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College – Essay tutorial

The application essay is a genre with high stakes and very little definite structure, which makes it probably one of the most difficult pieces of writing in your life to date. Hopefully our college essays tutorial full of advice and suggestions will help you figure out where to start and how to shape your essay once it is written. Try to keep your audience in mind as you are picking a topic and writing the essay, and start early enough that you will not be stressed out about it. It is also good to be able to put the essay down for a few days without working on it, give it to family and friends for advice and opinions, and most importantly, get an editor to look at it! The opinions of people you know will tell you how well it reflects your personality, but the opinion of a professional will tell you how it will be received by someone who has no idea who you are and reads possibly hundreds of essays a day. An editor can also save you from the simple but dreadful mistake of having grammatical and spelling errors in your essay Ė nothing says ďI donít take this seriouslyĒ like a sloppy essay. If you need help or suggestions about any of the following steps in the essay-writing process, we are here to help! Feel free to email us at ( with any questions.

Brainstorming/Topic Selection

The first step to writing a good essay is picking a good topic, and this is often the hardest part. You want your essay to reflect your personality, so the best ways to brainstorm focus on who you are and what you have done. If you are having trouble thinking of an inspiring anecdote that demonstrates your personal qualities, try writing down the answers to a few of these questions:

What makes you different from other people?

What is your favorite place in the world, and why? (This works for lots of other favorites, too, like people, activities, books, etc.)

Where do you see yourself in five years? In ten? In fifty?

What do other people think about you?

Have you ever tried really hard for something and failed? How did you react?

What thing/person/activity in your life would you most hate to give up? Why?

What has influenced you strongly?

Have you ever done anything you are really proud of?

What was the hardest lesson you ever learned?

Once you have brainstormed a little and have a list of possible topics in front of you, consider what these topics will say about you and whether they answer the question. While most application essay questions are fairly broad and open-ended, some topics fit them better than others, and a brilliant essay that does not answer the question is not likely to be well-received. You want to choose a topic that is both appropriate and interesting, and also one that addresses positive aspects of your personality. An essay about a traumatic period in your life might get you sympathy, but it will not get you into college unless it demonstrates perseverance, an ability to overcome obstacles, compassion, or something else praise-worthy about you. A few words of caution regarding essay topics:

Gimmicky essays rarely work. Do not write poetry. Do not make your entire essay one big joke. What looks funny at home on your computer is rarely still funny when it gets to the admissions office. Creativity is good, but essays which do not actually say anything are not. Use extreme caution when writing a ďnon-traditionalĒ essay, because they only work when they are very well done, and this is difficult to accomplish. Humorous essays are especially difficult to write if you are not a native speaker of English, because cross-cultural attempts at humor are notoriously unsuccessful.

Donít use a topic that everyone else uses. Overused topics make for boring essays, and a boring essay is a death sentence for an application.

Donít use controversial or potentially offensive topics. It is effective to write about strong convictions that you have, but only if you are even-handed about the topic and acknowledge other points of view. Even then, taking a stand on an issue like abortion or religion or Aboriginal land rights in Australia is asking for trouble.

Avoid bringing up your negative qualities. Do not lie if the question requires that you discuss them, but donít discuss your drinking problems or your ADD without being prompted. Why remind them of negative things when you could be pointing out all the good things about you?

Donít write about something you donít know about. ďWrite what you knowĒ may be a clichť, but it is also good advice. Choosing a topic you are very familiar with will allow you to use vivid details and support your points much more effectively than you would be able to with a topic you are not comfortable with.

Donít repeat things that are elsewhere in the application. The admissions officers already know about the math competition you won, the chess club you were president of, and your 1500 on the SATs. Donít bore them by repeating this information Ė it wonít add anything to your application, and it will make them think you are conceited, too.

Writing the Essay

The writing process is the easiest part for some people, but especially if you are not a strong writer, you should allow plenty of time for the actual writing of the essay. Here are a few key points to keep in mind while you are writing the essay:

Answer the question. This is really, really important, and you would be surprised how many people forget about it once they get started writing.

Keep your writing style active. Donít use too many passive constructions and be conversational, but make it professional, too. Avoid slang and try to be informal but not chatty Ė the same style you would use for an interview is usually appropriate for an essay.

Donít exceed the word limit by more than 10%. The admissions officers have to read hundreds or thousands of essays, and they will be annoyed if your essay is longer than they asked for.

Stay focused and on-topic. Simple themes are more memorable, so try not to ramble or hit too many points. The less complicated your essay is, the more readable it will be.

Be brief. Verbosity is not a virtue! Enough said.

Donít repeat facts about the college or university. The admissions committee will already know these Ė they wrote the material that you read! They will not be impressed by your knowledge, they will only be annoyed.

Donít use obscure technical jargon or excessively long words. You will come across as arrogant or obnoxious, not smart. If you had to look it up in the thesaurus, they donít want to hear it. And remember, the admissions officers may not be specialists in the same things you are, so donít assume that they will know anything an average person doesnít know.

Donít write a sob story. Everyone has had some sort of bad thing happen to them, and it doesnít mean they deserve to get into college. Unless your sad story has a very clear point, you should avoid it.

Revising and Editing

After you write your first draft, it is a good idea to have your parents, friends, teachers, or guidance counselor take a look at it to make sure it comes across the way you intended it. Ask them what they thought the main point/theme of the essay was Ė if they donít say what you wanted them to say, maybe you are not communicating your message well. If they like your essay and agree with you about the theme, then you can start revising it yourself. Put the essay down for a few days and read it over again, paying careful attention to the writing style and the grammar. Make sure there are no errors and that the paragraphs flow smoothly.

Since the word limits for these essays are often quite low (from 500 to 800 words), you will probably have to spend some time cutting out extra words and sentences and slimming down your prose. Itís a good idea to contact a professional editor during this phase, if you havenít already, to get help with word choices, grammatical and spelling errors, and general stylistic advice. Once you have stared at an essay for several hours, itís hard to spot the problem areas. A professional editor will not only help you fine-tune the essay, but they will have lots of practice at cutting out words while preserving the message.

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