By Nancy Graham
1. Know what it’s for.
Your college application essay is a way for people you’ve never met to get some sense of who you are—what drives your intellect, what matters to you, what you love most in this world, what you’re doing when you are most engaged and most at ease, and what it will be like to study and socialize with you on campus. The essay that will fit the bill is the one that shares an experience that feels important to you.
2. Read other essays.
Reading other essays will trigger ideas about your own. You’ll get a feel for what kind of story can be told in a few hundred words and how some writers have made the form their own. My favorite site for sample essays is Johns Hopkins University’s “Essays That Worked.” Of course, there’s no need to confine yourself to college essays for inspiration! Check out The Best American Essays series (affiliate link—thank you for supporting Brave Writer!) or spend a weekend with James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Zadie Smith, Annie Dillard, Ralph Waldo Emerson, or your favorite essayist.
3. Make lists.
Before you choose a prompt, try making a few lists.
Some useful lists:
- everything in your room,
- your favorite objects,
- the moments in your life when you felt like giving up.
Or make lists in answer to these questions:
- What experiences have made me who I am?
- What do I love?
- Why do I want to delve into it more by going to college?
Once you’re ready to work with prompts, use them to make more lists. Let your list making lead you into a story you want to tell.
4. Think of your essay as a story.
Once you have a sense of what you’d like to write about, freewrite in 10- to 20-minute bursts. Think of your memories as short stories that build.
- What obstacles arose and how did you overcome them?
- What were the twists and turns in the story?
- What surprised you?
These can be subtle rather than big and dramatic, but they’re important because they show how you changed: how you succeeded in solving a problem, how you matured, how you transformed a difficulty into a learning experience. This will dictate the shape of your essay.
Luxuriate in the freewriting phase. Give yourself a week or two of successive freewriting to find your strongest material. The furthest thing from your mind during this phase should be your word count. You may generate thousands of words to find the nugget that will be your 650-word essay.
5. Give us the detes!
Details, details, details! Details is the word I type most often in our College Admission Essay class. Sensory details allow the reader to picture you in your life. The reader can’t do that if you only share abstract ideas. As you freewrite, connect to your five physical senses and ask yourself what sights, sounds, textures, tastes, and smells you can remember. Be as particular as you can—“I worked hard” is a start. More specific: “I rose in the dark and ran ten miles by sun-up.”
6. Remember that there are many paths to a good essay.
If you choose a story with meaning for you, and you relate it with sensory details, you will be on the road to sharing some aspect of yourself that will have relevance for the admissions committee.
Some elements that shine in successful essays:
- your character traits (your winning sense of humor, your curiosity or perseverance, your enthusiasm),
- a sense of why you have picked the school you are applying to,
- a picture of you living your life and following your interests,
- a discovery about what is true for you,
- an offering—what you intend to bring to the college community.
7. What’s the big idea?
After you’ve done loads of freewriting and expanding (adding more sensory details and bits of dialogue), see if you can boil your topic down to one sentence. How about one word? Let it guide you as you continue drafting.
8. Grab a friend or family member and spill!
As you draft and revise, if you need a boost, take along a notebook and pen and pour your heart out to someone else about why your topic matters to you. Reminisce, tell stories from your life related to your topic. When you go back to drafting, think of your essay as a gift to yourself, a capstone for the early part of your life. Make it count for you.
9. Hook and release your fish—um—reader.
Your opening should pull the reader in by arousing our curiosity or cutting in on action that will sweep us along. A good opener surprises or provokes.
Your conclusion should be just that—your conclusion. It couldn’t conclude anyone else’s essay. It leaves the reader with your sense of possibility and expansion, or the feeling that a shift has taken place in you. Resist the temptation to generalize in your conclusion. Anyone can write, “Whatever happens I never give up, because being persistent is the key to making my dreams come true.” Stay specific, even while placing your experiences in a wider context. Release your readers with a clear picture of you in their minds.
10. Buff it till it shines.
- Check the shape of your essay. Does your story include obstacles that you overcome, or move through changes that lead you to a discovery?
- Check your word count and if you need to, cut. Reread and take out repetitive phrases. See where you can condense words. You want to pack as much into your word count as you can, and you can do this in small ways (“return” is one word, “go back” is two), medium ways (“I was totally and completely foamed ing from my ears”), and big ones (do you really need that whole paragraph about how never giving up is important, when the story about how you shaved seconds off your racing times until you finally won the national meet demonstrates that to the reader?).
- Run the spell check in your computer as well as the one in your brain. Use a dictionary.
- Find the mot juste—just the right word for what you are trying to say.
- Attend to your punctuation.
- Make sure your sentences are complete and clear.
- Think about adding a title. If you have leftover words in your count and you want to, a title can be a way to add meaning to an essay by giving the reader a little something extra to think about.
Let your essay sit a few days and read it again before uploading: you may catch something new.