College Application Essays: Best Writing Advice

Five Hot Tips to Use on Your Essay


It’s hard to find good advice on writing. Here are five of my favorite tips from the best of the best:


Anne Lamott

1. If you are just starting to write your college application essay, take writer Anne Lamott’s advice and give yourself permission to write a “shitty first draft.” This is how all writers work–and you should, too. Just get a loose plan, and then write. Get it all out. Don’t worry about finding the exact right words, or the correct spelling, or landing your commas in the right place. Just let it rip. You can go back later and worry about those details. (This doesn’t mean that you try to write a shitty rough draft; it just means that if your rough draft is shitty, that’s okay. You can edit it later.)

If you are one of those straight A, honors and AP class types, she’s probably talking to YOU:

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.

― Anne LamottBird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Gary Provost via


2.  So you have pounded out a rough draft, and you are trying to make your essay more engaging and readable. The easiest way to pick up the tempo is to go back and vary the length of your sentences. And include lots of short ones. Read this amazing paragraph by writing instructor Gary Provost to quickly see how this works:

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

–Gary Provost



Mark Twain

3.  Here’s another way to clean up your essay and make it stronger. This advice is as brilliant as it is simple. I’m still learning to trim my adjectives, too. It’s hard to resist them. You think they make your nouns stronger, better, more accurate. But not always. Take it from the man who knows how to grab and punch you with his words. Here’s a sentence overdosing on adjectives: When I was in my darkened, unkept bedroom, I took my small, fluffy striped pillow and threw it out the square,screened-in window. The idea is if you take out a few of these adjectives, the others have more impact.

When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them–then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are far apart.

― Mark Twain


Stephen King

4. Another type of word to avoid over using is the adverb. Those are words that mainly describe verbs, and usually end in -ly. Quickly, happily, stupidly, normally, angrily, etc. The idea is that we usually don’t need them to make our point. Here’s what horror writer Stephen King has to say about them:

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.

–Stephen King

If you want to read King’s entire diatribe about them, click this link. The idea is that when you proofread something you wrote, look for these and take them out if you use them too often.

Nora Roberts

5. Finally, if you want one of the best tips to writing–including your college application essay–try this one. Nora Roberts, a popular novelist, was asked about her key to success during an interview for a profile in The New Yorker magazine. Her answer? Ass in the chairThat’s right. Just sit down and write something. You don’t have to spend hours. Just start and write for fifteen minutes. Then come back the next day for a half hour. Before you know it, you will have a draft. It’s the same idea as putting on your running shorts to go for a run. Just do it.

If you want help starting your college admissions essay, try my Jumpstart Guide.