Writing An Essay In College

You already know how to write an academic essay: you start with an introduction, throw in a thesis statement, find about three paragraphs’ worth of evidence, and wrap it all up with a tidy conclusion…

Now forget all that, because a successful college application essay is totally different.

Here's the thing: your college application essay needs to breathe life into your application. It should capture your genuine personality, explaining who you are beyond a series of grades, test scores, and after-school activities. But that’s not nearly as scary as it seems, because you get to choose what to share and how to share it.

Take a minute and think about the college or university admission officers who will be reading your essay. How will your essay convey your background and what makes you unique? If you had the opportunity to stand in front of an admission committee to share a significant story or important information about yourself, what would you say? The college application essay is your chance to share your personality, goals, influences, challenges, triumphs, life experiences, or lessons learned. Not to mention why you're a good fit for the college or university—and why it's a good fit for you. These are the stories behind the list of activities and leadership roles on your application.   

One of the most common struggles students encounter is resisting the urge to squeeze everything they’ve seen, done, and heard into their essay. But your application essay isn’t your life story in 650 words. Instead, pick one moment in time and focus on telling the story behind it.

Admission officers realize that writing doesn’t come easily to everyone, but with some time and planning, anyone can write a college application essay that stands out. One way to do that is to work step-by-step, piece-by-piece. The end result should be a carefully designed, insightful essay that makes you proud. Take advantage of being able to share something with an audience who knows nothing about you and is excited to learn what you have to offer. Brag. Write the story no one else can tell.

1. Get to know your prompt

Ease yourself into the essay-writing process. Take time to understand the question or prompt being asked.

The single most important part of your essay preparation may be simply making sure you truly understand the question or essay prompt. When you are finished writing, you need to make sure that your essay still adheres to the prompt.

College essay questions often suggest one or two main ideas or topics of focus. These can vary from personal to trivial, but all seek to challenge you and spark your creativity and insight.

  • Read the essay questions and/or prompts. Read them again. Then, read them one more time.
  • Take some time to think about what is being asked and let it really sink in before you let the ideas flow.
  • Before you can even start brainstorming, define what it is you’re trying to accomplish. Is this essay prompt asking you to inform? Defend? Support? Expand upon?
  • If it doesn’t already, relate the question back yourself by asking, “How does this—or how could this—apply to me?”
  • Avoid sorting through your existing English class essays to see if the topics fit the bill. These pieces rarely showcase who you are as an applicant.

2. Brainstorm

Get your creative juices flowing by brainstorming all the possible ideas you can think of to address your college essay question.

Believe it or not, the brainstorming stage may be more tedious than writing the actual application essay. The purpose is to flesh out all of your possible ideas so when you begin writing, you know and understand where you are going with the topic.

  • Reflect. You have years to draw from, so set aside time to mentally collect relevant experiences or events that serve as strong, specific examples. This is also time for self-reflection. “What are my strengths?” “How would my friends describe me?” “What sets me apart from other applicants?”
  • Write any and all ideas down. There’s no technique that works best, but you’ll be thankful when you are able to come back to ideas you otherwise might have forgotten.
  • Narrow down the options. Choose three concepts you think fit the college application essay prompt best and weigh the potential of each. Which idea can you develop further and not lose the reader? Which captures more of who you really are?
  • Choose your story to tell. From the thoughts you’ve narrowed down, pick one. You should have enough supporting details to rely on this as an excellent demonstration of your abilities, achievements, perseverance, or beliefs.

3. Create an outline

Map out what you’re going to write by making an outline.

Architects use a blue print. A webpage is comprised of code. Cooks rely on recipes. What do they have in common? They have a plan. The rules for writing a good essay are no different. After you brainstorm, you’ll know what you want to say, but you must decide how you’re going to say it. Create an outline that breaks down the essay into sections.

  • All good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Shape your story so that it has an introduction, body, and conclusion. Following this natural progression will make your essay coherent and easy to read.
  • Strategize. How are you going to open your essay? With an anecdote? A question? Dialogue? Use of humor? Try to identify what the tone of your essay is going to be based on your ideas.
  • Stick to your writing style and voice. It’s particularly important when writing a piece about yourself that you write naturally. Put the words in your own voice. By planning the layout of your essay ahead of time, you’ll avoid changing your writing style mid-story.

Related:College Application Essays: A Step-by-Step Example

4. Write the essay

Once you are satisfied with your essay in outline format, begin writing!

By now you know exactly what you will write about and how you want to tell the story. So hop on a computer and get to it. Try to just let yourself bang out a rough draft without going back to change anything. Then go back and revise, revise, revise. Before you know it, you will have told the story you outlined—and reached the necessary word count—and you will be happy you spent all that time preparing!

  • Keep your essay’s focus narrow and personal. Don’t lose your reader. Start with your main idea, and follow it from beginning to end.
  • Be specific. Avoid using clichéd, predictable, or generic phrases by developing your main idea with vivid and detailed facts, events, quotations, examples, and reasons.
  • Be yourself. Admission officers read plenty of application essays and know the difference between a student’s original story and a recycled academic essay, or—worse—a piece written by your mom or dad or even plagiarized. Bring something new to the table, not just what you think they want to hear. Use humor if appropriate.
  • Be concise. Don’t use 50 words if five will do. Try to only include the information that is absolutely necessary.

5. Proofread

The last step is editing and proofreading your finished essay.

You have worked so hard up until this point, and while you might be relieved, remember: your essay is only as good as your editing. A single grammatical error or typo could indicate carelessness—not a trait you want to convey to a college admission officer.

  • Give yourself some time. Let your essay sit for a while (at least an hour or two) before you proofread it. Approaching the essay with a fresh perspective gives your mind a chance to focus on the actual words, rather than seeing what you think you wrote.
  • Don’t rely solely on the computer spelling and grammar check. Computers cannot detect the context in which you are using words, so be sure to review carefully. Don’t abbreviate or use acronyms or slang. They might be fine in a text message, but not in your college essay.
  • Have another person (or several!) read your essay, whether it’s a teacher, guidance counselor, parent, or trusted friend. You know what you meant to say, but is it clear to someone else reading your work? Have these people review your application essay to make sure your message is on target and clear to any audience.
  • Read your essay backwards. This may sound a bit silly, but when reading in sequential order, your brain has a tendency to piece together missing information, or fill in the blanks, for you. Reading each sentence on its own and backwards can help you realize not only typos and mistakes in grammar, but that you may have forgotten an article here and there, such as “a” or “the.”
  • Read your essay out loud. This forces you to read each word individually and increases your chances of finding
  • a typo. Reading aloud will also help you ensure your punctuation is correct, and it’s often easier to hear awkward sentences than see them.
  • Check for consistency. Avoid switching back and forth from different tenses. Also, if you refer to a particular college in the essay, make sure it is the correct name and is consistent throughout the piece. You don’t want to reference two different schools in the same paper!

6. Tie up loose ends

Celebrate finishing what you started.

Writing the college essay takes time and effort, and you should feel accomplished. When you submit your essay, remember to include your name, contact information, and ID number if your college provided one, especially if you send it to a general admission e-mail account. Nothing is worse than trying to match an application essay with no name (or, worse, an e-mail address such as donutsarelife@domain.com) to a file. Make sure to keep copies of what you sent to which schools and when—and follow up on them! Be certain the college or university you are applying to received your essay. You don’t want all that hard work to go to waste!

Looking for more college application essay help? We have tons—tons—here, including lots of real-world examples!

P.S. What did you end up writing your college application essay about? We wanna know! Leave a comment or get in touch here.

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More on CollegeXpress

Hey there guys! This week’s article is a guest post by Ransom Patterson. 

Ransom is a sophomore at the College of Wooster majoring in English and has been an incredibly active CIG reader – leaving well thought-out comments on articles, listening to the podcast, submitting listener tips and questions for Q&A episodes, and more – all things that I’ve been incredibly happy and grateful to see.

Not only that, but Ransom has also taken the time to create his own website, portfolio, and blog using the personal website guide – and he did it when he was a freshman! I can safely say that Ransom’s got his sh*t together. 

On his blog, Ransom’s been writing about grammar usage and other English tips – things that are definitely useful to students. Based on this work, I’m happy to bring you a guest post from him – enjoy his writing tips, and start crafting kick-ass papers!

I don’t know about the rest of you, but here at my school midterms are right around the corner.

For lots of you I’m sure that means a bunch of papers will soon be due. With that in mind, here are six tips to help your writing stand apart (note that 300% is merely an estimate of your improvement. YMMV).

1. Don’t Trust Spell Check!

We’re quite lucky that we have software that can catch our spelling mistakes.

Despite all its sophistication, though, it’s still no substitute for knowing proper usage. Computers are stupid; they can’t distinguish such subtleties as the difference between:

  • “your” and “you’re”
  • “its” and “it’s”
  • “their,” “they’re” and “there.”

Don’t be the student who turns in a paper with these basic errors – always proofread your papers! Or visit your school’s writing center (see tip 5).

2. “Its” Does Not Equal “It’s”

Since spell check doesn’t know the difference, this rule bears repeating. It’s bad enough to make this error in an informal social media situation, but it’s a truly capital offense in formal writing (this mistake irks every English professor or teacher I’ve had).

So what’s the difference?

“Its” is the possessive form of “it,” as in,

“The corgi loved its lobster costume.”

Only use “its” when referring to something that you could safely call “it.” People generally do not fit this category, particularly in formal writing.

“It’s,” on the other hand, is the contracted (which is just a fancy way of saying shortened) form of “it is.”

Just as “you’re” is short for “you are” or “they’re” is short for “they are,” so “it’s” is short for “it is.” Only use “it’s” where you could also use “it is,” as in,

“Look at the corgi–it’s so cute!”

If you remember the difference between its and it’s, you’re certain to impress your professors.

3. When in Doubt, Stick to Third Person (Usually)

When you’re writing a formal paper, it’s generally best to stick to the third person.

Avoid phrases such as “I believe,” “I think,” or “you know.” Not only are these phrases inappropriately informal, but they also make your writing seem weak and wishy-washy. If you really think or believe something, show it with concrete evidence.

Writing Commons has a more nuanced view on this topic, but this observation is a good one for writers who are unsure:

“Why do teachers often counsel against using the first person in an academic paper? Used too frequently or without care, it can make a writer seem self-centered, even self-obsessed. A paper filled with “I,” “me,” and “mine” can be distracting to a reader, as it creates the impression that the writer is more interested in him- or herself than the subject matter.

Additionally, the first person is often a more casual mode, and if used carelessly, it can make a writer seem insufficiently serious for an academic project.”

Once important exception to this rule is if you are writing a personal reflection paper. The essays you wrote as part of your college application probably fit this category.

Knowing how to write about yourself is essential when applying to graduate school or filling out job applications, especially on those pesky cover letters. Talking about yourself can be uncomfortable and difficult, but it’s a skill you neglect at your peril.

4. Be F*cking Specific!

Compare the following two sentences and tell me which is more descriptive:

  1. The corgi liked her new ball.
  2. The corgi chased her new ball with relish.

Hopefully you would agree the second example is more descriptive and interesting than the first. This is because the second example is specific! Instead of vaguely stating that the corgi “liked” her new ball, the second example demonstrates that by describing a concrete action the corgi took.

Apply this principle to your papers, and you will be lightyears ahead of most students. As one of my current professors, Dr. Prendergast, puts it,

“If you’re having trouble meeting the minimum word count for a paper, it’s probably because you’re not being specific enough.”

Just remember: Show the reader, don’t tell them.

5. Don’t Fear Your School’s Writing Center

I imagine your school has some sort of writing center, a place where you can get knowledgeable people to help you make your writing assignments awesome.

Use this resource! (you’re paying for it regardless) There’s no shame in getting help, and it’s always good to have someone look over your work before publishing/submitting it. Even super famous authors have editors.

If you’re not sure if your school has one, just Google “Name of your school” + “writing center.”

6. Have a Point!

Ever get halfway through watching a movie and wonder, “What was the point of this film again?”

There’s plenty of action, the special effects are spectacular, but you’re unsure why you’re watching it (think Transformers 4).

Don’t let this happen to your paper. Don’t write just to fill space – begin with a point in mind and follow it through to a strong conclusion. This isn’t always easy, particularly if the paper is long, but it’s essential that you keep your point (or “thesis” in academic terms) at the forefront of your paper at all times. Every word you write should, to some degree, further this point.

This is why the stereotypical “Five Paragraph Essay” with the introduction, three body paragraphs, and conclusion is such a popular way of teaching students to write – it makes sure you establish your point from the outset, state three pieces of evidence in support of it, and then bring it to a (hopefully) strong conclusion. Don’t be a slave to this formula, but feel free to use it if you’re not sure where to begin.

Just remember, your professors hate reading pointless, meandering papers just as much as you hate watching Michael Bay’s pointless crap (was that too harsh?). Editor’s note: I love watching Michael Bay’s pointless crap because I am secretly a 5-year-old and ROBOT DINOSAURS

These are just a few tips to get you started. If you want more in-depth advice, I recommend the following blogs/sites:

These books are also excellent:

Good luck, and may the grammar gods smile on you in all your writing endeavors.

Images: Startup stock photos, corgi, transformers

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