Find Your Defining Qualities

No matter what the prompt asks for, almost any effective college essay should showcase one or several of what I call your “defining qualities.”

If the prompt asks you to write a personal statement (for The Common App), tell about yourself or wants to know why you are a fit for their university, you will need a clear idea of the core qualities or characteristics that make you who you are—that “define” you.

Once you know those, you can write an essay that helps the reader understand how you are that way, and why it matters.

Of course, along the way, you will also mention your related interests, passions, idiosyncrasies, talents, experiences, accomplishments and even your endearing flaws.

(If you are confused at this point, you might want to check out my Quickie Jumpstart Guide to better understand the role these “defining qualities” play in a college admissions essay or personal statement.) (more…)

The Ultimate Essay Checklist


College Admissions Essays

Final Checklist

So you think you are done with your college admission essay or personal statement. Wait! You have worked so hard on that essay; it’s worth an extra few minutes to make sure it’s as good as you can make it. I know you are probably sick of it by now, so if you have time set it aside for a day or so. But before you send it out, give it at least one more critical read.

It’s fine if you don’t have all of these elements, but if you have some or most of them, chances are your essay will sing!

A grabber introduction. No? Try reading THIS POST and THIS POST to see if crafting an anecdote at the start will make it more compelling and memorable.

A twist. No? Try THIS POST to learn what these are and how to find them.

A universal truth or life lesson. No? There’s a good chance you already have one, but just didn’t recognize it yet. Read THIS POST to check yours.

A snappy title. No? My advice is to include a title if you can think of a clever one. Otherwise, just leave it out. Read THIS POST to help think of one.

Under word count. No? Read THIS POST to learn how to cut your essay and why it almost always helps.



And make sure to read THIS POST on the steps to take to “fine edit” your college application essay and give it that winning polish!

I’m sure it’s perfect now! Good luck!


Should You Include an Activity Sheet? Quite possibly, YES!

What’s an Activity Sheet? Well, on The Common Application, you are given the opportunity to include “Additional Information” about yourself in the form of an Activity Sheet. This is in addition to the activity listing, where you have a dozen spaces to list extracurricular activities. The Activity Sheet is a page or more that you can format and write, and then upload directly under where you send in your core essay on the Common App.

The idea is that you can provide more details about your activities beyond those you listed in the extracurricular box. There’s considerable debate in the college counseling community as to whether you should include anything, such as an Activity Sheet or resume, and if so, how you should present it and what it should include. In a nutshell, the best advice I’ve seen is that it’s a good idea to include the Activity Sheet only if you have a specialty you want to showcase, and/or if you feel the listing of activities did not accurately represent all your interests and passions. If you do decide to include an Activity Sheet, most experts agreed on these points:

1. Don’t just duplicate what you already listed and explained in the extracurricular activities listing section. No laundry lists, please. (I would include a resume only if it doesn’t repeat what you already submitted.)

2. Keep the Activity Sheet short–one or two pages at the most.


Length matters…(kidding aside!)

College Applications Essays

Stick the Word Count–ALWAYS!


Most of your college admissions essay prompts have word limits. They tell you what is too long (example: maximum 500 words) or what is not long enough (example: minimum 250 words).  Some ask you to stick to the number of characters, as opposed to words. Characters are the number of letters, punctuation marks and spaces in between. To get a “word count” in a Microsoft Word file, just go up to your tool bar and select “Tools,” and then “Word Count,” and you can get the number of words. Counting characters is a bit harder (Baylor University, for example, uses character counts for their essays).

Here are a couple of helpful Web sites that have calculators where you can copy and paste your essay to determine how many words and/or how many characters. I think it’s worth checking and re-checking to make sure you follow the word or character count guidelines–if nothing else, it tells colleges that you can follow directions.

Here are the sites. Just copy and paste your college admissions essays or personal statements  to get the counts:

If you have any better Web sites for this, please share them in the comment box. Thanks!!

HOT OFF THE PRESSES!!! This coming year, 2011-2012, the word count requirement for the Common Application essay has CHANGED! It used to just say the essay needed to be longer than 250 words. Now they also require you to cap it at 500. So if you are smart, don’t dare go over 499 words!! If nothing else, staying within the limits on your college admissions essays and personal statements demonstrates that you can follow directions.

If you need more help and are just getting started on your college essays, try my helpful Jumpstart Guide.

If any of these tips and advice helped you with your college essay,
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Before You Push the Button

College Admissions Essay


College Admissions Essays:

 How To Fine Edit Your College Application Essay

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!


Revenge of a Tortured English Professor

If you have time, this essay (How to Say Nothing in 500 Words) is packed with invaluable advice that will help you make your college essay sing–and NOT bore those college admissions folks. An English professor wrote it in the 1960s after reading probably a zillion mind-numbingly dull essays during his long career. It’s long–and ironically a little yawny in places (revenge?)–and I mainly skimmed it for the juicy stuff.

Here’s one of my favorite parts, from the section called, “Slip Out of That Abstraction,” that describes why you should “show” instead of “tell” your points, and how to do it:

Look at the work of any professional writer and notice how constantly he is moving from the generality, the abstract statement, to the concrete example, the facts and figures, the illustrations. If he is writing on juvenile delinquency, he does not just tell you that juveniles are (it seems to him) delinquent and that (in his opinion) something should be done about it. He shows you juveniles being delinquent, tearing up movie theatres in Buffalo, stabbing high school principals in Dallas, smoking marijuana in Palo Alto. And more than likely he is moving toward some specific remedy, not just a general wringing of the hands.

It is no doubt possible to be too concrete, too illustrative or anecdotal, but few inexperienced writers err this way. For most the soundest advice is to be seeking always for the picture, to be always turning general remarks into seeable examples. Don’t say, “Sororities teach girls the social graces.” Say, “Sorority life teaches a girl how to carry on a conversation while pouring tea, without sloshing the tea into the saucer.” Don’t say, “I like certain kinds of popular music very much.” Say, “Whenever I hear Gerber Sprinklittle play ‘Mississippi Man’ on the trombone, my socks creep up my ankles.” By Paul McHenry Roberts.

(I also highlighted the strong verbs Roberts used here. In your college admissions essays and personal statements, go easy on the adjectives and adverbs–the ly’s–and push hard on those gritty, action verbs!)