ESSAY WRITING TIPS
Your Roadmap to
College Admissions Success
Lee Bierer – President/Coach
Some colleges, especially the more selective ones, require students to submit essays when applying for admission. The purpose of the college admission essay is to capture your voice and bring you to life to the readers in the admission offices. The essay should show your unique personality and who you are beyond your grades and test scores. It should show how you think or feel, and what your values are rather than stating facts and numbers that are already provided elsewhere in your college application.
Instead of stressing out about the essay, think of it as an opportunity to show the “real” you and give your accomplishments a human element, with the reader learning something new and positive about you. Below are guidelines and tips to get you started on picking a topic, as well as topics to avoid as you start to think about your essay.
Picking a Topic: Do’s
Explore a smaller part of a big experience.
Why? You can narrow your focus and hone in on what you think and feel within a specific moment. For example, instead of recounting the travel details of a vacation, think of a specific part of your trip that affected you. Then describe that small part with sensory details—what you saw, heard, smelled, felt.
Show, don’t tell.
Choose an everyday experience that is important to you.
Why? What you do every day is unique from what others do and shows your personality. This is what the admission office wants to learn from your essay. For example, who are you with on your ride home from school every day and what does that mean to you? What do you think about every morning when you brush your teeth? Think about your chores. Which do you like to do and which do you hate, and what does that mean about the person you are? Do you read the comics in the paper every day? If so, which is your favorite, why and what does that say about you?
Take an activity and describe what it means to you.
Why? What you do in your free time reflects who you are. If you sing in the choir, why do you do that versus some other activity? How does it make you feel? If you are an athlete, what motivates you to go to practice every day and what does that say about you as a person? Do you volunteer anywhere? If so, what drives you to give your time in that way and what have you learned about yourself?
Describe an important relationship—human or pet—and what positive impact it has had on you.
Why? This is an opportunity to show how another has helped you grow. Make sure the relationship that you write about is a positive one and shows who YOU are as a person. The reader should learn something about you in this type of an essay. Don't focus too much on the person/pet you are writing about.
How Do I Choose an Essay Topic?
Describe an object that you value.
Why? Many people have emotional attachments to things and that can tell someone how you think and what you value. Why is the ring your mom gave you on your 15th birthday important to you and what does it say about you? Or write about that autographed baseball that you got last summer. Describe your car (or your family car) and what it means to you.
Write about a time when you thought you knew something, but then changed your mind.
Why? This type of topic can show that you are reflective and growing/maturing. Did you feel one way about a subject or class, and now feel differently? Did you once hang out with a certain group, but now you don’t? It’s always okay to show how you are learning as you go and that you don’t have all of life figured out just yet.
Picking a Topic: Don'ts
Parent/teacher/boyfriend/girlfriend as hero
Why not? Everyone writes about this! You want your reader to remember your essay and that will be tough when it reads like every other essay.
Self-discovery types of experiences (outward bound, study abroad trip)
Why not? Colleges have read over and over how students have “found themselves” in nature or on a trip to another country. You want to differentiate yourself from the others.
Defining yourself based on a negative experience (attempted suicide, eating disorders, learning differences)
Why not? You do not want this essay to become an excuse as to why you have not succeeded. You want the reader to feel good about recommending you for admission and confident that you have the potential to succeed at college.
Why not? Most students write more about the issue than about themselves. It is very challenging to show your true self when writing about political topics—and colleges want to know about your true self.
Arguing with the question
Why not? You are not answering the question and the reader may conclude that you cannot follow directions.
For example, if the essay question is “Write about something in your life that you would like to do over,” don't focus your essay on the fact that you don't believe in “do-over's.” If the essay topic is not one you believe in, find another topic to write about.
Essays written for a high school English class
Why not? Many students think they can save time and energy by submitting an essay that was written for an English class, but this generally does not work because the essays are about a specific subject area rather than you. Also, so much editing goes into this type of essay that you may lose your unique voice. Remember, the college admission essay should be well-written (and proofread to eliminate spelling and grammatical errors), but it still needs to carry your voice and say something meaningful about the person you are.
3 Tips to Write an Expert College Essay
Here are three super-simple, expert tips for writing a truly memorable college essay:
Use descriptive details to draw the reader into your story.
Make it personal. If someone else could have written it, it isn’t personal enough.
Make sure that you share new, additional information not listed anywhere else in your application.
Writing Powerful Personal Statements
The college application essay or personal statement is your opportunity to tell a college about YOU. It should allow admissions to learn about who you are as a person: your passions, interests, values, goals, hardships and successes. The college essay expands your application by allowing admissions to get to know you as a person, not just a name with grades and test scores. Be sure the personal statement teaches the admissions reader new things about you or adds additional depth to previously mentioned experiences or activities. The application essay can make the difference between being a “maybe” and being a “yes!”
Tips for writing a strong, engaging college application essay:
Just start writing. Sit down and do a free write. Write anything that comes to mind for as long as you can. Start getting your ideas on paper and worry about editing and word count later.
Start early! Give yourself plenty of time to gather your ideas. Ask as many people as you can to read your essay and give their constructive criticisms. Re-write, re-write and then re-write again.
Make it personal. If someone else could have written the same essay then it is not personal enough.
Remember your audience. Your essay will be read by college admissions advisors. They want to know why you will make a valuable addition to their student body. Be sure that by the end of your essay they feel good about who you are and what you can bring to their college.
Use proper grammar and punctuation. This essay needs to show that you are an intelligent student who knows how to write and use the English language properly.
Proofread! Before you submit your essay you need to be 100% sure that there are no mistakes. Show admissions you are taking this essay seriously.
Display your personality. Write down a list of 5-10 adjectives that best describe you. Find a way to include these adjectives in your essay.
Highlight your best qualities. This is the time to “brag” about yourself. Write down every positive quality you can think of and make sure to include some of them in the essay.
Use detail to draw the reader into the story. Essay readers sometimes read over 100 essays in one day. Fill your story with details so the reader is transported into your world.
Illustrate your growth, intellectual depth, understanding, initiative, involvement and/or leadership.
The College Essay Can Make or Break Your Acceptance
I know this title sounds a bit dramatic, but it’s the truth – the college essay can truly make or break your acceptance into your dream school. With college application season upon us, seniors are scrambling to improve or enhance their applications however possible. But if there is one thing you should pay more attention to, it is the college essay.
Consider the fact that many applicants appear identical on the surface: similar GPA, similar courses, similar SAT scores, similar activities lists….. The crazy reality is that many other students out there have done the same things as you! So how do you stand out in a crowd of hundreds of other applicants? The college essay.
The college essay will make or break your application. It is the only opportunity (outside of the interview) to actually tell admissions about who you are and let them get to know you. The essay that catches a reader’s attention will be remembered. The reader will feel a connection to you as a person, not just an application. And when it comes time to make the decision between 20 similar applicants, they will always choose the person they liked and remembered through the college essay.
So take advantage of this opportunity to create fantastic, personal essays. Use the essay to teach the college about who you are on a personal level, what matters to you, and why. Leave them with a lasting impression so they feel a personal connection. It is much easier to accept a person over an application.
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