College Admission Essay

Photo by Janine Robinson

 

Feeling a Bit Underwater
About Your College Application Essay?

 

It’s that time of year. Most “early decision” deadlines are counting down by the day, and other major deadlines aren’t far behind. Stay calm. Read my blog. Target your essay writing needs by using the indexed listing called “Help By Topic” in the right sidebar.

My last post was about an article that a USA Today reporter wrote sharing my advice on these essays, as well as tips from other college experts. When we first spoke, the reporter asked me to put together a list of my best tips. In her article, she wove in some of the tips I sent her, but I thought students might find the entire list I sent her even more helpful. So here it is:

 Essay Hell’s Top 10 Tips
For Writing Standout
College Application Essays

  

1.   Don’t try to impress. Instead, look for topics that are “mundane,” or everyday. (Scooping ice cream; singing karaoke; riding public busses; having big feet, etc.) It’s counter-intuitive, but those lead to the most memorable essays.

2.   Forget the 5-paragraph essay. These are not the formal, pedantic essays from English class. Narrative style, personal essays are written in a more casual, familiar style and voice.  Write more like you talk.

3.   Trust your stories. Look back for real-life moments or experiences you can share to illustrate something about yourself, such as a core quality, talent, value or skill. Share these “anecdotes,” using creative writing techniques such as concrete details, scene-setting and dialogue, to engage the reader at the start.

4.   Focus the point you are making about yourself in your essay. Pick one aspect of yourself to explore instead of trying to jam in all the great things you have done with your life. General essays are almost always dull. 

5.   Show your grit. This means your “raw determination” to face and deal with problems you have encountered. If you share a problem—you are set to also talk about how you handled it and what your learned. (Problem=challenge, obstacle, change, mistake, failure, phobia, crisis, etc.). 

6.   Include something “that happened.” If you only tell and explain about yourself, it can get boring to read. Dull essays land in bottom of the pile. Start with a little action. Problems work best. 

7.   Open up to connect with your reader. If you share your feelings, and even your failures and shortcomings, it makes your essay (and you) more accessible. You want to be “likable. 

8.   Take a risk. Try to find a topic that shows something about you that the college would not learn in any other parts of your application. Tell them something that might surprise them; something unexpected. Don’t be afraid to be different. Colleges love that. 

9.   Read sample essays. You can find inspiration for your own topics when you read what others students have written about, and also learn how to write in a narrative style. Find them online and in essay collections in books. My collection of essays written by former students, “Heavenly Essays,” features excellent narrative essays.

10. Be careful of overdone or loaded topicssuch as sports injuries, mission trips, pets, death, illness, divorce, etc. You can write a great essay about almost any topic. It’s all about what you have to say that’s specific and original. If you faced a life crisis, and it rocked your world, you almost can’t help write about it. If you choose a sensational or overdone topic, make sure to keep the focus on you and something specific within that topic.

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 Photo via USA Today and iStock

My Essay Advice in USA Today Article!

A young reporter from USA Today interviewed me the other day to collect some of my tips on writing college application essays. She included advice from other top college experts as well. If you’ve read my blog, you’ve probably heard most of it before, but thought you might find the article helpful anyway:

9 essay writing tips to ‘wow’ college admissions officers

By: 
October 23, 2014

You’ve taken the tests, requested the recommendations, completed the common app, and now it’s finally time to refocus on what you’ve been putting off: the essay.

While most students spend days, sometimes weeks, perfecting their personal statements, admissions officers only spend about three to five minutes actually reading them, according to Jim Rawlins, director of admissions at the University of Oregon.

High school seniors are faced with the challenge of summarizing the last 17 years into 600 words, all while showcasing their “unique” personality against thousands of other candidates.

“It’s hard to find a balance between sounding professional and smart without using all of those long words,” says Lily Klass, a senior at Milford High School in Milford, Mass. “I’m having trouble reflect myself without sounding arrogant or rude or anything like that.”

The following tips will help applicants make the leap from ‘average’ to ‘accepted’:

1. Open with an anecdote.

Since the admissions officers only spend a brief amount of time reviewing stories, it’s pivotal that you engage them from the very beginning.

“Instead of trying to come up with gimmicky, catchy first lines, start by sharing a moment,” says Janine Robinson, writing coach and founder of Essay Hell. “These mini stories naturally grab the reader … it’s the best way to really involve them in the story.”

Let the moment you choose be revealing of your personality and character. Describe how it shaped who you are today and who you will be tomorrow.

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college application essay

I’ve been meaning to write about the hubbub around the high school student who got accepted into all eight Ivy League schools last April. It was an amazing and well-deserved accomplishment for Kwasi Enin, a 17-year-old from Long Island, New York.

Because of his feat, the media and some college experts have held up his college application essay as one of the main reasons he was accepted. And it has been championed now as an example of a great essay.

I do not agree with this at all. I thought his essay was mediocre at best. (Read Kwasi’s essay and see for yourself.)

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Looking for your World to answer the University of California Prompt 1?

 

A high school English teacher contacted me this week asking if I had any sample essays for the University of California college application Prompt 1.

She was using my guides and Essay Hell blog posts to help teach her students how to write their college application essays. (Those are some lucky students!)

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If you are struggling with your college application essay right about now, you might be cursing the entire process. And I don’t blame you. You are supposed to think up some fascinating topic that will grab the attention of those bored-to-tears admissions officers and help your application stand out among the thousands of other students vying for the same spot at your dream college.

All the experts tell you “Just be yourself!” or “Tell a story.” While they are right, it’s totally normal that you don’t have much confidence in how to do that in 650 words or less. Most high school students have not been taught how to write a narrative (story-telling style) personal essay. And to write good ones takes a lot of practice. 

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If you’ve been looking for help with your college application essay, I assume you have discovered the mountains of information (some helpful; a lot no so much) out there on the Web. One of my favorite resources for students is The Prospect, which is an organization centered on college admissions and high school/college life.

The main reason I love The Prospect so much is that it is all about helping students survive high school and get into the college of their dreams–but it’s also run by students like you! Their talented staff offered to share some of their best essay-writing tips here on Essay Hell. I think you will find their foodie-approach fun, inspiring and useful!

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Why You Chose Your Major: A Love Story

If you want to transfer into any of the University of California schools (UCLA, Berkeley, UCI, UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, etc.), you need to write two college application essays. One is the same prompt that all students are required to write—which basically asks for a personal statement style essay. It’s known as Prompt 2, and I wrote “Personal Quality, Talent, Achievement…”  as a guide on how to write this essay in a narrative style.

Now I want to offer some ideas on how to answer the second prompt required for transfer students:

Transfer Student Prompt 1: What is your intended major? Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had in the field — such as volunteer work, internships and employment, participation in student organizations and activities — and what you have gained from your involvement. 

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I confess: I love anecdotes. These are basically when a writer shares a mini-story about a real-life moment or experience. Usually, they are plucked out of the past, and presented without much introduction. Their power is that they draw you into a story, or college application essay, by starting with a punch of drama. Anecdotes make awesome introductions.

The key is to get as close to the action as possible. I’ve written tips and advice on how to write anecdotes, but thought I would try to model an example. They seem so simple when you read them, but they are harder than you might think to craft. The trick is to practice, and study how other anecdotes are put together. The most common place to find them is at the start of longer newspaper pieces or magazine stories, or of course, personal (narrative) essays.

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Oops. Not again! We are talking about supplements for college application essays. Not vitamin supplements. Geez!

Even though supplemental essays usually are short—usually a paragraph or two—many students are stumped on how to structure them. Or on just how to start or end them.

In general, since they are so short, you don’t have to get fancy. Jump right into your points or answers. Be direct, but include details and specific examples.

Here are a couple ideas to help you get going. These are for the most common supp: “Why you at our college?” or “What will you contribute to our college?” or “Why do you want to go to our college?” My last post, 10 Tips to Power Your Supplemental Essays, can help you find great information to include in these short essays.

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Oops. Wrong SUP. We are talking college application essay supplements here. Haha.

I just gave a workshop on how to write college supplement essays to a group of college-bound students yesterday, and wanted to share some of the advice and tips on how to make them stand out. We talked mainly about the most common supplement prompt you will find this year: Why you at our college?

On applications, this prompt is stated in a variety of ways, from asking you to tell them why you are a fit, or what you will bring or contribute to their school, or just why you want to go there.

This prompt, though tiresome, is worth spending time on, especially for your top pick schools.

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