College Essay Guidance
This page is guidance for people writing essays for college applications. Still, much of it can be used for essays generally.
What to Write
Most college essay prompts, including the common app’s prompts, ask in some way why this college should accept you. Your essay’s purpose is to move an admissions officer from “I don’t know this person” to “This person should come to this college.” Everything you say should work to that end, even if it’s by way of talking about overcoming obstacles or questioning a belief or whatever else the prompt may specify.
Use the words that state your message best. Fancy words exact a cost in your reader’s attention, but may be worth using if no plain words do; unnecessarily fancy words could annoy a reader and give the impression that you are showing off.
You don’t need to use a particular essay structure like, say, the five-paragraph format, but you do need to:
- start with something interesting that makes the reader want to keep reading; and
- make your essay coherent, with everything in it fitting together and leading smoothly to the conclusion that you are the right person for this college.
Support any claims you make. “I’m a busy person with many extracurricular activities” doesn’t mean much unless you say what those activities are. Almost anyone can say “I love horses”; to build your horse creds you need to document experience riding and caring for horses. Still, the essay is not the place to repeat your record, because admissions officers can see that from your transcript and other parts of your application. State just enough to support your claims.
Be succinct. Don’t make your reader work more than necessary to get your point. The word limit can be your friend. If you’re over it, hunt down words that aren’t justifying their space. The hunt may lead you to better ways to say things.
The Writing Process
Are you stuck? Got writer’s block? Not able to say quite what you want? Just write. Give yourself license to write anything that comes into your head.
Then rewrite. Edit your own work ruthlessly.
Writing entails two very different processes: creating and critiquing. It’s tough to be creative when you’re busy worrying about clarity, grammar, punctuation, logic, etc. And it’s tough to worry about all those things when your brain is busy firing off creative ideas. So separate the processes:
- Just write.
- Read your writing critically. Does it make sense? Does it say what you want? Is it as clear as it can be? Are your grammar and spelling correct? Are there places where you feel yourself stumble when you read it? That feeling of hitting a bump is your cue to rewrite. Critique every aspect of your draft. The hard part is being honest with yourself.
- Fix those bumps. It’s creative time again. Come up with something, anything that comes to mind.
- Repeat from step 2.
Keep writing freely and criticizing brutally until your essay is what you want it to be.
Everyone has quirks. Some words may not mean the same thing to everyone else as they mean to you, and ways you put sentences together may not work for the reader. A review by someone else can help you weed these things out. Ask someone – a friend, a parent, a teacher – to help you. Or use my service: Sign your student up.
Do all that and you’ll end up with an essay that shows you at your best.