Perhaps the most daunting component of any college application is the essay. It is the only part of the application in the student’s hands that is obviously subjective. To make matters worse, most colleges will not tell you if they essay is a make-or-break factor for admission. The stereotypical admissions office line “The essay will not be the downfall of an otherwise phenomenal application” falls mostly on deaf ears. Be that as it may, the college essay is still a major part of the application – without it, you are a spreadsheet of statistics to be compared with other spreadsheets. Your essay is your time to add another dimension to the spreadsheet, and make it into a living and breathing individual.
Good essay writing requires more than minimal effort. If you are willing to persevere, you will likely end up with an essay that you feel represents your best work. Writing an essay is a process. Follow these steps and you will be well on your way to writing an excellent essay.
0. Start early! Very early! Not two days before the application is due. Not one week before the application is due. If you start a month early, you will not feel rushed, and you will not have to deal with a college essay, three tests and a project in one night. You should at least be reading the topic a month beforehand. It doesn’t hurt to do the draft a month beforehand either.
1. Make sure you know and understand what to write about. This is usually not a concern, as many colleges present open prompts. However, it is not pleasant to find out two days before your application is due that your finely crafted essay must be scrapped because it does not address the topic. Find and read the prompt. Reread the prompt. For good measure, print the prompt and stick it under your pillow. If you aren’t sure you understand the prompt, ask somebody else. Did I mention you should read the prompt?
2. Prewrite about the prompt. Get a piece of blank paper, write the topic in the middle, and start writing ideas about the topic. If you are responding to an open prompt (that you’ve read), then list ideas for a topic. Draw pictures if it helps. Make a paper airplane if it helps. If you work better with lined paper, or a computer, or even a tape recorder, use it. Pull the ideas out of your head and record them so you can remember. If you know you work best without prewriting, then write a draft. The main goal here is to get a topic and some ideas down on paper so you can look at them later and coalesce them into a focused draft.
3. Write a first draft. It is time to take the ideas that have been floating about in your mind and codify them in an essay. Do not be overly concerned with grammar or word choice – you can fix errors later. Let your ideas flow freely, yet do not stray too far from the topic at hand. If you are having trouble determining what to say next, leave the piece and come back another time. If you still can’t think of a fitting continuation after an overnight respite, write something even if you do not think it is up to snuff. You can revise it later, and it may help draw ideas out of your mind. Remember that this is a draft, and anything that is written can be rewritten or removed at a later date.
4. Revise your draft. This revision should tackle the overall structure of the essay. Is your intro a true introduction to your essay? Does it make a reader want to read more? Does it address the same ideas as the body of the essay? At this point you should determine what ideas you want to keep and which ones you think do not help your essay. Is there a paragraph in the body that only remotely addresses the topic? Revise it heavily or cut it entirely. This step may entail multiple drafts, each one hopefully more focused on the main idea. At the end, you want to have a focused essay that addresses only the points you want to address.
5. Show your essay to other people. When you show your essay to other people is entirely up to you. You may want to show others your first draft and have them comment on the basic theme of the essay. You may want to revise your writing yourself and show others a focused essay that has not been perused for grammatical minutiae. You may want to perfect your essay to the best of your ability and then show it to others. I recommend that you show people your essay either after the first draft or after revising your essay for focus – when you show a “perfect” essay to other people, you will have a harder time integrating their suggestions into your framework. In any case, you should let others read your work. Different people will approach your writing from different angles, so it is best to have multiple readers. Your teacher may have an excellent eye for grammar, but your peers have more personal experience with you. When you get comments, write them down if the person hasn’t already, and look at them later, when the nerves of the moment have calmed down. Remember, you do not have to take every bit of advice you receive. Analyze the suggestions and decide if you think implementing them will improve your essay.
6. Revise your draft again. Now that you have a focused draft and some other opinions, it is time to tackle some grammatical issues. Read each sentence multiple times, making sure it has no awkward moments that may distract or confuse a reader. Read each sentence slowly, word-by-word, to make sure you haven’t mistakenly said “of” instead of “on.” Read the sentences in reverse order – this will help you determine if the meanings of your sentences are clear. Make sure you have no run-on sentences or fragments. Check for excess verbiage. Do a spell check. This step too may comprise multiple drafts. At the end, you should have a focused and streamlined product that is nearly perfect.
7. Let it sit for a while. Leave it alone – don’t think about it, don’t read it, don’t revise it, don’t look at it. Waiting a day or a week will help you look at your writing more objectively. You may notice some things you never would have seen before.
8. Read it through and fine-tune minor details. Make sure everything is perfect. Check all punctuation. Make sure your hyphens are not dashes. Dot each “i” and cross every “t”. Check the essay guidelines to determine any formatting rules and adhere to them. You may want to have somebody else read it to get a final opinion. Do a spell check to make sure
9. Send it off and forget about it. If you are confident that you have done your best work, send it off. Make sure it is properly formatted, and that you know exactly where to send it or where to paste it. If your application is online, check the formatting to make sure nothing bizarre has occurred. Get it ready and send it. Then forget about it – you’ve succeeded at least in submitting your best. It’s out of your hands now.
With time and effort, you will have nothing less than your best work ready to show to colleges. Read the quick tips below for a few good points and tips to use when writing your essay.
Some quick tips for a great essay:
-Read out loud! I cannot stress enough the value of hearing your writing read aloud. Reading your own work with your own voice exposes numerous errors that may be missed in a silent read. If a sentence sounds clunky when you say it aloud, it is probably in need of streamlining. At every stage of revising, read aloud. Read sentence by sentence. Read the sentences in reverse order. Read with exaggerated expression. You will find saying your essay aloud helps a great deal.
– Keep your essay concise. Admissions officers do not want to read four or five pages – they have upwards of 20,000 other essays to read. One to one and a half pages, double-spaced, Times New Roman 12pt. with one inch margins is a good standard.
– Do not allow redundancy or excess verbosity. If you’ve said something, do not unintentionally say it again in a different way. Check every word to see if it adds to the meaning of the sentence. You don’t need to call something “omnipotent” and “all-powerful” – choose the word that fits better in context. Avoid long sentences that say little. “The ever-present creature that was always in his world never seemed to leave his abode” presents the same information in three ways – this can only detract from your essay.
– Avoid overusing the thesaurus. Don’t simply replace a simple word like “wordy” with a complex one like “loquacious” unless you are sure you understand the complex word. Avoid sentences like “His multitudinous aptitudes were manifested by his assemblage of decorations.” They are difficult to read and project an unfavorable image of your writing skills.
– There are stylistic uses for elements such as repetition and sentence fragments. It is probably unwise to use these in an essay unless you are certain your intentions will be understood. You are not writing a novel or a piece to be published in a magazine. You will not be penalized for not using repetition as a literary device. You may be penalized if the reader thinks you merely do not understand the language very well.
– Avoid humor unless you know you write excellent comedic prose. It is very difficult to write something humorous and have it be successful. Humor can come off as sarcastic, cynical, boorish, offensive, or simply boring. The admissions officers reading your essay have little insight into your personality besides the recommendations and your essay. You probably don’t want them to think cynicism is your defining personality trait.
– People work in different ways. Some people like to let others read their first drafts, while others only want to display a finished product. Some people prefer to prewrite, while others prefer to delve right into drafting. These are choices you make for yourself, depending on your preferences. Even so, claiming you write well under pressure is no excuse for leaving your essay to the last minute. If you think your best work comes unrevised, revise it and test your theory.
– If you are willing to pay, you many want to have a professional college essay reader peruse your essay. These people know what makes a phenomenal college essay, and they will help you shape your essay so it falls into that category. These services are not cheap – be prepared to pay. Be sure you can accept the fact that you used this service and that others may look down on you because of it. And, as always, make sure you still write your own essay – don’t let somebody else summarize a list of points you’ve written out.
– Remember, this is your essay. Not your teacher’s essay; not your parents’ essay. Your own voice needs to shine through. While colleges are interested in making sure you can write correctly, admissions officers know that sometimes parents write their children’s essays. You want to communicate with the college staff – your parents are not vying for admission. Write your own essay.