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Tips for writing a stellar college admissions essay

By Jessica Ward

You have your transcripts. You have your test scores. You have your favorite teacher’s letter of recommendation. You’re so close to completing your college application, you can almost taste the freedom. But first comes the dreaded college admissions essay. Honestly, it’s not that bad. Seriously. With these tips, you can get it done faster, easier, and better than you imagined.

1. Read the questions and prompts early and make a list of your potential answers
This is hands down the best way to begin the application essay process. Think about how long it usually takes you to write a good, thorough essay, and read the prompt weeks before you even start writing, if possible. This way, you have time to reflect on your life and the experiences that would make the best answer. As you reflect, make a list of all the things you could write about- this will minimize the risk of thinking of something better after it’s too late. Don’t daydream forever though- set a date to finish the brainstorming process by.

2. Play the elimination game
Now that you have your list, it’s time to start eliminating your options one-by-one. Only you know the best answer for you, so you’ll have to decide for yourself what the criteria is for you to either keep an option or strike it off the list. As you make your decisions, ask yourself these questions: which answer is the most unique? Which impacted me most? Which do I have the most to say about? Which did I learn the most from? Colleges aren’t looking for you to be a perfect person, they’re looking for growth and meaningful experience.

3. Outline your essay
Once you’re comfortable with your essay answer, it’s time to truly put it to the test. Carefully review everything within the prompt and outline your material from start to finish. No need to go into detail yet, this is just a step to make sure your essay hits all the points it’s supposed to. Many prompts have multiple questions rolled into one, so it would be beneficial to make yourself a checklist of everything the prompt asks of you and check them off as you go. That way, you know for certain that you’re answering every part of the question. If you find that your answer is lacking, it may be wise to go back to step 2.

4. Fill in the details!
Now that you’ve planned and plotted, writing the essay should be smooth sailing from here on out! Colleges like unique, personal narratives, so get creative with it! Be honest about the events that took place, how you handled them, and how they affected you. Problem solving, personal growth, and overcoming an obstacle are great points to hit, and college admissions counselors like to see that you have the strength and maturity to deal with whatever curveballs life may throw your way. All writing advice can be summed up by the great words of Oscar Wilde, “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.”

Additional tips:

  1. You’ve probably heard your English teacher say “show, don’t tell” at one point or another while editing an essay. This is a great place to do that— write about feelings and sensations creatively. Instead of saying “it was raining,” describe the smell of wet pavement or the sound of raindrops against your window. Creative descriptors will earn you major points!
  2. Sometimes memories can get a little messy over time, or there may be sensitive details you’d rather leave out. That’s okay. Don’t let that deter you. If your story is told effectively and you answer the prompt in a way that you’re comfortable with, that’s what matters!
  3. Focus on the positive. This may seem like a no-brainer, but remaining optimistic in a college essay is crucial. Even if the subject matter is relatively heavy, focus your attention on how you got through the tough situation rather than the situation itself. This essay is about you and how you overcame something, it’s not a re-telling of events. Celebrate the fact that you can get through anything!
  4. Take a break every once in a while. There’s never been a great American novel that was written in one sitting! Fresh air will do you some good when you get stuck. (Also, remember you’re not writing the next great American novel. There’s not that much pressure)
  5. Edit, edit, edit, and then have someone else edit for you. Keep that checklist handy and make sure you’re answering every question in the prompt. Have some fresh eyes look over it too!

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