You are finally finished with your essay. It’s time to copy it into the online application and send it off. You’ve worked hard. Why not make sure it’s fabulous? Follow this checklist to double check that it’s as good as it should be:
Read your prompt (the question) one more time. Often a prompt will ask you to answer more than one question, or address several points. Make sure you address or answer them all!
Did you make your point? (Yes, that’s the same thing as your “main point.”) You should be able to state it in a sentence or two. And it should be stated somewhere in your essay as well. If you can’t do this, chances are your essay is too broad, and too broad means boring.
Do you prove the (main) point you are making in your essay? Did you provide examples as “evidence”?
When you give examples in your essay, or describe something, are you specific? Use details!
My students have discovered some of their best topic ideas for their college application essays from their job experiences.
I’m not sure why they make great fodder for college essays, but I believe that simply working for others naturally reveals a complimentary set of qualities, skills and values—humility, determination, perseverance, responsibility, people skills, industriousness, dependability, and the good old work ethic.
It’s no coincidence that these are the same qualities and skills that you need to succeed in college—and what college admissions folks are looking for!
I also think work experiences often fall under the category of “mundane” or everyday topics—which is a good thing!
Former students have written lively essays out working at places like Circuit City, a shoe store, ushering at a playhouse, serving gelato, washing dishes at fancy restaurant, bagging groceries at Ralph’s, working at Dunkin Donuts, etc.
Most work places lack glamour, and that naturally makes them feel “real,” authentic and interesting.
And although we have all worked in our lives, it’s always fun to learn about what it’s like at those places we never worked, no matter how pedestrian they seem (so the essays are naturally interesting to read).
When you think of past jobs, explore them for those other features that make great essays:
Something happened. (Look for a little story or moment or example to tell)
There was a problem. (Something went wrong; you messed up; you couldn’t do it correctly; you were scared; someone was in your way; etc.)
The event or context was “mundane,” meaning simple and common in nature. (in this case, your job or the related problem: cleaning houses, serving burgers, etc.)
You learned a lesson. (How you turned something negative into a positive.)
In journalism, writers often use “anecdotal leads,” that is, starting a news or feature story with a mini-story about a real-life event, one that puts the reader in the middle of the action.
Usually, the anecdote only describes a single moment or incident.
But it’s usually a highlight.
Anecdotes make great introductions for college essays. (I believe there’s no better way to “grab” your reader than to start a story–or your essay–at the most exciting part!) So how do you write an anecdote? Here are some tips.
Start at the peak of the drama or excitement or conflict. Jump right in! (You will just back up and explain it later.)
Set the scene: Describe what you see, what you hear, what you feel (both literally and figuratively), what you smell and taste, if relevant. These are called sensory details.
Use the 5 Ws—Who was involved? What happened. Where did it happen? When did it happen? Why did it happen? ( “H”: How did it happen?)
Paint a picture with your words, or even better, describe a snippet of video. Zoom in on the action.
Usually the “action” in your anecdote takes place in a matter of a few minutes.
Throw in a line or two of dialogue to add drama or move the action forward.
Use “concrete details.” Be specific! Instead of saying, “The dog ran up to me.” Say, “the neighbor’s bull terrier, Brutus, charged me…”
In general, use short sentences or mix up the short and long.
Don’t worry about the background or explaining the larger context of the moment. You can back up and explain that in the next paragraph.
Borrow techniques you find in fiction writing: concrete details, dialogue, proper nouns, descriptive language, emotion, strong characters, etc.
Use simple language (avoid SAT vocab. words). Write with nouns and action verbs. Go easy on the adjectives.
If your mini-story (anecdote) takes three paragraphs to relate, try to go back and see if you can cut it down to two or even one paragraph by keeping only what you need to re-create the moment. You will be surprised how you can shorten them, and actually make them better!
“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cut out all the wrong words.” Mark Twain
Finding the Life Lesson
in Your College Admission Essay
A key component of a powerful personal narrative (essay) is what’s called a “universal truth.”
They are also called “life lessons.”
Basically, when the writer starts to reflect upon the personal lessons learned from an experience, she or he needs to make sure to show why the lesson is important to everyone else as well—that is, why it is true on a universal level.
What is a universal truth?
Often, they are so “true” that they seem almost silly to say out loud.
Be true to yourself.
What goes around comes around.
Cheaters never win.
Never say never.
Sometimes you have to lose in order to win.
You can’t always get what you want.
Face your fears.
What goes around comes around(eg Karma).
You reap what you sow (you get out of life what you put into it).
(Try putting, “In life, …” before the universal truth to test it out.)
Read some sample essays and see if you can find the “universal truth.”
In your own college application essay, you don’t necessarily have to state the universal truth, however, at some point you should at least touch on it, usually toward the end.
If you need help getting started with your college application essay or personal statement, try my Jumpstart Guide.
I have mentioned these titles before, but these are my three favorites:
There are a jillion of these how-to books on the market, and all have helpful things to say. However, the advice in these books is spot-on, and they include helpful sample essays and are inspiring to read. Both are available at Amazon.com and are inexpensive.
Reading sample essays is one of the best ways for students to get ideas for topics for their own essays, as well as get a feel for the more casual style and tone of these pieces. I also believe both authors do a good job of taking some of the pressure off these dreaded assignments. The Harvard collection also includes wonderful analyses at the end of each sample essay.
I began this blog when my daughter was a junior in high school and starting her college application process. Like a lot of parents and applicants, I thought she needed some amazing experience in order to write a fabulous essay. The good news is that I was wrong! In fact, I have learned, and now preach, that the most mundane topics actually produce the strongest, most compelling essays.
Now, my son is a junior in high school. So here we go again. If it’s helpful, I will share how I’m going to try to help him with his college admissions essays. It’s never too early to start these, but the reality is most kids don’t get cranking on them until the summer before their senior year, and many wait until later than that. (As with all writing, deadlines can be the best motivators.) My advice to parents and students is to just start thinking and brainstorming about possible topics now, and jot down general areas of interest and experiences that you want to mine. I will do this for my own son and share the process with you in the next post. (You might find it helpful to scroll down my blog and read the entries regarding topics, so you have a better idea of what we are trolling for.)
Remember, don’t work yourself up into a tizzy over these. Everyone has interesting stories to tell. Do your best to keep the pressure and anxiety level low. These aren’t that difficult. They do get done. And most are really good!
If you say you are creative, give an example of a time you were creative. Don’t just say you were creative, but include details about how you were creative.
Example: When I made a self-portrait of myself in art class, I used paper mache and stuck in objects, like shells, sea glass and plant pods, to show my eyes and other features.”
Famous writing coach Roy Peter Clark always says, “Name the dog!” He means in writing, don’t just say “The dog ran across the street.” Instead, say, “The three-legged Bulldog named Rex crossed the street.” See the difference?
One of the best ways to write about yourself is to start with a little story, also known as an anecdote. Not only are these mini-stories compelling and natural “grabbers,” they are an excellent way to “show” the reader about yourself instead of just “telling” them. (Want to learn how to “show” your reader what sets you apart from the pack, and write in a narrative, or story-telling, style? Read THIS.)
So let’s assume you have chosen your story. (Click HERE to find great story topics!) Now, where do you start? Make sure the beginning has the most interesting, dramatic, compelling part of the story–otherwise you won’t hook your reader. It is quite common to “bury your lead,” that is, have the best part of your story, the highlight, the drama, the irony, etc., too far down in the narrative. If this is the case, just bring it up–and background it later.
Start your story at the best part, even if it happened in the middle. Start with the good stuff, the action, the impact, the peak of the problem, the punch of the moment, whatever has the most “juice.” Usually, you will only describe “a time” or moment that only lasted a few minutes. Often, this incident also will reflect on your larger message–that’s why it has that “juice.”
If you start in the middle of your story, and describe the highlight, you just need to quickly take your reader back to the beginning of your story in the following paragraph. You always want to go back and start at the beginning because that’s the most natural way to tell a story: chronologically. That way, you also end at the end, so writing your conclusion is natural and simple.
Read some sample essays that tell stories and note where the writer starts her or his story, and study how the narrative was handled. If you want more help on writing a mini-story or anecdote, read THIS POST on how to write an anecdote. If you need help getting started with your college admission essay, try my Jumpstart Guide.
As a professional writing coach, I help students, parents, counselors, teachers and others from around the world on these dreaded essays!
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