OK, let’s assume you have done your brainstorming and you have at least half a clue as to what story you want to tell The Man about yourself, realizing that you are “selling” an application, not an applicant. That is, you realize that this is a sales document and not some deep introspective diary you are sharing with a therapist when you turn 40.
Even bad words are better than a blank white page starting back at you with a middle finger extended. Spin around 47 times in a swivel chair, lean over the porcelain throne and let it fly.
Chances are, writing a college essay is different from anything you've ever written before. You've written lots of academic papers for your teachers, in which you are mostly supposed to avoid talking about yourself. And you have written lots of personal stuff about yourself to your friends and family through Facebook, Twitter, and texting. The college essay is a mash-up of these types of writing. But… nicer. More formal, anyway.
Personal, not casual. It's like your academic papers in that it needs to be written in paragraph format, drafted, revised, and spell-checked. The quality of the writing matters almost as much as what you say. Kind of like corporate ladder climbing. Welcome to Rung One.
Most students tackle too much too fast. They don’t want your life’s story here. “It all started in the back seat of dad’s Taurus on a warm Saturday night 18 years ago…” Not a good beginning. Focus.
Tweet it. Make your whole point in 140 characters or less. Can ya? If you can’t, at least in summary, then you are likely trying to say too much.
But your essay really, really should be longer than 140 characters. You need to flesh it out and give it skin. Lots of skin. WalMart shopper skin. Details. Details make your essay stand out. They make it memorable. They bring your application to life, like GE.
Some details on details:
• Address the five senses (sight, smell, taste…)
• Use dialogue. If English isn't your first language, try sprinkling in your native language or the language you speak with your family (not the yelling part) in order to keep your essay real.
• Use specific names of places, streets, pets, people, books, movies, videogames, music, or anything else.
The word “essay” sounds serious and formal – kind of like the word “test.” Nobody laughs when the doc says, “Turn your head and cough.” Or at least guys don’t. But essays don’t have to be serious. If you're a fun-loving person, show it. Your app is not a manifesto. Maybe a mini festival? Or not. Just write it.
Your application will be the 453rd one in your admission officer's mountainous reading pile that day. Her eyes are blurring. She's on her third double latte (6 latte units if you’re counting). You have one sentence in which to grab her attention…
Make that introductory sentence pop like a fat balloon. Think like a magazine writer. Lure your readers in. Make them want to read what you have to say.
First lines are fun to write. Stanford University recently published some of its favorite first lines from students' applications. You can read them here if you're searching for inspiration. Check out some of Shmoop's favorite opening lines from great novels here.
Revision kinda stinks. Once you get to the end of your essay, it will be oh so tempting to just click "send." But reading and revising your essay a few times is important. Turning in a sloppy essay is like attaching a sticky note to your application saying: "P.S. I don't really care if you admit me."
So… once you do get to the end of writing your essay, just let it marinate for a minute. Step away from your desk. Shut down your computer. Go do something fun. Sleep on it. For a few days, even. Then… come back and hit those revisions like you mean it, old school.
Seek the advice of a trusted friend, mentor, or teacher, but don’t let them change your voice or change what you want to say. You are in charge here. The Big Cheese. The Quarterback. So get feedback but don't overdo this step –preserve your voice and your ideas.
Yup. It’s torture to read stuff you’ve written aloud. But it’s super helpful. Did your writing flow? Did you include any big SAT words that you didn't know how to pronounce? (If so, ditch them.) Your essay should sound natural, not forced. We also find that when we read our writing aloud, it's easier to find typos and spelling errors.
• Spell-check your essay?
• Spell the college's name correctly, if you mention it by name in the essay?
• Stick close to the character limit?
• Write in paragraphs?
• Vary your sentence length and structure?
• Use the active (not passive) voice?
• Avoid using big $5 SAT vocab words? (Note: Admission officers don't like busting out a dictionary any more than you do.)
• Include a personal anecdote about yourself?
• Use specific details?
• Avoid clichés like the plague? (Hehe… see what we did there?)
• Open with an engaging first sentence?
• Finish strong?
It’s kind of like a really good date.