Mr. Gelb is the author of “Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps.”
Matt Flegenheimer’s interesting piece in The Times on Saturday on the legitimacy of exceeding 500 words on the college admissions essay got me thinking about how often such excess is actually warranted.
Most first drafts I see are several hundred words beyond that mark. That is to be expected, but by the second and third drafts, they are very close to the 500 word count. I almost never encounter essays that justify exceeding that limit. The extra verbiage usually reflects problematic writing choices, so I would like to offer a few tips on how to keep your essay concise with no sacrifice of meaning or impact:
Know where to start. This is the most important factor in keeping your essay within bounds. Your first decision is where to pick up the narrative. Keeping in mind that a 500-word essay is a limited piece of real estate, don’t start your story about building houses in Haiti in your bedroom in Philadelphia, packing your bags. Skip the plane ride. Just plunge right into the action that matters most. That said, the work of telling a good story is understanding what matters most.
Try a trusty literary device. The one I am referring to is called in media res (Latin for “in the middle of things”). You might surprise the reader by opening your essay with a line of dialogue. “Watch out! We’re falling!” Or The line went dead. Or The door slammed. Such openings grab a reader’s attention and save precious time.
Avoid adjectives, adverbs, qualifiers. A lot of excess word count may be traced back to an overuse of word forms that often muck things up. We went hiking on a lovely spring day doesn’t tell me much more than We went hiking on a spring day. (Unless it’s raining, I’ll assume the spring day is lovely). Adverbial excesses like He reacted emphatically can best be dealt with by dropping the adverb altogether or finding a good verb that says more in less words (flinched, grimaced—whatever makes sense in terms of that emphatic reaction you were trying to capture). And all those qualifiers like very, most, especially are usually expendable.
Pay close attention to sentence structure. Getting lost in your sentence structure will take up words (and exasperate readers). A good rule of thumb is to start your sentences with a subject and a verb. Here’s a sentence that uses more words to say less: Brainstorming on what we could do, we came to the solution that we could sell our origami to neighbors that lived on the same block. (25 words) Now the alternative: We brainstormed and came up with a solution: to sell our origami to neighbors. (14 words—and you notice that the word “neighbors” didn’t need that extra definition).
If you keep these tips in mind, you should be able to whittle your admissions essay to well within the limits.
Do readers of The Choice have additional advice on how to keepan essayto the point?Share them in the comment box below.
Writing your personal statement for your college application is an undeniably overwhelming project. Your essay is your big shot to show colleges who you are — it’s totally reasonable to get stressed out. But don’t let that stress paralyze you.
This guide will walk you through each step of the essay writing process to help you understand exactly what you need to do to write the best possible personal statement. I'm also going to follow an imaginary student named Eva as she plans and writes her college essay, from her initial organization and brainstorming to her final edits. By the end of this article, you'll have all the tools you need to create a fantastic, effective college essay.
So how do you write a good college essay? The process starts with finding the best possible topic, which means understanding what the prompt is asking for and taking the time to brainstorm a variety of options. Next, you'll determine how to create an interesting essay that shows off your unique perspective and write multiple drafts in order to hone your structure and language. Once your writing is as effective and engaging as possible, you'll do a final sweep to make sure everything is correct.
This guide covers the following steps:
- Picking a topic
- Making a plan
- Writing a draft
- Editing your draft
- Finalizing your draft
- Repeating the process
Feature Image: John O'Nolan/Flickr
Step 1: Get Organized
The first step in how to write a college essay is figuring out what you actually need to do. Although many schools are now on the Common App, some very popular colleges, including University of Texas and University of California, still have their own applications and writing requirements. Even for Common App schools, you may need to write a supplemental essay or provide short answers to questions.
Before you get started, you should know exactly what essays you need to write. Having this information allows you to plan the best approach to each essay and helps you cut down on work by determining whether you can use an essay for more than one prompt.
Writing good college essays involves a lot of work: you need dozens of hours to get just one personal statement properly polished, and that's before you even start to consider any supplemental essays.
In order to make sure you have plenty of time to brainstorm, write, and edit your essay (or essays), I recommend starting at least two months before your first deadline. The last thing you want is to end up with a low-quality essay you aren't proud of because you ran out of time and had to submit something unfinished.
Determine What You Need to Do
As I touched on above, each college has it’s own essay requirements, so you'll need to go through and determine what exactly you need to submit for each school. This process is simple if you’re only using the Common App, since you can easily view the requirements for each school under the "My Colleges" tab. Watch out, though, because some schools have a dedicated "Writing Supplement" section, while others (even those that want a full essay) will put their prompts in the "Questions" section.
It gets trickier if you’re applying to any schools that aren't on the Common App. You'll need to look up the essay requirements for each college — what's required should be clear on the application itself, or you can look under the "how to apply" section of the school's website.
Once you've determined the requirements for each school, I recommend making yourself a chart with the school name, word limit, and application deadline on one side and the prompt or prompts you need to respond to on the other. That way you'll be able to see exactly what you need to do and when you need to do it by.
Decide Where to Start
If you have one essay that's due earlier than the others, start there. Otherwise, start with the essay for your top choice school. I would also recommend starting with a longer personal statement before moving on to shorter supplementary essays, since the 500 - 700 word essays tend to take quite a bit longer than 100 - 250 word short responses. The brainstorming you do for the long essay may help you come up with ideas you like for the shorter ones as well.
Also consider whether some of the prompts are similar enough that you could submit the same essay to multiple schools. Doing so can save you some time and let you focus on a few really great essays rather than a lot of mediocre ones. However, don't reuse essays for dissimilar or very school-specific prompts, especially “why us” essays. If a college asks you to write about why you're excited to go there, admissions officers want to see evidence that you're genuinely interested. Reusing an essay about another school and swapping out the names is the fastest way to prove you aren't.
Example: Eva's College List
Eva is applying early to Emory University and regular decision to University of Washington, UCLA, and Reed College. Emory and Reed both use the Common App.
University of Washington
Discuss how your family’s experience or cultural history enriched you or presented you with opportunities or challenges in pursuing your educational goals.
Tell us a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
University of Washington
The University of Washington seeks to create a community of students richly diverse in cultural backgrounds, experiences, and viewpoints. How would you contribute to this community?
Describe an experience of cultural difference or insensitivity you have had or observed. What did you learn from it?
1,000 words total
Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.
Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are?
1. 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.
2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
4. 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.
5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Last August, Susan Grant, chief nurse executive for Emory Healthcare, said this of Emory’s choice to treat patients with Ebola: "We can either let our actions be guided by misunderstandings, fear and self-interest, or we can lead by knowledge, science and compassion. We can fear, or we can care." Consider her idea of doing what is in the public interest despite potential cost. Please discuss an example in your life or the life of another that's come to your attention.
In the spirit of Emory's tradition of courageous inquiry, what question do you want to help answer and why?
For one week at the end of January, Reed students upend the traditional classroom hierarchy and teach classes about any topic they love, academic or otherwise. This week is known as Paideia after the Greek term signifying “education” – the complete education of mind, body and spirit. What would you teach that would contribute to the Reed community?
Even though she's only applying to four schools, Eva has a lot to do: two essays for UW, two for the UC application, and one for the Common App, plus the supplements for Reed and Emory. Many students will have fewer requirements to complete, but those who are applying to very selective schools or a number of schools on different applications will have as many or even more responses to write.
Since Eva's first deadline is early decision for Emory, she’ll start by writing the Common App essay, and then work on the Emory supplement. (For the purposes of this post, we’ll focus on the Common App essay.)
Colored paper clips: functional and fun! (At least if you love organization.)
Step 2: Brainstorm
Next up in how to write a college essay: brainstorming essay ideas. There are tons of ways to come up with ideas for your essay topic: I've outlined three below. I recommend trying all of them and compiling a list of possible topics, then narrowing it down to the very best one or, if you're writing multiple essays, ones.
Keep in mind as you brainstorm that there’s no best college essay topic, just the best topic for you. Don’t feel obligated to write about something because you think you should — those types of essays tend to be boring and uninspired. Similarly, don't simply write about the first idea that crosses your mind because you don't want to bother trying to think of something more interesting. Take the time to come up with a topic you’re really excited about and that you can write about in detail.
Analyze the Prompts
One way to find possible topics is to think deeply about the college's essay prompt. What are they asking you for? Break them down and analyze every angle.
Does the question include more than one part? Are there multiple tasks you need to complete?
What do you think the admissions officers are hoping to learn about you?
In cases where you have more than one choice of prompt, does one especially appeal to you? Why?
Let's dissect one of the University of Washington prompts as an example:
"Discuss how your family’s experience or cultural history enriched you or presented you with opportunities or challenges in pursuing your educational goals."
This question is basically asking how your family affected your education, but it offers a number of possible angles. You can talk about the effects of either your family life (like your relationship with your parents or what your household was like growing up) or your cultural history (like your Jewish faith or your Venezuelan heritage). You can also choose between focusing on positive or negative effects of your family or culture. No matter what however, the readers definitely want to hear about your educational goals (i.e. what you hope to get out of college) and how they're related to your personal experience.
As you try to think of answers for a prompt, imagine about what you would say if you were asked the question by a friend or during a get-to-know-you icebreaker. After all, admissions officers are basically just people who you want to get to know you.
The essay questions can make a great jumping off point, but don’t feel married to them. Most prompts are general enough that you can come up with an idea and then fit it to the question.
Consider Important Experiences, Events, and Ideas in Your Life
What experience, talent, interest or other quirk do you have that you might want to share with colleges? In other words, what makes you you? Possible topics include hobbies, extracurriculars, intellectual interests, jobs, significant one-time events, pieces of family history, or anything else that has shaped your perspective on life.
Unexpected or slightly unusual topics are often the best: your passionate love of Korean dramas or your yearly family road trip to an important historical site. You want your essay to add something to your application, so if you’re an All-American soccer player and want to write about the role soccer has played in your life, you’ll have a higher bar to clear.
Of course if you have a more serious part of your personal history — the death of a parent, serious illness, or challenging upbringing — you can write about that. But make sure you feel comfortable sharing details of the experience with the admissions committee and that you can separate yourself from it enough to take constructive criticism on your essay.
What do you see when you look in the mirror?
Think About How You See Yourself
The last brainstorming method is to consider whether there are particular personality traits you want to highlight. This approach can feel rather silly, but it can also be very effective.
If you were trying to sell yourself to an employer, or maybe even a potential date, how would you do it? Try to think about specific qualities that make you stand out. What are some situations in which you exhibited this trait?
Example: Eva's Ideas
Looking at the Common App prompts, Eva wasn’t immediately drawn to any of them, but after a bit of consideration she thought it might be nice to write about her love of literature for the first one, which asks about something "so meaningful your application would be incomplete without it." Alternatively, she liked the specificity of the failure prompt and thought she might write about a bad job interview she had had.
In terms of important events, Eva’s parents got divorced when she was three and she’s been going back and forth between their houses for as long as she can remember, so that’s a big part of her personal story. She’s also played piano for all four years of high school, although she's not particularly good.
As for personal traits, Eva is really proud of her curiosity — if she doesn’t know something, she immediately looks it up, and often ends up discovering new topics she’s interested in. It’s a trait that’s definitely come in handy as a reporter for her school paper.
Step 3: Narrow Down Your List
Now you have a list of potential topics, but probably no idea where to start. The next step is to go through your ideas and determine which one will make for the strongest essay. You'll then begin thinking about how best to approach it.
What to Look For in a College Essay Topic
There's no single answer to the question of what makes a great college essay topic, but there are some key factors you should keep in mind. The best essays are focused, detailed, revealing and insightful, and finding the right topic is vital to writing a killer essay with all of those qualities.
As you go through your ideas, be discriminating — really think about how each topic could work as an essay. But don’t be too hard on yourself; even if an idea may not work exactly the way you first thought, there may be another way to approach it. Pay attention to what you're really excited about and look for ways to make those ideas work.
Once you have a bunch of "idea"s, you have to decide which one really stands out.
Does It Matter to You?
If you don’t care about your topic, it will be hard to convince your readers to care about it either. You can't write a revealing essay about yourself unless you write about a topic that is truly important to you.
But don’t confuse important to you with important to the world: a college essay is not a persuasive argument. The point is to give the reader a sense of who you are, not to make a political or intellectual point. The essay needs to be personal.
Similarly, a lot of students feel like they have to write about a major life event or their most impressive achievement. But the purpose of a personal statement isn't to serve as a resume or a brag sheet — there are plenty of other places in the application for you to list that information. Many of the best essays are about something small because your approach to a common experience generally reveals a lot about your perspective on the world.
Mostly, your topic needs to have had a genuine effect on your outlook, whether it taught you something about yourself or significantly shifted your view on something else.
Does It Tell the Reader Something Different About You?
Your essay should add something to your application that isn’t obvious elsewhere. Again, there are sections for all of your extracurriculars and awards; the point of the essay is to reveal something more personal that isn't clear just from numbers and lists.
You also want to make sure that if you're sending more than one essay to a school — like a Common App personal statement and a school-specific supplement — the two essays take on different topics.
Is It Specific?
Your essay should ultimately have a very narrow focus. 650 words may seem like a lot, but you can fill it up very quickly. This means you either need to have a very specific topic from the beginning or find a specific aspect of a broader topic to focus on.
If you try to take on a very broad topic, you’ll end up with a bunch of general statements and boring lists of your accomplishments. Instead, you want to find a short anecdote or single idea to explore in depth.
Can You Discuss It in Detail?
A vague essay is a boring essay — specific details are what imbue your essay with your personality. For example, if I tell my friend that I had a great dessert yesterday, she probably won't be that interested. But if I explain that I ate an amazing piece of peach raspberry pie with flaky, buttery crust and filling that was both sweet and tart, she will probably demand to know where I obtained it (at least she will if she appreciates the joys of pie). She'll also learn more about me: I love pie and I analyze deserts with great seriousness.
Given the importance of details, writing about something that happened a long time ago or that you don’t remember well isn't usually a wise choice. If you can't describe something in depth, it will be challenging to write a compelling essay about it.
You also shouldn't pick a topic you aren't actually comfortable talking about. Some students are excited to write essays about very personal topics, like their mother's bipolar disorder or their family's financial struggles, but others dislike sharing details about these kinds of experiences. If you're a member of the latter group, that's totally okay, just don't write about one of these sensitive topics.
Still, don’t worry that every single detail has to be perfectly correct. Definitely don’t make anything up, but if you remember a wall as green and it was really blue, your readers won't notice or care.
You don't have to know exactly how many dewdrops there were on the leaf.
Can It Be Related to the Prompt?
As long as you’re talking about yourself, there are very few ideas that you can’t tie back to one of the Common App prompts. But if you’re applying to a school with it’s own more specific prompt, or working on supplemental essays, making sure to address the question will be a greater concern.
Deciding on a Topic
Once you've gone through the questions above, you should have good sense of what you want to write about. Hopefully, it's also gotten you started thinking about how you can best approach that topic, but we'll cover how to plan your essay more fully in the next step.
If after going through the narrowing process, you’ve eliminated all your topics, first look back over them: are you being too hard on yourself? Are there any that you really like, but just aren’t totally sure what angle to take on? If so, try looking at the next section and seeing if you can’t find a different way to approach it.
If you just don't have an idea you're happy with, that’s okay! Give yourself a week to think about it. Sometimes you’ll end up having a genius idea in the car on the way to school or while studying for your U.S. history test. Otherwise, try the brainstorming process again when you’ve had a break.
If, on the other hand, you have more than one idea you really like, consider whether any of them can be used for other essays you need to write.
Example: Picking Eva's Topic
- Love of books
- Failed job interview
- Parents’ divorce
Eva immediately rules out writing about playing piano, because it sounds super boring to her and it’s not something she is particularly passionate about. She also decides not to write about splitting time between her parents because she just isn’t comfortable sharing her feelings about it with an admissions committee.
She feels more positive about the other three, so she decides to think about them for a couple of days. She ends up ruling out the job interview because she just can’t come up with that many details she could include.
She's excited about both of her last two ideas, but sees issues with both of them: the books idea is very broad and the reporting idea doesn’t seem to apply to any of the prompts. Then she realizes that she can address the solving a problem prompt by talking about a time she was trying to research a story about the closing of a local movie theater, so she decides to go with that topic.
Step 4: Figure Out Your Approach
You’ve decided on a topic, but now you need to turn that topic into an essay. To do so, you need to determine what specifically you’re focusing on and how you’ll structure your essay.
If you’re struggling or uncertain, try taking a look at some examples of successful college essays. It can be helpful to dissect how other personal statements are structured to get ideas for your own, but don't fall into the trap of trying to copy someone else's approach. Your essay is your story — never forget that.
Let's go through the key steps that will help you turn a great topic into a great essay.
Choose a Focal Point
As I touched on above, the narrower your focus, the easier it will be to write a unique, engaging personal statement. The simplest way to restrict the scope of your essay is to recount an anecdote, i.e. a short personal story that illustrates your larger point.
For example, say a student was planning to write about her Outward Bound trip in Yosemite. If she tries to tell the entire story of her trip, her essay will either be far too long or very vague. Instead, she decides to focus in on a specific incident that exemplifies what mattered to her about the experience: her failed attempt to climb Half Dome. She described the moment she decided to turn back without reaching the top in detail, while touching on other parts of the climb and trip where appropriate. This approach lets her create a dramatic arc in just 600 words, while fully answering the question posed in the prompt (Common App prompt 2).
Of course, concentrating on an anecdote isn't the only way to narrow your focus. Depending on your topic, it might make more sense to build your essay around an especially meaningful object, relationship, or idea.
Another approach our example student from above could take to the same general topic would be to write about her attempts to keep her hiking boots from giving her blisters (in response to Common App prompt 4). Rather than discussing a single incident, she could tell the story of her trip through her ongoing struggle with the boots: the different fixes she tried, her less and less squeamish reactions to the blisters, the solution she finally found. A structure like this one can be trickier than the more straightforward anecdote approach, but it can also make for an engaging and different essay.
When deciding what part of your topic to focus on, try to find whatever it is about the topic that is most meaningful and unique to you. Once you've figured that part out, it will guide how you structure the essay.
To be fair, even trying to climb Half Dome takes some serious guts.
Decide What You Want to Show About Yourself
Remember that the point of the college essay isn’t just to tell a story, it’s to show something about yourself. It's vital that you have a specific point you want to make about what kind of person you are, what kind of college student you’d make, or what the experience you’re describing taught you.
Since the papers you write for school are mostly analytical, you probably aren't used to writing about your own feelings. As such, it can be easy to neglect the reflection part of the personal statement in favor of just telling a story. Yet explaining what the event or idea you discuss meant to you is the most important essay — knowing how you want to tie your experiences back to your personal growth from the beginning will help you make sure to include it.
Develop a Structure
It’s not enough to just know what you want to write about — you also need to have a sense of how you’re going to write about it. You could have the most exciting topic of all time, but without a clear structure your essay will end up as incomprehensible gibberish that doesn't tell the reader anything meaningful about your personality.
There are a lot of different possible essay structures, but a simple and effective one is the compressed narrative, which builds on a specific anecdote (like the Half Dome example above):
Start in the middle of the action. Don't spend a lot of time at the beginning of your essay outlining background info — it doesn't tend to draw the reader in and you usually need less of it than you think you do. Instead start right where your story starts to get interesting. (I'll go into how to craft an intriguing opener in more depth below.)
Briefly explain what the situation is. Now that you've got the reader's attention, go back and explain anything they need to know about how you got into this situation. Don't feel compelled to fit everything in — only include the background details that are necessary to either understand what happened or illuminate your feelings about the situation in some way.
Finish the story. Once you've clarified exactly what's going on, explain how you resolved the conflict or concluded the experience.
Explain what you learned. The last step is to tie everything together and bring home the main point of your story: how this experience affected you.
The key to this type of structure is to create narrative tension — you want your reader to be wondering what happens next.
A second approach is the thematic structure, which is based on returning to a key idea or object again and again (like the boots example above):
Establish the focus. If you're going to structure your essay around a single theme or object, you need to begin the essay by introducing that key thing. You can do so with a relevant anecdote or a detailed description.
Touch on 3 - 5 times the focus was important. The body of your essay will consist of stringing together a few important moments related to the topic. Make sure to use sensory details to bring the reader into those points in time and keep her engaged in the essay. Also remember to elucidate why these moments were important to you.
Revisit the main idea. At the end, you want to tie everything together by revisiting the main idea or object and showing how your relationship to it has shaped or affected you. Ideally, you'll also hint at how this thing will be important to you going forward.
To make this structure work you need a very specific focus. Your love of travel, for example, is much too broad — you would need to hone in on a specific aspect of that interest, like how traveling has taught you to adapt to event the most unusual situations. Whatever you do, don't use this structure to create a glorified resume or brag sheet.
However you structure your essay, you want to make sure that it clearly lays out both the events or ideas you’re describing and establishes the stakes (i.e. what it all means for you). Many students become so focused on telling a story or recounting details that they forget to explain what it all meant to them.
Your essay has to be built step-by-step, just like this building.
Example: Eva's Essay Plan
For her essay, Eva decides to use the compressed narrative structure to tell the story of how she tried and failed to report on the closing of a historic movie theater:
- Open with the part of her story where she finally gave up after calling the theater and city hall a dozen times.
- Explain that although she started researching the story out of journalistic curiosity, it was important to her because she'd grown up going to movies at that theater.
- Recount how defeated she felt when she couldn't get ahold of anyone, and then even more so when she saw a story about the theater's closing in the local paper.
- Describer her decision to write an op-ed instead and interview other students about what the theater meant to them.
- Finish by explaining that although she wasn't able to get the story (or stop the destruction of the theater), she learned that sometimes the emotional angle can be just as interesting as the investigative one.
Step 5: Write a First Draft
The key to writing your first draft is not to worry about whether it’s any good — just get something on paper and go from there. You will have to rewrite, so trying to get everything perfect is both frustrating and futile.
Everyone has their own writing process. Maybe you feel more comfortable sitting down and writing the whole draft from beginning to end in one go. Maybe you jump around, writing a little bit here and a little there. It’s okay to have sections you know won’t work or to skip over things you think you’ll need to include later.
Whatever your approach, there are a few tips everyone can benefit from.
Don't Aim for Perfection
I mentioned this idea above, but I can't emphasize it enough: no one writes a perfect first draft. Extensive editing and rewriting is vital to crafting an effective personal statement. Don’t get too attached to any part of your draft, because you may need to change anything (or everything) about your essay later.
Also keep in mind that, at this point in the process, the goal is just to get your ideas down. Wonky phrasings and misplaced commas can easily be fixed when you edit, so don't worry about them as you write. Instead, focus on including lots of specific details and emphasizing how your topic has affected you, since these aspects are vital to a compelling essay.
Write an Engaging Introduction
One part of the essay you do want to pay special attention to is the introduction. Your intro is your essay’s first impression: you only get one. It's much harder to regain your reader's attention once you've lost it, so you want to draw the reader in with an immediately engaging hook that sets up a compelling story.
There are two possible approaches I would recommend.
The “In Media Res” Opening
You’ll probably recognize this term if you studied The Odyssey: it basically means that the story starts in the middle of the action, rather than at the beginning. A good intro of this type makes the reader wonder both how you got to the point you’re starting at and where you'll go from there. These openers provide a solid, intriguing beginning for narrative essays (though they can certainly for thematic structures as well).
But how do you craft one? Try to determine the most interesting point in your story and start there. If you're not sure where that is, try writing out the entire story and then crossing out each sentence in order until you get to one that immediately grabs your attention.
Let's look at some examples from real students' college essays:
"Bottom of the ninth, two outs, the Red Sox down by four. We needed a miracle."
Daniel J Shinnick, Connecticut College
"I strode in front of 400 frenzied eighth graders with my arm slung over my Fender Stratocaster guitar — it actually belonged to my mother — and launched into the first few chords of Nirvana's 'Lithium.'"
Anonymous, University of Virginia
Both of these intros throw the reader right into the middle of the action. In the first, the game is already mostly over, and as we later find out, his sister is undergoing brain surgery the next day. The immediacy of this intro ("We need a miracle") gives a sense of high stakes, even though we don't know what the real topic is yet.
In the second, the author jumps right into the action: the performance. You can imagine how much less exciting it would be if the essay opened with an explanation of what the event was and why the author was performing.
The Specific Generalization
Sounds like an oxymoron, right? This type of intro sets up what the essay is going to talk about in a slightly unexpected way. These are a bit trickier than the "in media res" variety, but they can work really well for the right essay — generally one with a thematic structure.
The key to this type of intro is detail. Contrary to what you may have learned in elementary school, sweeping statements don't make very strong hooks. If you want to start your essay with a more overall description of what you'll be discussing, you still need to make it specific and unique enough to stand out.
Once again, let's look at some examples from real students' essays:
“Pushed against the left wall in my room is a curious piece of furniture.”
Neha, Johns Hopkins University
“My name is Brontë, and if you ask me, I’ll tell you my favorite book is Jane Eyre. This may or may not be a coincidence.”
Brontë, Johns Hopkins University
Both of these intros set up the general topic of the essay (the first writer's bookshelf and and the second's love of Jane Eyre) in an intriguing way. The first intro works because it mixes specific descriptions ("pushed against the left wall in my room") with more general commentary ("a curious piece of furniture"). The second draws the reader in by adopting a conversational and irreverent tone with asides like "if you ask me" and "This may or may not be a coincidence."
I wouldn't recommend this intro — it's a bit of a cliche.
Don't Worry Too Much About the Length
When you start writing, don't worry about your essay's length. Instead, focus on trying to include all of the details you can think of about your topic, which will make it easier to decide what you really need to include when you edit.
However, if your first draft is more than twice the word limit and you don't have a clear idea of what needs to be cut out, you may need to reconsider your focus — your topic is likely too broad. You may also need to reconsider your topic or approach if you find yourself struggling to fill space, since this usually indicates a topic that lacks a specific focus.
Eva's First Paragraph
I dialed the phone number for the fourth time that week. "Hello? This is Eva Smith, and I'm a reporter with Tiny Town High's newspaper The Falcon. I was hoping to ask you some questions about —" I heard the distinctive click of the person on the other end of the line hanging up, followed by dial tone. I was about ready to give up: I'd been trying to get the skinny on whether the Atlas Theater was actually closing to make way for a big AMC multiplex or if it was just a rumor for weeks, but no one would return my calls.
Step 6: Edit Aggressively
No one writes a perfect first draft. No matter how much you might want to be done after writing a first draft — you must take the time to edit. Thinking critically about your essay and rewriting as needed is a vital part of writing a great college essay.
Before you start editing, put your essay aside for a week or so. It will be easier to approach it objectively if you haven’t seen it in a while. Then, take an initial pass to identify any big picture issues with your essay. Once you've fixed those, ask for feedback from other readers — they'll often notice gaps in logic that don't appear to you, because you're automatically filling in your intimate knowledge of the situation. Finally, take another, more detailed look at your essay to fine tune the language.
I've explained each of these steps in more depth below.
First Editing Pass
You should start the editing process by looking for any structural or thematic issues with your essay. If you see sentences that don’t make sense or glaring typos of course fix them, but at this point, you’re really focused on the major issues since those require the most extensive rewrites. You don’t want to get your sentences beautifully structured only to realize you need to remove the entire paragraph.
This phase is really about honing your structure and your voice. As you read through your essay, think about whether it effectively draws the reader along, engages him with specific details, and shows why the topic matters to you. Try asking yourself the following questions:
- Does the intro make you want to read more?
- Is the progression of events and/or ideas clear?
- Does the essay show something specific about you? What is it and can you clearly identify it in the essay?
- Are there places where you could replace vague statements with more specific ones?
- Do you have too many irrelevant or uninteresting details clogging up the narrative?
- Is it too long? What can you cut out or condense without losing any important ideas or details?
Give yourself credit for what you’ve done well, but don’t hesitate to change things that aren’t working. It can be tempting to hang on to what you've already written — you took the time and thought to craft it in the first place, so it can be hard to let it go. Taking this approach is doing yourself a disservice, however. No matter how much work you put into a paragraph or much you like a phrase, if they aren't adding to your essay, they need to be cut or altered.
If there’s a really big structural problem, or the topic is just not working, you may have to chuck this draft out and start from scratch. Don't panic! I know starting over is frustrating, but it’s often the best way to fix major issues.
Unfortunately, some problems can't be fixed with whiteout.
Consulting Other Readers
Once you’ve fixed the problems you found on the first pass and have a second (or third) draft you’re basically happy with, ask some other people to read it. Check with people whose judgment you trust: parents, teachers, and friends can all be great resources, but how helpful someone will be depends on the individual and how willing you are to take criticism from her.
Also, keep in mind that many people, even teachers, may not be familiar with what colleges look for in an essay. Your mom, for example, may have never written a personal statement, and even if she did, it was most likely decades ago. Give your readers a sense of what you’d like them to read for, or print out the questions I listed above and include them at the end of your essay.
After incorporating any helpful feedback you got from others, you should now have a nearly complete draft with a clear arc.
At this point you want to look for issues with word choice and sentence structure:
- Are there parts that seem stilted or overly formal?
- Do you have any vague or boring descriptors that could be replaced with something more interesting and specific?
- Are there any obvious redundancies or repetitiveness?
- Have you misused any words?
- Are your sentences of varied length and structure?
A good way to check for weirdness in language is to read the essay out loud. If something sounds weird when you say it, it will almost certainly seem off when someone else reads it.
Example: Editing Eva's First Paragraph
In general, Eva feels like her first paragraph isn't as engaging as it could be and doesn't introduce the main point of the essay that well: although it sets up the narrative, it doesn't show off her personality that well. She decides to break it down sentence by sentence:
I dialed the phone number for the fourth time that week.
Problem: For a hook, this sentence is a little too expository. It doesn't add any real excitement or important information (other than that this call isn't the first, which can be incorporate elsewhere.
Solution: Cut this sentence and start with the line of dialogue.
"Hello? This is Eva Smith, and I'm a reporter with Tiny Town High's newspaper The Falcon. I was hoping to ask you some questions about —"
Problem: No major issues with this sentence. It's engaging and sets the scene effectively.
Solution: None needed, but Eva does tweak it slightly to include the fact that this call wasn't her first.
I heard the distinctive click of the person on the other end of the line hanging up, followed by dial tone.
Problem: This is a long-winded way of making a point that's not that important.
Solution: Replace it with a shorter, more evocative description: "Click. Bzzzzzzz. Whoever was on the other end of the line had hung up."
I was about ready to give up: I'd been trying to get the skinny on whether the Atlas Theater was actually closing to make way for a big AMC multiplex or if it was just a rumor for weeks, but no one would return my calls.
Problem: This sentence is kind of long. Some of the phrases ("about ready to give up," "get the skinny") are cliche.
Solution: Eva decides to try to stick more closely to her own perspective: "I'd heard rumors that Atlas Theater was going to be replaced with an AMC multiplex, and I was worried." She also puts a paragraph break before this sentence to emphasize that she's now moving on to the background info rather than describing her call.
There's a real Atlas Theater. Apparently it's haunted!
Step 7: Double Check Everything
Once you have a final draft, give yourself another week and then go through your essay again. Read it carefully to make sure nothing seems off and there are no obvious typos or errors. Confirm that you are at or under the word limit.
Then, go over the essay again, line by line, checking every word to make sure that it’s correct. Double check common errors that spell check may not catch, like mixing up affect and effect or misplacing commas.
Finally, have two other readers check it as well. Oftentimes a fresh set of eyes will catch an issue you've glossed over simply because you've been looking at the essay for so long. Give your readers instructions to only look for typos and errors, since you don't want to be making any major content changes at this point in the process.
This level of thoroughness may seem like overkill, but it's worth taking the time to ensure that you don't have any errors. The last thing you want is for an admissions officer to be put off by a typo or error.
Example: Eva's Final Draft (Paragraphs 1 and 2)
"Hello? This is Eva Smith again. I'm a reporter with Tiny Town High's newspaper The Falcon, and I was hoping to ask you some questions about —" Click. Bzzzzzzz. Whoever was on the other end of the line had hung up.
I'd heard rumors that the historic Atlas Theater was going to be replaced with an AMC multiplex, and I was worried. I'd grown up with the Atlas: my dad taking me to see every Pixar movie on opening night and buying me Red Vines to keep me distracted during the sad parts. Unfortunately my personal history with the place didn't seem to carry much weight with anyone official, and my calls to both the theater and city hall had thus far gone unanswered.
Once you've finished the final check, you’re done, and ready to submit! There's one last step, however.
Step 8: Do It All Again
Remember back in step one, when we talked about making a chart to keep track of all the different essays you need to write? Well, now you need to go back to that list and determine which essays you still need to write. Keep in mind your deadlines and don't forget that some schools may require more than one essay or ask for short paragraphs in addition to the main personal statement.
In some cases, you may be able to reuse the essay you've already written for other prompts. You can use the same essay for two prompts if:
- both of them are asking the same basic question (e.g. "how do you interact with people who are different from you?" or "what was an important experience and why?"), or
- one prompt is relatively specific and the other is very general (e.g. "tell us about how your family shaped your education" and "tell us something about your background"), and
- neither asks about your interest in a specific school or program.
If you choose to reuse an essay you wrote for a different prompt, make sure that it addresses every part of question and that it fits the word limit. If you have to tweak a few things or cut out 50-odd words, it will probably still work. But if the essay would require major changes to fit the criteria, you're probably better off starting from scratch (even if you use the same basic topic).
Crafting Supplemental Essays
The key to keep in mind in when brainstorming for supplemental essays is that you want them to add something new to your application. You shouldn't write about the same topic you used for your personal statement, although it's okay to talk about something similar, as long as you adopt a clearly different angle.
For example, if you're planning to be pre-med in college and your main essay is about how volunteering at the hospital taught you not to judge people on their appearance, you might write your secondary essay on your intellectual interest in biology (which could touch on your volunteering). There's some overlap, but the two topics are clearly distinct.
And now, you're really, truly, finally done. Congrats!
Now that you know how to write a college essay, we have a lot more specific resources for you to excel.
Are you working on the Common App essay? Read our breakdown of the Common App prompts and our guide to picking the best prompt for you.
Or maybe you're interested in the University of California? Check out our complete guide to the UC personal statements.
In case you haven't finished the rest of the application process, take a look at our guides to asking for recommendations, writing about extracurriculars, and researching colleges.
Finally, if you're planning to take the SAT or ACT one last time, try out some of our famous test prep guides, like "How to Get a Perfect Score on the SAT" and "15 Key ACT Test Day Tips."
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