Writing the College Essay: Seven Tips to Minimize Stress and Maximize Success

By:  Francine Schwartz  - Pathfinder Counseling LLC

It is nearing midnight sometime in the middle of December. You have been staring at a blank computer screen for the last two hours.  Stacks of college application materials liter your desk. It feels like your entire future hinges upon creating this literary masterpiece called the college essay. Your parents have long since gone up to sleep. You envision them tossing and turning; worrying if you will ever finish your college applications by the deadlines looming ahead in the next month.

Does this scene sound familiar? You are not alone. For many students writing the essay is the single largest source of anxiety in the entire college application process. It needn’t be. Read the tips and ideas below to help you gain the confidence and competence you need to write an essay that will enhance your college application.

Understand the purpose of the college application essay: Colleges use the essay, sometimes called a personal statement, to assess the student’s critical thinking and writing abilities. This helps to ensure that the student can do the required level of work. The essay also assists the admissions officer to determine whether the student is a good fit, in addition to someone who will contribute something unique to the incoming freshman class. The essay is often the student’s one opportunity to tell college admissions representatives something about themselves that cannot be found on transcripts, lists of extracurricular activities; test scores or recommendations.  Therefore do not repeat information that you have already included elsewhere in your application.  A great essay presents a vivid, personal and compelling view of you and can round out the rest of your application.

Know the mechanics of writing an essay: Pay careful attention to the question asked and the number of words required. Review what you have learned in English class about the structure of the standard five paragraph essay.  The steps in writing your essay should include: picking a topic; preparing an outline or diagram of your ideas; writing a thesis statement; writing the body; writing the introduction; writing the conclusion; and proofreading.  Your introduction should grab the reader’s attention. Keep in mind college admissions officers can easily read fifty sets of essays a night. Polish your first sentence like a gem; it sets the tone and direction of your essay. 

Narrow your focus: You may either have your topic assigned, be asked to choose among a list of topics, as in the common application, or be given free reign to write on the subject of your choosing. Whatever the case may be, narrow the focus of your essay. Since you only have one-and-a-half to two pages for this essay you should not try to tell your whole life story. If you cover too much ground you will be forced to be superficial. Pick a maximum of three main points and concentrate on proving them. Develop your argument or narrative with captivating details, specific facts, events, quotations, examples and reasons.

Choose your topic carefully: What is the best way to select a topic? Colleges sincerely want to know who you are. They hope to attract a class of diverse students. Consider how you are unique. Ask yourself: how do I view the world? ; What do I care deeply about? What experiences and people have been important in shaping me as a person? What are my goals in life?  Most importantly, what have you learned from your experiences and how have you grown and matured from them? An essay about failure can sometimes be more compelling than one about success.
Try to bring something new to the table. Avoid what admissions officers call the “Three D’s: death, divorce and disease as topics. Don’t resort to gimmicks. Focus on yourself and not what you think the admissions committee wants to hear. Show don’t tell. Make your reader see, hear, smell, taste and touch all that you are describing.

Your own work is a must: In my work as a college consultant I have met hundreds of college representatives.  They are not ogres who enjoy making students and families squirm, but nice folks who genuinely like students and want them to succeed. They also are very savvy about knowing the difference between the “voice” of a seventeen year old and a 45 year old.  You don’t need to impress them with your ability to use a thesaurus or write like an award winning author. You do need to turn in an essay that is completely your own. Doing otherwise will jeopardize your chances of admission.

Proofread and Proofread again: Now for the finishing touches. Check the order of your paragraphs. Your strongest points should be the first and last paragraphs within the body. Make sure your paragraph order makes sense. Double check the instructions for your essay and make sure you followed them. At all costs avoid typos and spelling and grammatical errors. These can be interpreted as carelessness or poor writing. Don’t rely on your computer’s spell-checker. Have a qualified adult such as an English teacher proofread your essay. Print out a hard copy and double check everything before hitting click and send. 

Final Advice:  Millions of students have survived writing the college essay and you will too! The best piece of advice is to get started long before the deadlines approach.  Junior year is a great time to begin brainstorming to find essay topics.  During the summer, before the hectic pace of senior year, complete an essay from the Common Application or from a school you have selected that doesn’t use the Common Application. However, if you find yourself burning the midnight oil, use the tips above and you will write a great essay!

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Pathfinder Counseling LLC
College Bound Direction

Phone: 860-460-8829

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