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Reviewing College Admissions Essays with Counselor

How to Write a College AdmissionS Essay

Step 1: Choosing a Topic

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”  - Ernest Hemingway
Choosing an essay topic that aligns well with your overarching student brand is a difficult, but vital step. That being said, it doesn’t have to be as painful as Hemingway says, so don’t let yourself get bogged down in this stage. Writing and editing a compelling essay truly is a process. Unfortunately, students (typically the best of you) often get paralyzed because they want to have the perfect topic nailed down before beginning to write. Here’s what you should do:

Get started early. Really early.

This process takes time, and the earlier you start, the better off you will be. It usually takes much longer than you think to explore ideas fully and then write multiple drafts that often veer in new directions. Since the Common Application essay prompts for 2019 – 2020 are already available, there are no excuses. Don’t forget you may have dozens of school-specific supplemental essays to complete. While it can be compressed, you should be thinking of writing college admission essays as a 9-10 month process.

Understand what college essay prompts are really asking.

The Common Application essay prompts are often left a little vague on purpose to give you flexibility and encourage you to be creative. Unlike essays for your English class, the most important aspect of your personal statement is you. Whichever prompt you choose, college admission officers want you to tell a story that reveals your character, personality, and how you think.

School-specific supplemental essay prompts can often be more pointed. If you need an example of breaking down a supplemental essay prompt, we have developed several including these for Brown, Harvard, and Yale

Narrow down the prompts that interest you and brainstorm approaches.

Considering which prompt aligns best with your overall story, brainstorm by asking yourself what are the strengths, personal qualities or values you want to highlight in the essay. The goal is for your essay to illustrate the development of them by showing you both in action and in reflection.

Don’t let the prompts constrict your thinking on what is appropriate for a college essay, however. One brainstorming technique is to identify several tangible objects that have special significance for you. If you dig deep enough there is almost always a great and revealing story in one of them.

Take the leap.

After you have narrowed down your topics, decide which is best for you. This just means the one you are going to explore first. Remember, while you want your essay to make an impact, your topic does not need to be earth shattering or include the biggest hardship. The best essays are often built on seemingly ordinary experiences like shopping at Costco or baking a cheesecake.

The key is to ask yourself, “will this experience provide a vehicle for showing the development of my character and values?” If yes, leave any fear of making a mistake behind and move on to the outlining step.

Step 2: Outlining

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.” - Anne Lamott
Outlining your story is often helpful to writing a successful essay. Having a strong outline ensures a writer creates a central narrative that acts as a beacon to follow throughout the drafting and editing process. There is not necessarily a correct structure, but there are techniques that promote consistency and cohesiveness. The outlining process involves envisioning your story and then framing its structure.

Envision the story in its entirety.

The envisioning process is both strange and abstract, but crucial to creating a successful outline. Envisioning helps you establish your central narrative that you will focus your essay on, but is actually a bit of a misnomer. While it sounds like this is something you do in your mind, it is actually best done on the page.

How does it flow? Where does it go? What is the point? Rather than spend lots of time in your head imagining how your story will unfold, do a furious free-write where nothing is censored. Whether it is similar to baking a special cheesecake (yes, that really is a topic turned in to a great college essay), or something completely different, write down everything you can remember about the experience from start to finish. Don’t worry if you think something is not important just keep writing.

If you have difficulty expanding, think of the five W's. Who was there? What were you doing, thinking and feeling? When did the action take place? Where were you? Why was it challenging? And most important, how did it affect you?

Frame your story.

Now that the meat of your experience is down on paper, it is time to create a structure that organizes it into a meaningful story. Here are some suggestions for each section of your outline:
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Introduction

Consider this your hook to grab the admission officer's attention. Starting with an anecdote that puts the reader in to the action right away often works best. This can be a scene at the beginning of your story or you can jump right to a crucial point in the middle. Once you lay out the challenge you faced and built suspense, you can flashback to provide the necessary background and context.

Drive your essay’s success by drawing the reader into your story with a great first line. If not immediately a scene, consider using a jarring fact or statement that requires explanation.

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 Body

Describe what you actually did to address the challenge described in your introduction.

Don’t trap yourself with the 5 paragraph structure, but do focus on a few central moments in time. Although you may have a million ideas and pieces of information you believe are important, it is imperative that you discern what is most significant to propel your narrative.

Show and tell. We want to see you in action (show), but also providing insight along the way (tell). The scenes or moments you choose should follow a logical structure that connects them either causally or thematically.

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Conclusion

The conclusion should encapsulate your story. It is the bow on top that ties everything together in a clear & concise manner. This is what you have learned from the experience.

Don’t reiterate points in a list or summary however. The conclusion shouldn’t be redundant, but it should articulate how the experience has shaped who you are as a person and what you may do in the future.

Double check that your outline is aligned with the prompt. If it is, proceed with writing your first draft. If it isn’t, identify why not and consider either changing the outline or selecting a different prompt more aligned with your developing story.

Step 3: Drafting

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” – Terry Pratchett

For mentally preparing to write

  1. Set a writing schedule. Allocate a specific and significant amount of time each week for writing. Set a word count goal. Make it achievable, yet challenging.

  2. Immerse yourself in a comfortable workspace, free from distraction. Some students work well at home or in a library, others love to work in cafes. It is entirely up to you. Be honest with yourself and where you will work best.

  3. Own your technology. Turn off your cell phone—at least your notifications—and any other distracting technology. There are plenty of online applications that prevent you from being distracted by the internet. If you need to listen to music to drown out noise, use lyricless music. Ambient electronic and mellow piano are good places to start.

For writing the first draft

  1. Utilize your outline but don’t feel trapped by it. It is okay to shift your narrative if your creative juices are flowing, but ensure the new structure still aligns with the prompt.
  2. Write in your authentic voice. Your personal statement should be well written, but less formal than an analytical essay for English class. Use language and a tone that your family and friends would recognize as you.

  3. Take breaks. Science supports breaks. Breaks keep the mind fresh and allow us to be more productive over a longer duration of time. Structure your breaks into your work schedule and be deliberate about how you spend them. Move around, stretch, go for a walk, or anything else that gets your mind off your writing.

Step 4: Editing & Revising

“I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do the pencil.” – Truman Capote
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Add intellectual vitality.

One of the most important qualities/values selective colleges look for in an applicant is curiosity.  Read through your essay and look for opportunities to explore how your experience may be connected to historical, literary or philosophical ideas you care about.
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Kill your darlings.

In each subsequent draft, sentences that were once essential may no longer be necessary. Even if you are proud of these sentences, don’t keep them if they no longer enhance the narrative. Be disciplined. The scissors are your partner.
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Vary the rhythm.

Change sentence structure to create a flow throughout each paragraph. Include concise sentences. Brevity emphasizes points. This trick allows you to control how your readers digest your story.
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Avoid clichés.

It is easy to fall into the trap of using phrases that are unoriginal. That you should, “avoid them like the plague” is true, but also an example of a phrase I would revise. An exception is if you are going to explore one in more depth or actually disagree with the received wisdom it offers.
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Look at examples of top-quality essays.

See how yours stacks up. Pay attention to their verbiage, sentence structure, and rhetorical devices. If you are struggling to find an example, here is our breakdown of the famous Costco Essay. Remember: don’t use these essays as a crutch. We included this step in the editing portion, as opposed to the drafting section, for a reason. Tell your story; don’t tell your version of someone else’s.

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Be specific.

Details and vivid descriptions are more engaging than generalities. Strive for "le mot juste" (the exact right word). Sometimes a snippet of actual dialogue can convey meaning, drive the narrative and reveal character better than summary.
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Ensure consistency in metaphors.

A mixed metaphor, the use of multiples metaphors at a single time, detracts from the narrative. Likewise, dissimilar metaphors used in rapid succession confuse the reader.
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Avert verbose locutions.

Roughly translated: stay away from excessively wordy phrases. Many people use extravagant words hoping to sound smart; it usually has the opposite effect. This doesn’t mean you can’t use your colorful vocabulary; just don’t sound like a thesaurus.
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Use active voice.

Active voice is deliberate; it flows, emphasizes the subject, forges a stronger connection with the reader, and evokes emotion. Rather than “mistakes were made,” it’s usually better to own up to “I made mistakes.”
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Use adverbs sparingly.

Instead of “He ran quickly.” try “He sprinted.” Precise language also evokes emotion. It paints a picture. Remember, “precise” isn’t synonymous with “extravagant”. In addition, when it comes to moderators (e.g. very), proceed with caution.
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Read your essay aloud.

This simple trick helps you quickly identify grammar errors and awkward wording. Reading aloud reveals common essay writing mistakes that you may have glossed over.
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Ask for help.

Even the most talented authors have editors. Ensure you are asking someone whose opinion is credible, knows you, and that you trust to give constructive, honest, and valuable feedback.
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Provide context for desired feedback.

If there is something specific you’d like feedback on, ask for it. Some reviewers may be better equipped to provide feedback on individual aspects of your essay.
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Take feedback seriously.

Spoiler: your work isn’t perfect. Chances are if someone has certain thoughts on your piece, others do too. In the end, it is your call. Be open minded, but it is also okay to disagree with someone’s feedback. We understand it is a tough balance.
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Repeat the above suggestions as many times as you deem necessary.

Know that many top-tier admissions essays have gone through 7-10 drafts before you have had a chance to read them.

Try to step away from your essay for a few days between drafts. Fresh eyes see more clearly. Understand that  just because someone else wrote ten drafts doesn’t mean you should. Excessive editing exists and can hurt your essay.

Step 5: Final Review

“Trust your story.” – Neil Gaiman

Hang in; you’re almost there

You have gone through the—often grueling—process of crafting a competitive admission essay. Now that you have completed your edits, revisions, and rewrites, conduct your final review.  For the final review, focus on formatting, spelling and grammar, and punctuation. Errors of this nature sneak in during rewrites. Run spell check. Run a grammar check.

Read it aloud

In addition to reading it aloud, you can also try copying and pasting it into Google Translate. Google will read it back to you. Hearing your essay emphasizes any mistakes that may have crept through.  You can also print your essay out and read it. There is a strange distinction between reading on your computer and reading on paper.

You can't be too careful

When you actually paste your essay into the Common Application—read your essay once again and fix any formatting errors that may have occurred in the system. You can’t be too careful. After all your hard work, you don't want careless errors to detract from your message.
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