First, don’t be boring. Your college essays need to be memorable—but in a positive way. That will help you stand out from other applicants.
Choose a topic you are passionate about. If it is interesting to you, it is likely to be interesting to others. Tell a story, since people are hard-wired to listen to stories. Give specific examples instead of general statements unsupported by evidence.
Avoid controversial topics like politics and religion, because the reader may react more to your position on the topic than your writing, even if you try to be balanced. Also avoid humor, because what is funny to you may not be funny to others.
But even these rules are meant to be broken.
My own college application essays were risky because they were risqué. I wrote my essays about depositing checks from Playboy at the bank. When I was a child, I wrote puzzles for Games Magazine, which was owned by Playboy Enterprises at the time. My checks came from Playboy Enterprises, Magazine Division, with no further identification.
Imagine a young boy, not yet a teenager, depositing such a check at a small, hometown bank where everybody knows his mother on a first-name basis. The teller looked at the check and then at me, with a strange expression on her face. I winked and said, “Oh, didn’t you see it? It was in the March issue.”
I closed each essay with a puzzle I custom-wrote for that college. The puzzles were laddergrams, also known as doublets and change-the-word puzzles, where the word on the top rung is changed one letter at a time into a new word, eventually reaching the word on the bottom rung. For example, you can change LEAD into GOLD in three steps: LEAD, LOAD, GOAD, GOLD. Visit www.laddergrams.com for more examples and some of my puzzle books.
My essays could easily have backfired. But they worked. I applied to only four colleges and was accepted by all of them. I found out that I had been admitted to Brown University on a campus tour. The tour ended in front of the admissions office, which displayed some of the more unusual essays the university had received. The tour guide pointed to my essay and said it took admissions staff members several hours to solve the puzzle and “needless to say, we admitted him.” That laddergram was THINK-BROWN, a particularly challenging puzzle.
Here’s another tip that can yield a powerful essay. It also works for people who suffer from writer’s block. Instead of writing or typing your essay, answer the essay question out loud, while recording your answer. Then transcribe the recording and create an outline to add structure and organization. This tip works well because people write or type at 30 to 60 words per minute but speak at about 200 words per minute. Thus, the act of writing interferes with the flow of thought. Answering the question orally also yields a more fluid and passionate essay.
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A similar tip can help with proofreading your essays. Print out a copy of your essay, so that it looks different than it appears on your computer screen. It is often easier to edit your writing if you can pretend someone else wrote it. Read it out loud, marking a red X wherever you stumble. The disfluencies are signs of a problem with the essay, such as spelling or grammar errors, the wrong word choice, or poor logic. Fix these errors and print out a new copy. Repeat the process until you can read the essay from start to finish without stumbling.
Mark Kantrowitz is one of the nation’s leading student financial aid experts. He is the author of several books about paying for college, including Filing the FAFSA, Twisdoms about Paying for College, and Secrets to Winning a Scholarship, and has served as publisher of the FinAid, Fastweb, and Edvisors websites.
Congratulations! You have waited until the very last minute to begin the college application process. But never fear – Admissions Hero is here to make sure that your procrastination doesn’t impact your essay.
We’ve included a guide for the 30-day essay, the 15-day essay, the 3-day essay, and the 1-day essay. If you have multiple essays to write in a short time, you can follow the appropriate guide for multiple prompts simultaneously, or offset it by a few days.
The 30-day Essay: I procrastinated, but the situation is not dire…right?
Day 1-4: Ideas, ideas, ideas. You have the freedom to spend a few days figuring out which direction your essay is going to take. However, this cannot be a passive process. Because you only have 30 days, you should be actively searching for four to five topics – ask your parents, friends, and teachers about what they find interesting about you in order to speed this process up. Try to choose anecdotes about your life that you learned from or have a personal connection to, and these stories will inform your topic. Even the shortest, most insignificant moment can make a great essay if it mattered to you. If you are writing a ‘why this school’ essay, make a list of reasons why you are applying.
Day 5: Now that you have a few potential topics, figure out how each one would interact with the prompt. Spend 15 minutes outlining each one, using your prompt(s) to guide the outline. In essays that ask you to tell a story, a good topic should write itself and finding a strong essay idea will nearly always be more productive than writing to the prompt. For ‘why this school’ essays, focus on the structure and connection between reasons. Giving this step the necessary hours now will pay off later. Narrow your list of potential topics to your top one to three choices.
Day 6-13: Write the essays! It’s time to actually put pen to paper. If you’re having a hard time, try different environments – coffee shops, your room, or a library, for example – and alternate between topics, and remember that more words is better than fewer words (at least at this stage – you can always cut words later). By day 14, you should have written one rough essay for every “top choice” topic you decided on during day 5. This means that you should now have anywhere between one to three potential essays for a single prompt.
Day 14: If you do have more than one essay written, it is now time to choose a single essay. Out of the two or three essays you have written in the past couple days, there is probably one that speaks to you more than the rest. If you’re having a hard time, think about which of the topics you’d like to spend another two weeks with and try to figure out which one says the most about you. Essays with twice the number of words you are allowed or more should be ruled out; the anecdote is probably too long or the topic requires too much detail to be effective.
Day 15-16: Break days! Use these days to really get some distance from your piece so that you can continue to edit with a fresh mind. These are great days to give your essay to other people to edit –school faculty members who know you well, a coach/music teacher, your parents, and one or two friends. If you are over the word limit, ask specifically for these editors to help you cut down the essay.
Day 17-18: Reading your essay with a fresh mind should help you catch big, structural edits. Your first round of edits should involve content edits; you’re looking for what the essay really says about you as a person, and whether that was what you were trying to get across. How is the sentence flow? Does the essay move itself?
Day 19: Break day! Get some distance from your writing.
Day 20: At this point, you might have received some edits back from the people you handed your essay to. Go through each of the edits and decide which suggestions you plan to take, and which seem to alter your personal voice or which don’t match the essay stylistically. Try to stay objective as you review these edits – some of them will be detrimental. If you can’t see why the change was made, it’s probably best to ignore it. If multiple people give you the same feedback, however, you may want to give it some thought.
Day 21: Implement the edits that you liked. Then read through the essay again and make sure that there are no structural edits or content edits that still need to happen.
Day 22: Break day!
Day 23-24: These days are the middle stage of your editing process. You’re looking for words that don’t fit the style of the essay, or which could be improved, as well as sentence flow problems. Are all your sentences the same length? Is one paragraph not as well written as the rest of the essay? This should also be the time that you cut words. If you are still more than 70 words over, try to cut full sentences. Otherwise, start by cutting unnecessary phrases and words.
Day 25: Break day!
Day 26: Start doing smaller grammatical edits. A great way to catch edits is to record yourself reading your essay aloud and then listening to the recording. As you go through this process, highlight, mark, and comment on your essay. Afterwards, go through and use your notes to fix word flow, word choice, and grammatical mistakes.
Day 27: Break day! It’s close to the deadline, we know. Take a break anyway – you need and deserve it.
Day 28-29: Last minute edits! Spend some quality time with your essay just reading it every few hours. Try to catch any small mistakes or random sentence flow problems. (If you suddenly realize that you hate your essay, reference the 3-Day Essay below. Be sure that you aren’t being hyper-critical, though – you may just hate the essay because you’ve spent so much time on it.)
Day 30: Catch a break. Your essay is done! Reward yourself with a cookie, and remember the lesson you learned about procrastination.
The 15-day Essay: I’m a busy person, okay? High school is demanding!
Day 1: Spend a few hours working on a list of ideas that could become potential essays. Choose one and make an outline.
Day 2: Write your essay!
Day 3: Give your essay to anyone who you think would give constructive comments – this includes your teachers, parents, and maybe friends. Spend some time doing content and structure edits. Figure out what you wanted the essay to convey about your personality, and determine whether your essay actually gets this across.
Day 4: Break day! Take the day off so that you can get some distance from your essay.
Day 5: Do some structural editing. Pay attention to sentence flow, the length of paragraphs, overall organization. If your essay is too long, try to cut down on unnecessary information. Pay close attention to the way that you have structured paragraphs and make sure each one makes sense.
Day 6: Take a break!
Day 7: Take the comments that you received from other people and synthesize them. Decide which suggestions you want to use and which ones you find make your essay worse. Be very careful when accepting edits – college essays are hard to write, and not everyone is an expert. If you can’t figure out why a particular suggestion was made, you may want to ignore it. Edit your essay using this new knowledge.
Day 8: Take a break!
Day 9: Cut your essay down to the word limit – if you’re having trouble, reference the editors that you spoke to previously.
Day 10: Take a break!
Day 11-12: Grammatical and other small edits. Look for minor things that need to be corrected, such as punctuation and word choice. This process requires a few dedicated hours. Aim to really spend some time polishing your language. Recording your essay and listening to the playback can be a productive way to accomplish this.
Day 13: Take a break from your essay!
Day 14: Spend the whole day with your essay. Every few hours, do a reread and see if you can catch any small last minute edits. Don’t try to change anything major – you don’t have time!
Day 15: Submit the essay and take a good nap. You finished…barely…but you still finished.
The 3-day Essay: I was watching Netflix. Don’t tell me you’ve never done that.
Day 1: Don’t panic. This is doable, but you may want to call in sick from school for these three days. Spend the morning coming up with ideas for your essay. Choose one, and use the afternoon to write it. Email this draft to teachers, and show it to your parents. Then, take a few hours off, and later at night, read it through to edit for content. Does the essay say what you intended?
Day 2: Check your email throughout the day – when you get some edits back, start incorporating those into the essay. Be picky about which ones you choose to include because you don’t want to take your own voice out of the essay. Spend the day doing structural edits. Every hour, take a thirty minute break from editing. By the end of the day, you should have an essay that fits within the word limit and also has a strong flow. The organization should be good, and you should be able to see how the essay builds upon itself.
Day 3: DO NOT OPEN EDITS. If any of your editors have replied to your email, don’t open them at all. At this point, the extra edits will just freak you out, and you don’t have time to do major fixes. The name of the game today is small edits – look for grammar, word swaps, and minor sentence structure changes. When you’re finally done, take a breath and crash…but before settling in with the show that kept you from starting the essay earlier, pray for yourself. We got the essay done…but that was definitely a rush job if we ever saw one.
The 1-day Essay: I forgot I had to apply to college.
Day 1: Write, edit, cry, eat ice-cream. It’s going to be a rough day, and even we can’t help you now.
So, we’ve learned our lesson: procrastination isn’t that bad. In all seriousness though, start your college essays as early as possible. Longer breaks between editing sessions will allow you to get the distance necessary to be objective and honest.