The Great College Essay Test (Video)
The Art of an Effective Interview (Video)
Personal Essay Guide (Infographic)
Taking Inventory of Your Interests (Worksheet)
Writing Your College Admission Essays/Personal Statements (Worksheet)
[INSERT GUIDE HERE]
23 Best College Essay Tips From College Application Experts (Blog Post)
Read the full article here.
Know that the best ideas for your essay—the perfect opener, a great twist, a brilliant insight—often come when you least expect them.
Do not feel pressure to share every detail of challenging experiences, but also do not feel that you need to have a happy ending or solution.
I believe everyone has a story worth telling. Don’t feel like you have to have had a huge, life-changing, drama-filled experience. Sometimes the seemingly smallest moments lead us to the biggest breakthroughs.
2019-2020 Common App Essay Questions
From the official Common App website.
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
- Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
5 Fun, Unique Ways to Brainstorm Your College Essays (Blog Post)
Article originally published here. Edited for length and clarity.
The Group Essay Party
Print out some essay prompts. Include both the Common Application prompts and some prompts directly from colleges, like ones from the University of Chicago. Create two piles in front of the writers: a Common Application prompt pile and a college prompt pile. Place the prompts face down. Writers must choose one from each pile. They cannot change the prompts, but they may choose which to write about first. The challenge is the writers must find some way to address the prompts, even if it seems silly or far fetched and even if they would never choose it in real life.
Set the timer for five to 10 minutes and have writers write anything that comes to mind. Then repeat for the second prompt. When time is up, everyone should read their essays aloud or pass their papers around the circle. The reader's goal is to comment only on the good, like a line that stands out or a clever angle. Then, the writers can take the good from this brainstorm game and perhaps run with it for draft. (You can also talk to your teacher about doing this activity as a class. The teacher can collect and distribute nameless papers randomly, so only they know which paper belongs to which student.)
Obviously, you will be able to choose the essay prompt that fits you when the time comes, but this game fosters out-of-the-box thinking by forcing you to consider questions you might have discarded otherwise. And you may be surprised—your least favorite prompt may inspire your best essay.
Often a great essay is right on the tip of your tongue, but your hands don't cooperate. When that happens, abandon your hands and use your voice instead.
After all, prompts are questions from college admission officers. Answer them! Create a voice memo or video that records your response. Then transcribe what you said onto your piece of paper. From there, just begin to rewrite and edit. Once you get rolling, there’s no stopping you.
Having trouble writing about yourself? Then don’t. Let something else do it for you…
Choose an object central to who you are. It could be a pair of dance shoes, a baseball bat, or a book. (You could also choose a place, like a studio, dug out, or library. In which case, you might want to do this exercise at that place if you can!) It can be anything that connects to you and the prompt. Then, write from the perspective of that object in your life.
When a senior at my high school was asked to write about her future ambitions, she wrote from the perspective of a microphone to depict her passion for performing. This is a great exercise for students who enjoy creative writing because you are able to use your imagination to uncover a real part of yourself.
This brainstorm game is great for the essay prompts that ask for lessons you learned, challenges you overcame, or the moment you grew up. But instead of using college prompts, you’re going to think of a memory to begin a story. Ask yourself, “When was the first time I realized something was wrong or right in my life?” or “If I had a memoir what childhood memory would need to be in there?” The flashback to your childhood provides an anecdote that will entice the readers to read more and show your growth.
With this brainstorming technique, all you need to do is read college essays from students who were accepted to college. Not only will they give you an idea of what colleges want, but they can also inspire you to uncover your own story. Consider the tone, approach, and length of each essay. Notice the various angles and voices in the essays. A successful essay can be funny or serious, direct or abstract. Read the commentary about the perks of each essay if they’re offered, and use it as a guide. For instance, The Beard, an essay about adulthood, is entwined with a whimsical anecdote of a high school senior’s pride in his first “real” beard. (This essay actually inspired me to use comedy in my own essay—to my teacher’s delight, I might add.)
You are not the first to write a college essay. Learn from others’ success.
11 Tips for Proofreading & Editing Your College Essay (Blog Post)
Originally published here. Edited for length.
1. Does the essay clearly address the selected topic or prompt?
You need to make sure you’re actually addressing the essay prompt. For example, one of Columbia University’s prompts is:
Please tell us what you value most about Columbia and why. (300 words or fewer)
Here, you need to address both your personality and Columbia’s, rather than writing a generic essay that could apply to any school. You can craft your own topic for Common App and Coalition Application, but individual schools’ are often more specific.
2. Is the college essay well-organized?
Your essay doesn’t need to be a five-paragraph paper for school (and it probably shouldn’t), but it should have some logical structure. Does it flow well? Does it stay on topic?
3. Include supporting details, examples, and anecdotes.
Details, examples, and rhetorical essays bring your essay to life. For advice on how to make it stand out, read How to Get the Perfect Hook for Your College Essay.
4. Show your voice and personality.
Does your personality come through? Does your essay sound like you? Since this is a reflection of you, your essay needs to show who you are.
For example, using vocabulary you wouldn’t normally use—such as “utilize” in place of “use”—because you’ll appear phony and won’t impress colleges.
5. Does your essay show that you’re a good candidate for admission?
In addition to having a strong GPA, test scores, and well-chosen extracurriculars, you should show that you fit with the school. Make sure your personality meshes well with the campus and that this is clear from the essay by using details that connect you to the school. For example, if you’re interested in the engineering program, discuss your passion for the subject.
6. Do you stick to the topic?
Avoid tangents or writing what you want to write instead of adhering to the topic at hand.
My interest in performing arts began when I was five. That was also the year I lost my first tooth, which set off a whole year of “firsts.” My first play was The Sound of Music.
My interest in performing arts began when I was five. My first play was The Sound of Music.
7. Do you include a good mix of short and long sentences?
Part of making sure your essay flows and reads well includes varying the sentence structure. Try to balance your essay by mixing up your sentence styles. Otherwise, it might sound stilted.
Non-varied sentence structure example:
I had been waiting for the right time to broach the topic of her health problem, which had been weighing on my mind heavily every since I first heard about it. I had gone through something similar, and I thought sharing my experience might help.
I had been waiting for the right time to broach the topic of her health problem. It had been weighing on my mind for some time. I had gone through something similar, and I thought sharing my experience might help.
8. Are all words spelled correctly?
Misspellings are easy to catch when you read your essay over aloud, so your essay will seem sloppy if you miss them. Rather than relying on spell check, try going over your essay with different colored pens to catch errors.
9. Do you use proper punctuation and capitalization?
Again, these errors are easy to catch. Check out these grammar rules, which apply to all you writing, not just the SAT.
For example, one common mistake is misusing commas.
Incorrect: I had an an epiphany, I was using commas incorrectly.
Correct: I had an epiphany: I was using commas incorrectly.
10. Do you abide by the word count?
Some tips to help you pare down word count include:
- Eliminate instances of restating the same sentiment in multiple ways.
- Show, don’t tell.
- Eliminate extraneous adjectives—use them sparingly.
- Cut out unnecessary details.
- Shorten run-on sentences—reading aloud can help (if you’re out of breath before you finish the sentence, it’s too long).
- Make sure each sentence contributes something to the essay.
11. Pay attention to sentence structure.
Does each sentence make sense? Are you following grammar rules? Reading your work aloud can help you catch sentences that sound clunky. You’ll also be able to see if every sentence is correct, in that it has a subject and verb.
The Biggest Mistakes on College Admissions Essays (Blog Post)
Originally published here. Edited for length.
1. Repeating the prompt in your essay
Some teachers may have told you to repeat the essay prompt in essays for middle or high school. However, this is not a good approach for college essays, because they should stand alone as pieces of writing.
Instead of repeating a prompt from the Common App or the college in question, try developing a “hook”—a statement that draws the reader in—to capture your audience. For advice on crafting one, read How to Get the Perfect Hook for Your College Essay.
2. Coming across as phony or manufactured
When it comes to your college essay, stay away from a thesaurus. You shouldn’t use language you wouldn’t typically use because you’ll come across as phony. (Of course, don’t be overly informal!) For example, try to avoid using overly formal or complex language. (Why say “My behavior seemed incongruous to my family” when you could say “My behavior seemed out of character to my family”?)
Find a way to demonstrate your experiences in a unique way. For ideas, check out How to Develop a Personalized Metaphor for Your Applications and Where to Begin: 3 Personal Essay Brainstorming Exercises.
3. Not proofreading
Grammar mistakes are easy to catch if you do the work, so not double checking will come off as lazy. Read your essay several times. Try reading it aloud to catch errors. Here are some editing tips to help you through the process.
It’s also a good idea to get another set of eyes on your essay. Read Whom Should I Ask for Help with My College Essays? for advice the best people to consult.
4. Using cliches
Cliches are a no-no both in terms of choosing your topic and writing the essay itself. Common writing cliches include phrases such as “the next thing I knew,” “all that glitters is not gold,” “just a matter of time,” “every cloud has a silver lining,” “time heals all wounds,” and many, many others.
Your topic should represent you and your uniqueness—not something adcoms have seen a thousand times.
For example, sports metaphors—relating your life to an experience on the field or sports in general—often comes across as trite. Pet death is another all-too-common subject that can make adcoms wonder if you’re fishing for tragedies—or just haven’t had many meaningful experiences. If you do choose a topic along these lines, make sure you have a unique spin on it.
Volunteer or mission trips can also be an overused topic. These essays tend to be more about the experience than you and may convey that money buys opportunities. You don’t want to come across as too privileged or spoiled, so again, unless you have a unique angle, it’s best to stay away from this topic.
Never, never, never copy someone else’s work. Don’t ask or pay someone else to write your essay or parts of it for you. Colleges will likely find out—some even run plagiarism checks—and will reject you or revoke your admission if you’ve already been accepted. And, of course, it’s ethically wrong to plagiarize.
6. Rehashing your resume
You’ll have plenty of other room on your college app to list your extracurriculars, accomplishments, and awards. While it’s okay to mention an accomplishment that’s related to the subject of your essay—for instance, if you’re writing about a particular belief, you might describe an activity that allows you to express it—it shouldn’t be the whole subject of your essay.
Step 1: Getting A's to Your Q's
What about your dream school makes it the perfect fit for you? What about you (as a student, creative, athlete, all around spectacular human) makes you a valuable addition to your college-of-choice's bustling, manicured campus? As you begin writing about where you best see yourself flourishing, dig up some info on the following:
🔲 Common app deadlines
🔲 School-specific deadlines
🔲 Scholarship/financial aid deadlines
🔲 School's mission statement
🔲 The degree requirements for your major
🔲 The fields of study and courses offered within your major
🔲 The faculty in your major and their research specialties
🔲 School culture and values
🔲 School-specific extracurriculars/special programs
🔲 School's social media presence (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, etc.)
Step 3: Putting Pen to Paper
Once you have your pre-writing done, you’re ready to begin writing a rough draft. Your goal is to tell a story that reveals your character, grabs your readers’ interest, and clearly communicates your message. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you draft:
🔲 This will be your first attempt at getting your ideas on the page in an organized way, so don’t feel pressured to produce flawless writing at this point.
🔲 If you get stuck in one area, move onto the next and go back to the trouble spot later.
🔲 Give yourself time to put the draft aside for a few hours or days. Then go back and revise it or add to it.
🔲 When you are finished with your rough draft, check to make sure that you have addressed all of the required items in the prompt. If you have, great, you have a finished draft, and you’re ready to move on to the editing process. If not, add what you have omitted.
🔲 Check your length. Most institutions give length guidelines, so make sure your draft meets them.
Step 2: Gathering Your Thoughts
Once you've done the groundwork, you'll want to begin brainstorming potential responses to your to your essay prompts. To help you identify a meaningful narrative, try the following:
🔲 Tell a story that illustrates your personality, passions, and/or dreams. Write it down, say it aloud to a friend, draw it out - just get it out there. The less likely someone else is to tell this same story, the better!
🔲 Explain explicitly why this story is important to you. What themes arise? How have those themes informed/shaped you and your decisions?
🔲 How does this story explain: your character, your passions, your aspirations, why you have chosen your intended major, why you are a good candidate for the particular institution to why you are applying, how well-prepared you are to begin your studies, your long-term goals, etc.
Step 4: A Final Coat of Paint
Revising and editing are the last steps in the process. Here are some tips (including some repeats from Step 3, but better safe than sorry!) to keep in mind as you edit:
🔲 Give yourself time to reread and revise multiple times.
🔲 Read your work aloud. Listen not only for “errors,” but also for stylistic fluency. Does your writing sound like your voice? Do the sentences and paragraphs flow smoothly?
🔲 Proofread, proofread again, and then proofread once more.
🔲 It’s often a good idea to “let it cool” for a while between proofreading sessions. Sometimes when you proofread repeatedly in a single session, you will miss the same errors over and over because you will see what you expect to see rather than what is on the page. Putting your draft aside for a day or two will help you to see it with a fresh perspective.
🔲 Have a friend or parent read it. Then revise and polish. Then proofread again. Be sure that the final draft is the best work you are capable of doing.
🔲 Finally, check for format details. If the institution specifies font size and margins, make sure you meet the requirements. If they want your name and social security number on each page, make sure you have it. These are little details, but they are important, so get them right.