As you start your college admissions essays, here’s a round-up of advice taken from US News and World Report, The New York Times, and interviews with current and former admissions officers and Empowerly college admissions experts about how to write great college admissions essays.
1. Start with a compelling topic
The first part of writing a great essay is to pick a topic which is either interesting in itself, or is personally important to you in an interesting way. Think about it, if you don’t care about a subject or topic, how are you going to get anyone else to care about it? Tell us why you think Brexit was a mistake as a dual citizen, or why you’re worried about AI control, or why you think internet access is a basic human right. A brief cautionary note: be careful in writing about the most controversial topics in politics because the admissions officers reading your essays are usually from a different generation.
2. Creativity and organization are essential
Brainstorm first, then outline your thoughts before writing your essay to organize your thoughts and make your arguments more convincing. Begin by brainstorming and throwing out lots of different ideas (there are no bad ideas in brainstorming). Then after 10-15 minutes, take a short 5 minute break and transition to editing mode. While there are no bad ideas in brainstorming, editing at this stage is about eliminating your least favorite ideas. While eliminating your least favorite ideas, you’ll get a chance to review all your ideas. This will help in the next step when you draw up short mini-outlines with thesis sentences and sketches of arguments and determine which are your best ones.
Then plan and structure your essay. What are you trying to say? What evidence are you going to marshal to defend your claims? How are you going to frame your ideas? What are the best counter-arguments against your view and how would you address them? Consider all of this in structuring your essay. Don’t feel constrained by the standard three or five paragraph essay model, but do have a clear, easily identifiable thesis.
3. Don’t be afraid to put it all on the page
Many students are deeply self-critical even to the extent that they paralyze their writing. Instead of getting hung up on word choice and phrasing, plow through and write freely. This way you’ll focus on putting your thoughts and words onto the page, instead of focusing on critiquing and revising what you’ve already written. Instead of trying to write one perfect sentence after the next, write until you’ve reached your limit, then take a nice long walk and come back to edit.
4. Good writers are good readers
How can you write well if you’re not familiar with good writing? The best writers are good readers, so read daily to expand your horizons. It doesn’t really matter what you read, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, contemporary or classics. But please, vary your reading. So many of us get caught up reading blogs and short news stories that we neglect long-form reading. So take 10-15 minutes before bed each night to read and expand your horizons. Your high school librarian will have great tips on books you might enjoy, but otherwise, Goodreads and Amazon reviews will give you ideas on authors and titles.
5. Reflect on your failures to demonstrate growth
Some people think that the essays are essentially about bragging, or even worse, simply listing one’s accomplishments and awards. This is a mistake. College admissions officers read thousands of applications along the lines of “My name is Billy and I went to states in Policy Debate” or “My name is Lisa and I did an internship at Apple.” Instead of focusing purely on your successes (which often comes across as bragging), talk about a time when you tried to accomplish something and failed.
6. Handwriting helps
While most of the time, we write on computers for efficiency’s sake, this might be a mistake. When writing about important subjects, writing by hand can be an advantage. Ernest Hemingway agrees, writing:
If you write with a pencil you get three different sights at it to see if the reader is getting what you want him to. First when you read it over; then when it is typed you get another chance to improve it, and again in the proof. Writing it first in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve it. That is .333 which is a damned good average for a hitter. It also keeps it fluid longer so you can better it easier.1
Note that this advice also applies to preparing for tests like the SAT/ACT. The act of making flash cards to study is a significant part of the writing process. According to Professors Mueller and Oppenheimer, “using pen and paper, not laptops, to take notes boosts memory and the ability to retain and understand concepts.”
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