode of expression demands otherwise, abide by conventional rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation.
Remember, a well constructed essay is defined by:

  1. Strong mechanics – accurate punctuation and grammar, good organization and clarity, concise.

  2. Several drafts – admission committees can spot an essay which has been hastily written just as they appreciate one that has been carefully crafted.

  3. A good essay will tell admission committees what you want them to know about yourself:

    • Great sense of humor?

    • Truly political?

    • Deeply religious?

(Let your passion shine through – in whatever questions you’re answering!)
A few more guidelines and cautions:

  1. Get in the mood. Do a few brainstorming exercises built around the essay topic, then narrow and focus your ideas. Don’t allow procrastination and anxiety to take over. You can’t edit material that isn’t yet written.

  2. Organize your thoughts and WRITE, at first paying more attention to content and less to form.

  3. Don’t allow a big event to stand alone. It’s very tedious to read an itinerary of a student’s high school trip to France. Relaying how an event has affected, inspired, or change you is far more revealing and impressive.

  4. Reread and rewrite at least once, refining content and correcting grammar and spelling.

  5. Find a reliable editor or proofreader (English teacher? Guidance Counselor?) Have he or she read what you have written and offer comments and corrections.

  6. After a few days or a week has passed, go over what you have written again. Make adjustments and corrections with a “fresh eye.”

  7. Proofread, proofread, proofread to be sure typos, spelling and grammatical errors are cleaned up as thoroughly as possible. Remember, spell check will not pick up misuse of a word i.e. their vs. there, etc.

  8. Be proud of your essays and send them off with confidence.

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