How to write a college essay
You can find articles all over the internet about how to write a college application essay. Some of the articles focus on tricks and tips to only use for a college application (A.K.A. cheats and shortcuts). Others focus on writing skills and how to improve your essay writing as a whole (A.K.A. hard work and a stronger foundation). But there’s one aspect of essay writing that all these articles tend to ignore: which strategies are best for you?
Let me put it this way: do you think someone who has trouble writing papers should use the same technique as someone who aces them easily? That’s like trying to paint like Rembrandt when you barely know how to hold a brush. Instead of showing off what you can do, it emphasizes the fact that you can’t do what you tried to do.
That’s true at any skill level. Even high level writers have different strengths and weaknesses, so trying to use someone else’s technique might highlight a writer’s flaws over his or her talents. Students really do their best when they follow strategies that emphasize their strengths, and since one of the major purposes of a college application essay is to let the college see the student as an individual, having a personalized strategy and writing style becomes even more important.
6 Steps to Writing a College Essay
Step 1: Know the Goal, the Audience, and the Basic Rules
The first step to writing a college essay is to know the goal, the audience, and the basic rules. These are the type of details that you can find in almost any article about the process, but I’ll touch on them briefly so that we’re on the same page later.
- The Goal: It’s not just to get into that college. It’s not just for a scholarship or to get into a special program. The goal is to give the college admissions officers an impression of who you are. And to do it vividly enough that they’re willing to not only let you in but also pay you to go there.
- The Audience: College admissions officers can be a mix of professors, staff, and students. More importantly, they’re people who read through hundreds to thousands of essays that answer the same prompt – in other words, they’re bored and quite possibly annoyed (Under “The Goal,” we could add “don’t add to their boredom and annoyance.”).
The General Rules:
1. Answer the prompt, 2. Obey the minimum and maximum word counts, 3. Be specific (A.K.A. Avoid vague language and clichés!), and 4. Use correct grammar.
Notice that using quotes, including statistics, using a formal tone, and never using “I” are not listed in the general rules. That’s because college application essays are different from the essays you’ve done in class or for college admissions tests (i.e., the ACT and SAT). Those essays are formal and impersonal, but if your college application essay is formal and impersonal, you’re working against the goal of letting the admissions officers get to know you! (Although that doesn’t mean to use slang or fragments…)
Also, remember that some of these details can vary by school, so make sure you know what the university you want is looking for.
Step 2: Figure out Your Current Essay-Writing Level
Like I said before, if you want to pick a good strategy for you, you need to know what you’re good at. And what you’re really bad at. Without looking at your writing, I can’t identify specific areas that you have problems with. Instead, I’ve broken down college application essay writing down into 3 general levels: Basic, Advantage, and Pro. Some writers may be on the line between 2 levels, but if you want a quick way to figure out which one to use as a starting point, you can try this quiz: “College Application Essays: What Level Writer Are You?”
That said, remember that writing a college application essay is different from writing an essay for class or for a college admissions essay. Skills that help you in a test essay may be detrimental in an application essay. Answering that quiz for a school or test essay could place you at a lower level, so keep that in mind.
Step 3: Pick an Essay-Writing Strategy (or Two)
You may be asking, “Why pick the strategy before the prompt? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?” Well, yes and no. You could definitely pick a writing strategy that best suits the prompt and the ideas you have for it. But what if that strategy is not your strong suit?
Most students are drawn to a prompt because they have an idea for it right away or because it works with a writing strategy that they think will really get a reader’s attention. Well, I hate to break it to you, but your first idea isn’t always the best one. Also, a great writing strategy is no good if it’s beyond your skill level. That’s why it can be useful to think about strategy first, especially if you’re at a Basic or Advantage writing level. That means you have fewer strategy options, so it helps to keep them in mind when brainstorming and picking a prompt.
Stick to a straightforward answer (that doesn’t rely on fancy writing) and couple it with an interesting idea. Use the idea and something unique about you or your life to make the essay stand out. Follow the formula: I. Introduce the main idea, II. Give a reason that’s true and support it, III. Give another reason the main idea is true and support it, and IV. Summarize the main idea and its support (1 paragraph per Roman numeral or 1 paragraph for the whole thing with smaller word counts).
You could still go with the Basic strategy OR
o Take the Basic tactic and add a few flourishes. Enhance your hook (the first lines – the part that gets the reader’s attention), improve words and phrases with synonyms and figurative language, etc. Just be sure that it reflects your personality and writing style (without becoming vague or grammatically incorrect).
o Try a more complicated answer. Although this tactic varies with the prompt, the basic summary is “Yes, but…” Add a qualifier to your answer so that it is more unexpected and less straightforward (For example, “I tried x and y to solve this problem, and although it worked, now, I think that I should have tried z.” This takes the common prompt of how you solved a problem and adds a new/different layer to it.). This option is harder to do successfully without going off topic, so be sure you’re ready to tackle it before you get started.
o Complicate the answer further. New angles on prompts are bigger challenges for the writer, but they definitely stand out to readers.
o Write the essay in a narrative. Putting an essay into a narrative isn’t hard to do; however, it is very hard to do well. Make sure you stay on topic, answer the prompt, and please, do not fill it with dialogue (use it sparingly and to strong effect).
Step 4: Brainstorm & Pick a Prompt
Most college applications offer several prompt options. Now that you know what strategies you can choose from, you can look at the prompts and try to brainstorm ideas that match. Remember, you’re looking for an idea that makes you stand out from the rest of the applicants. Unfortunately, the most obvious idea (the first one you think of) is probably the same idea that most of the other applicants thought of (Sure, your mission trip was unique for you, but it was also unique for thousands of other students.).
If you’re not sure how unusual your idea is, check out CBS’ “10 Topics to Avoid in a College Admission Essay.”
Once you’ve narrowed down the prompts, brainstorm support for each topic, as well. Even in the more narrative essays, your main idea needs at least two supporting ideas with analysis. If you have two very interesting takes on a prompt, the one with better support is a definite winner.
Step 5: Write the Essay
Regardless of your writing level, please, do not put this off until the last minute. You may get halfway through the essay and realize that the support you brainstormed isn’t actually working. Then, you either have to change ideas or find different support. You do not want that to happen when you only have a few hours until the deadline.
Give yourself time to make mistakes. Give yourself time to make revisions. Give yourself time to do your best. Even excellent writers do worse under pressure in a limited amount of time. Even if those rushed responses are ok or above average, they won’t be the best that they could have been. And that can make a big difference when scholarships are on the line.
Step 6: Proofread & Edit
You should always have someone proofread your work – preferably someone who is as good or better at grammar and writing as you are. The admissions officers know that you have months to work on this, which means that there is no excuse for errors (errors indicate ignorance of grammar or laziness).
And that’s it. As you can see, some parts of the process are universal and others are not, but one tactic for making sure your essay is the best it can be is universal – knowing your skill level and picking the writing strategy that works best for you. You can apply that to any of the other articles about how to write a college application essay. When you read about a cool tip or idea to make an essay stand out, ask yourself if that’s the best fit for you. Sure, it might be a great idea in general, but if it doesn’t highlight your skills and abilities, then it’s not a good fit. That’s what the other sites forgot to tell you.
Any questions? What aspect of college application essays would you like to read about next?
Author: Elizabeth F., Teacher and Writer at MathWizard, Inc.