Write It Right


Here are five terrific tips for writing a winning essay.

Your college application essay matters. Not only does it showcase your writing ability, but it also highlights your personality and helps you stand out in a crowd of applicants. Here are five tips to help you write it right:

1. Pick the Right Topic

If the application asks you to respond to a particular question, your job will be easier because the focus of the essay has been provided. However, if you're expected to pick your own topic, choose wisely. The best topics are those that no other—or very few—students could write about. Which experiences set you apart from others? What makes you unique? Use the essay to highlight things about yourself that aren't covered in other parts of the admissions application. These are the kinds of topics that will most likely grab and hold a reader's attention. Whatever you write, you don't have to include your entire life story. Remember, you're writing an essay, not a book. Many colleges require essays of only 500 words; so narrow your scope to a specific event or topic, and then make sure all of your supporting points are relevant.

2. Make It Personal

Admissions counselors want to know you. When they finish reading your essay, they should feel as though they have a picture of you they couldn't get any other way. They should see the human side of what you'll bring to their college community—what you're passionate about, what makes you tick. Write as though you're having a conversation with someone. Use your own unique voice and don't rely on trite, popular phrases or overly formal or businesslike language. Show your readers what you want them to know, don't just tell them. Do this by using personal examples and specific details to support your ideas. Don't boast or try to impress anyone. Instead, be positive, genuine, and humble.

3. Brainstorm and Outline

Don't try to write your essay in one sitting. First, spend some time brainstorming. Jot down whatever comes to mind about your topic. Then arrange those stray elements into an orderly outline that will create a framework for your essay. Once you have an outline, begin writing a first draft. Let the words flow—while keeping your focus in mind, of course. This is not the time to worry about spelling, grammar, and syntax. Just concentrate on getting the words down on paper (or onto the computer screen) and in some sort of orderly stream.

4. Write Efficiently and Effectively

Even if writing isn't your strong suit, you can still develop a more effective essay by following a few keys:

  • Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly.
  • Use active verbs; avoid using a passive voice.
  • Vary your sentence structure and length.
  • Use the introduction as a "grabber"— tell the reader where you're going in the essay and cause him or her to want to come along.
  • Write transitions from point to point, and from paragraph to paragraph, so they are clear and strong.
  • Cover only one main point or thought in each paragraph.
  • Use the conclusion to summarize the piece and emphasize why the experience is significant.
  • Avoid using slang or nontraditional spellings unless you're quoting someone.
  • Don't use "textspeak." Fully spell out words and punctuate correctly.

5. Get Feedback, then Edit and Proofread

Ask several people to proofread your essay. A good place to start is your parents. You could ask a teacher to look it over as well. Adults can help you catch spelling and grammar mistakes, plus give you constructive comments on the content. But a note of caution: Don't let these proofreaders put words in your mouth. The essay still needs to sound like you, not your 46-year-old dad or your 32-year-old English teacher. After you receive feedback, it's time to begin the important work of editing. Read, re-read, and then re-read some more. Edit. Edit. Edit. Look closely at the flow, tone, focus, spelling, and grammar. And don't rely on a spell checker to catch all of your mistakes. Polish your piece until you feel confident you've said what needs to be said, and said it well.

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