Essay Writing Tips

For many students, writing their college essay is one of the most challenging parts of applying to college. Here are some tips to help you get started with your college essays.

Think of your essay as your chance to have a personal conversation with the admissions committee. Use it to convey information that does not appear elsewhere in your application and remember that the primary purpose of your essay is to give them a reason to take you.

Your essay should reflect who you are: your personality, your goals, your passion for learning, and your level of maturity. Focus your essay on a specific event which has had a major impact on your life, rather than trying to provide a broad rehash of all of your accomplishments. Admissions officers want your essay to “resonate,” so that who you are comes across consistently in the various parts of your application. They want your essay to be thoughtful, persuasive, and tie into your academic and extracurricular passions.

Writing your college essays will probably be unlike anything else you’ve written! Nearly everything assigned in your English classes is geared to keeping the author out of the writing, while the focus on your college essays is totally YOU, putting across some of your core values, personality traits, important experiences, etc. It’s a sea change, but when you “get it,” you’ll be able to take off and write those essays!

When writing a college essay, it’s the execution, not the topic, that matters. There are some topics best avoided: death of a pet or the tour of Mongolia are two, but keep the following in mind: Write about what interests you; forget about what might or might not interest the reader. Trust that your enthusiasm will be reflected on the page. Engage and entertain your audience – make him or her want more. Know your topic thoroughly. If it has to do with cars, for instance, know the difference between the transmission, alternator, and manifold. Keep it loose and relaxed, and always entertaining.

If you can say something that will make the reader say, “Me too!” as he finishes reading your essay, you have succeeded. Don’t fear your audience. The reader of your essays is probably not some crusty old gatekeeper looking for a reason to deny your application, but a fairly recent college graduate who is looking for a lively, interesting essay written by a person they would like to invite to attend their college. Be your lively, interesting self!

One method to find essay inspiration is to create a list of little known facts, facts only you would know. Brainstorm a list of your favorites; your likes and dislikes; unusual events you have experienced; issues, images, or stories that affect your mood; etc. Review your list and see if you can weave your insider information into a portrait of who you are. Or find one fact/event you can build on to reveal a new aspect of yourself. Remember to keep the essay positive and do not repeat information given in your application

For the next few weeks, get a small notebook you can easily carry around. Every day, act as a reporter and make free form notes on what you see, smell, feel and think about. Chances are, you’ll find at least one good essay idea in your notes!

When brainstorming topics for personal statements, look for the unexpected, something that someone who knows you would be surprised to learn about you. Use the first paragraph to describe a moment, creating through words a visual that draws the reader in. The following paragraphs can roll back in time and explain that image, the photographic moment. Try to write an essay that is multidimensional in what it reveals about you. When all of the above can be woven together, it’s usually a home run for the student – something they are proud of, a story that’s a blueprint for who they are now and how they will live their life.

You may have your essay completely figured out in your head—or an idea or even (gulp) nothing at all. But you just can’t get started. That’s because the part of your brain that’s saying, “I hate essays! I need a perfect first line! My idea is stupid!” is working overtime. Try this trick: If you usually write on screen, switch to pen and paper. If you use a notebook, switch to your computer. Write your name or “no clue what to write” or whatever comes to mind, over and over. Before you know it, you’ll be writing that essay!

Still haven’t hit your theme? Here’s the question I ask my stumped students: If I took everything away from you, everything – stuff, family, personality traits, your dog – what ONE thing would you never allow me to rip from your life? Why? Happy writing!

Nothing screams, “I wrote my essay the night before!” to an admissions committee more than glaring typos and grammar mistakes. But if you’ve rewritten and read through your essay a zillion times on screen, your eyes may trick you. For better focus, try this tip from professional editors: Print out your essay and read it backward, placing the eraser tip of a pencil under each word. Then read through your work from the beginning for sense and style. Finally, ask someone you trust—a parent, teacher, counselor, or friend– to proof your essay, too. Now you’re ready to hit “Send”!


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About Nathan and Joanna Cornett

We are a from San Diego California, currently on a mission trip in Guatemala. Nathan has worked as a youth pastor, teen center director, college advisor, and now missionary. Joanna has worked at LaBahn's Landscape for 7 years in the field, sales, and as the Vice President, she started the Hispanic ministry at Foothills Church, and has worked in youth ministry, she is now working as a missionary. We are both passionate about youth, worship, and missions.

One response to “Essay Writing Tips”

  1. gvitkova says :

    Very helpful notes, corresponding to my own experience. I especially agree with emphasizing the importance of your interest to the topic you are writing about. And the importance of self-confidence, too.
    All the best
    Galina Vitkova

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