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5 Tips to Writing a Great College Application Essay

college applicationMaybe writing isn’t your best subject in school. That’s okay. Here’s what you can do to make the most of your college essay even if you worry about the strength of your writing skills.

1. Don’t Stress.

Do you tell stories to your friends or family? Do you have conversations where you describe things that have happened to you? Then you can write. The hardest part is getting it down on paper the first time. It can only get better from there. Just start to tell a story on the page and see what comes out. The first draft won’t be perfect. That’s why it’s a first draft. You’re seeing what’s there – is this story something you can use? Maybe the first thing you write won’t be the right essay topic for you, and you’ll have to try something else. Or maybe one element of the essay is useful, and the rest is filler. It’s still a step in the right direction. It’s easier to work with something than nothing.

2. Know Your Subject.

You may not be a writing expert, but you’re an expert on the subject of you. The whole point of the essay is to give schools a glimpse of who you are outside of your scores and grades. So show them! You have hobbies, interests, and significant life experiences – these are all fodder for a wonderful essay that allows schools to connect with your individuality. Your essay should be a window into your personality and how you operate in the world. The point is not to have perfect prose (though you should review for clarity/grammar/spelling or have someone proofread for you). Write about something you truly care about and let your passion and your voice come through.

3. It Doesn’t Have to be “Serious.”

It’s tempting to write about heavy topics for your college essay. But use caution when considering this path – only do it if you can (a) make it specific to you and your life and (b) if you can demonstrate a lesson that you have learned from the experience. Don’t just exploit your personal tragedies as a shortcut to emotional depth. Show how adversity has helped you grow and become a better person. As writer/director Nora Ephron said, “Be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” But your lessons don’t have to be Major Lessons about life and death to be effective. One of my favorite essays was a humorous essay about going to the wrong airport on the morning of a flight, and how it taught the student to be more detail-oriented and better prepared in order to succeed at her goals.

4. Focus on an Individual Incident.

You are using an example from your life, not telling your entire life story. Instead of trying to touch on everything that’s happened to you from birth to senior year, pick an individual moment that conveys who you are “in a nutshell,” and describe it thoroughly. Take the readers with you through your experience so they understand what you felt in that moment and why you made the choices you made.

5. Answer the Question.

If you feel yourself rambling or getting lost, go back to the prompt and reassess whether you are addressing the question being asked. Don’t worry about doing anything fancy with the style of your essay until you’re sure you’ve managed to do that. Once you have an answer, you can polish your sentences, examine your word choices, and play around with the structure to make your story really come alive. A great essay engages the reader, reveals your personality, and answers the prompt.



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