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Helpful tips about college admissions, test preparation and just being a better student, leader and person from ILUMIN Education.

9 Tips for Writing Effective College Essays


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As students come back from summer break, the topic on the minds of many seniors is the college application. As in years past, the vast majority of colleges that utilize the Common Application (and Coalition Application) require that students write a personal essay. How do you write 500-650 words about yourself? Here are some of our suggestions:

  1. Start Now — While college deadlines may seem far off—after all, January 1st is over four months away—the fall of senior year is often one of the busiest times of a high school student’s life, and you’ll be glad that you started your college application essays early. With tests, homework, standardized tests, sports, leadership activities, and not to mention a social life to manage, many seniors are overwhelmed when they add college applications on top of their towering to-do piles.  And don’t forget that some early application deadlines (like Georgia Tech’s Early Action deadline) come as early as October 15th.

  2. Show, Don’t Tell — Because you only have a limited amount of space, it’s tempting to summarize your main points or to list achievements or activities for the Common App or Coalition App essays. But anecdotes and details will help your point come across far more effectively than just stating facts or conclusions. Think about how to tell a story to illustrate your point. For example, if you want to demonstrate that you are an innovative thinker, it’s probably better to share the story of that time you helped your robotics team come up with a different way of approaching your project rather than to list all of your awards from robotics (which you will do anyways in a different section of the application).

    Think about how to help the reader imagine a poignant moment or a significant realization you had. Oftentimes, direct quotes or even internal monologue can play an important role. You might want to use metaphors or imagery, and you should certainly feel free to start your essay in medias res (in the middle of the story).

  3. Simpler is Better — While some students think that using complex or rarely used vocabulary in their essays demonstrate their high level of linguistic competence, simpler is better. Don’t be afraid to use short sentences, contractions, and an informal tone. Of course, you’ll want to vary sentence structure and length, but make sure that you are communicating clearly. Write in the active voice.  And if you don’t normally use certain vocabulary in your speech or writing, don’t debut it in your personal statement.

  4. Avoid Common Topics — As we mentioned in our previous blog past [link this to the Essay Topics to Avoid post], there are some topics that are more common than others. For example, many students take (and write about) “The Trip.” Another very common experience is a sports (or any type of competition) victory.  This is not to say that you absolutely shouldn’t write about those topics, but that you should proceed with caution, knowing that you’ll need to make a concerted effort to stand out from the crowd if you do decide to write about these topics.

  5. Avoid Negativity — Most students don’t do this consciously, but we’ve read many essays that detail a teacher’s (or parent’s or coach’s) unfairness or harshness or complained about school or family culture. While these sentiments may be completely justified, they leave a bad taste in a reader’s mouth because without knowing the student, this is the first and only impression that an admissions reader will have of this person. You don’t want to waste your one chance to make a good impression. If you do experience significant challenges because of someone else’s actions and choices, please see below.

  6. Describe Growth and Change — Tough things happen in life. People get sick and/or die. Parents get divorced. Loved ones may become addicted to alcohol or other substances. Students have disabilities and some have depression or other mental illnesses. The natural response in these circumstances is to write about the situation and describe it in detail. But that’s exactly what you should not do in your personal statement. In some cases, students should write a more detailed account of the challenging circumstance under “Additional Information,” but for the college essay, you should focus not on the particulars of the situation but on how you grew or changed from having to deal with the situation.

    The most effective essays are those that focus on growth, even if the challenge is something as mundane as stage fright, moving to a new school, or even just a crippling shyness. You’ll want to display a “before” and “after” verbal snapshot of yourself and described what caused the change or what realizations you came to during the process.

  7. Write and Re-Write — I’m the kind of writer that likes to write just one draft. I’m not a big fan of re-visiting my own writing. This approach works in writing research papers and other types of essays, but it does not work in the college essay because your subject (i.e., yourself) is evolving and changing as time progresses. Our students are always surprised when we tell them to expect to write at least five drafts of their Common App essay. In actuality, the majority of students will write ten drafts of that essay. It’s also not uncommon for students to change topics midstream, abandoning the fourth draft of one essay to start a completely different one. And there is something invaluable that happens during the re-writing process: students get to know themselves better and learn how to reflect and express themselves in this type of genre.

    One note on word count: it often helps in writing college essays to overshoot the word limit in the earlier drafts to ensure that all the content you want to include is in there before cutting it down to size when editing the later drafts.

  8. Find a Trustworthy Editor — Although too many voices giving input to your essay may muddle your thoughts, you should find one editor that you trust. This person can be a friend, a teacher, or preferably someone who is familiar with the college application process. Have them read a close-to-finished draft and give you input on content and tone. Of course, you might have grammatical issues as well, but it often helps to have someone who knows you well read your essay to see if it reflects who you really are. Anyone can help you with grammar, vocabulary, and phrasing, but only someone who knows you can give you accurate input as to the content.

  9. Read the Final Version Aloud — It may sound crazy to do this, but this is one of my best tips for students before they submit their applications. I often catch errors or awkward phrasing in my own writing when I read it out loud. Because a college essay is an informal, memoir-style piece of writing, it should sound natural read aloud, almost like a short story or something you’d share with a friend (but written in a more polished form). Give it a try—what do you have to lose?

We have many more tips for students as they work on their college essays.  Contact ILUMIN Education for more suggestions: OR (408) 479-4742.