10 Tips for Writing a Successful College Admissions Essay
Is massive writer's block keeping you from starting that college essay? If so, you're not alone. Teen Ink asked Lad Tobin, associate professor and the Director of the First-Year Writing Program at Boston College, to advise students on how to write a successful college admissions essay. Here are his 10 tips:
Don't put off writing the essay till the last minute.
Too many writers tell themselves, "I write best when I'm under pressure." What they really mean is "I've only written when I'm under pressure so that must be when I write best." It's true that writing under the pressure of a deadline might help you to focus your attention for a couple of hours but it won't give you enough time to think through and then re-focus your initial ideas. If you absolutely need a deadline in order to make yourself write, give yourself a deadline at least one month before the essay is due; then make a firm appointment with a guidance counselor, teacher, or parent to go over your essay on that date.
You don't need to write about a BIG topic or question.
In looking for a topic for your essay, your first impulse will be to think of big, significant events -- the threat of terrorism or global warming, the value of education, the death of a friend or relative. An overly general topic is likely to lead to an overly general essay with a relatively self-evident point ("Global warming poses a significant threat to the planet"). English teachers and college admissions officers generally prefer essays in which writers examine, describe, and find meaning in specific and even ordinary-seeming situations.
Organize your essay around a surprising insight.
You may have learned the value of teamwork from playing high school basketball or realized the danger in taking life for granted from feeling the pain of your grandmother's death. Those are crucial life lessons but they are probably not original or particular enough to serve as the main point of an effective college essay. Look for a hidden likeness, a counter-intuitive realization, a surprising pattern.
When you write your first draft, don't think too much about your audience.
Writing teachers often tell students to pay attention to audience -- and that's generally good advice -- but worrying too much too soon about how college admissions officers will react will probably keep you from ever getting any words down on paper. In order to get started on a difficult writing assignment, it's valuable to temporarily turn off the censors or voices in your head that can shut down creativity and contribute to writer's block. Give yourself permission in your rough drafts to write badly, to make mistakes, to be boring or illogical or outrageous.
When you revise your final draft, think a lot about your audience.
If you start early (see above), you'll have plenty of time later to make corrections, to put ideas in order, to find the right words and tone.
Combine formal and informal language.
Using only big words will make you sound pretentious and stiff but using only casual, colloquial language might raise questions about your ability to read and write academically. It's best to go for a mix.
You know what I just said about language? The same thing is true for sentences.
Short, declarative sentences have the advantage of being clear and to the point. However, in order to connect two or more points, it often helps to create a long sentence. By varying the length and structure of your sentences, you can demonstrate your versatility and control as a writer and give your writing more rhythm and range (by the way, I don't have any hard evidence to back this up but my strong sense is that college professors are suckers for subordinate clauses).
Make sure your essay is a mix of the general and the specific.
Most advisors will tell you that all good writing is specific and concrete and that you should avoid generalizations. While it's certainly true that an essay filled only with general claims and conclusions will be boring and unsuccessful, it's equally true that an essay filled with specific details will also fail if those details aren't focused and organized around a single, main idea.
Find someone who is very knowledgeable about grammar, usage, and spelling to proofread your essay.
Errors of spelling, grammar, or usage will almost certainly reduce or even eliminate your chances of getting accepted. I'm not sure that's entirely fair or logical -- I personally think that originality, thoughtfulness, and linguistic control are much better indicators of writing ability than spelling, grammar, or usage -- but that's the way it is. Trust me.
Only listen to advice that you find logical and helpful.
This includes, of course, all of the advice I just gave you. Take the tips that make sense and that get and keep you writing and revising -- and ignore the rest.
_______________________________________________________________________ Lad Tobin, a former high school English teacher in Chicago, is an associate professor and the Director of the First-Year Writing Program at Boston College. He is the author of two books (Writing Relationships: What Really Happens in the Composition Class and Reading Student Writing: Confessions, Meditations, and Rants). His essays have appeared in many academic and literary journals, including College English, Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, and Slow Trains.
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