College Guide To Writing Essays

Although Halloween usually marks the start of the holiday season for America’s retailers, if you are a Senior applying to college, the day signals the unofficial start of the college application season.

Regardless of your grades or test scores, you will likely struggle writing your personal statement, commonly known as “the college essay.” Here are six tips that will help you through this stressful, but essential part of the college application.

1. Follow directions. Make sure that you address the recommended topics and answer the questions asked. Also, heed word or page limits. Good writing does not necessarily mean lengthy writing. Rarely do four single-spaced pages impress very busy admissions officers who must make quick judgments of your candidacy. If you are using the Common Application, I recommend that your personal statement not exceed one and a half pages.

2. Use the appropriate format. When applying online, your essay will automatically be formatted to fit standard guidelines. However, if you decide not to send the application electronically, follow these guidelines:

  • Use single space.
  • Use Times New Roman in a 12-point font.
  • Make sure that each page has your name, high school and date of birth.
  • Print on only one side of the page.

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3. Start with a catchy first sentence. It is always a good idea to have a catchy first sentence. If it grabs the reader’s attention, he or she will be encouraged to read on. If you are experiencing writer’s block, skip this first sentence, and work on the rest of your essay. Explore your theme and brainstorm examples. Then, go back to the beginning and nail it.

4. Avoid clichés. Do you see commonly used phrases in your essay that you’ve heard frequently in casual conversation? If so, these are probably clichés. Clichés usually sneak in when you are trying to be descriptive. Sadly, clichés dilute your distinctive voice. For example, you may write: “it was raining cats and dogs.” Instead, you could share the same idea with the sentence: “heavy raindrops fell, blinding my view.” Rewrite overly-used statements in an original way so you can stand out.

5. Use the active voice. This is a challenge for all writers. As a matter of style, writing in an active voice energizes an essay. Avoid the passive voice. Word processing programs often provide assistance with converting passive sentences to the active tense.

6. Use your conclusion to recapture the main points of your essay. Your conclusion should leave a lasting statement that reminds the reader of your essay’s key points. Reiterate the main themes of your essay, but say it in a different way than you did before. Make sure that you do not bring up new ideas in your conclusion.

I hope these tips help you write a great college essay. As solid writing only comes with practice, I recommend that you invest time in your personal statement. To start, complete a first draft of your essay at least one month before the deadline. Then, take a break between revisions. A few days between each draft will allow you to think clearly and not be overwhelmed. Share copies with your friends, teachers and parents to get their feedback. With continual proofreading and editing, you’ll be able to see a fresh perspective.

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Most selective colleges require you to submit an essay or personal statement as part of your application.

It may sound like a chore, and it will certainly take a substantial amount of work. But it's also a unique opportunity that can make a difference at decision time. Admissions committees put the most weight on your high school grades and your test scores. However, selective colleges receive applications from many worthy students with similar scores and grades—too many to admit. So they use your essay, along with your letters of recommendation and extracurricular activities, to find out what sets you apart from the other talented candidates.

Telling Your Story to Colleges

So what does set you apart?

You have a unique background, interests and personality. This is your chance to tell your story (or at least part of it). The best way to tell your story is to write a personal, thoughtful essay about something that has meaning for you. Be honest and genuine, and your unique qualities will shine through.

Admissions officers have to read an unbelievable number of college essays, most of which are forgettable. Many students try to sound smart rather than sounding like themselves. Others write about a subject that they don't care about, but that they think will impress admissions officers.

You don't need to have started your own business or have spent the summer hiking the Appalachian Trail. Colleges are simply looking for thoughtful, motivated students who will add something to the first-year class.

Tips for a Stellar College Application Essay

1. Write about something that's important to you.

It could be an experience, a person, a book—anything that has had an impact on your life. 

2. Don't just recount—reflect! 

Anyone can write about how they won the big game or the summer they spent in Rome. When recalling these events, you need to give more than the play-by-play or itinerary. Describe what you learned from the experience and how it changed you.

3. Being funny is tough.

A student who can make an admissions officer laugh never gets lost in the shuffle. But beware. What you think is funny and what an adult working in a college thinks is funny are probably different. We caution against one-liners, limericks and anything off–color.

4. Start early and write several drafts.

Set it aside for a few days and read it again. Put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer: Is the essay interesting? Do the ideas flow logically? Does it reveal something about the applicant? Is it written in the applicant’s own voice?

5. No repeats.

What you write in your application essay or personal statement should not contradict any other part of your application–nor should it repeat it. This isn't the place to list your awards or discuss your grades or test scores.

6. Answer the question being asked.

Don't reuse an answer to a similar question from another application.

7. Have at least one other person edit your essay.

A teacher or college counselor is your best resource. And before you send it off, check, check again, and then triple check to make sure your essay is free of spelling or grammar errors.


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About Rob Franek

Rob Franek, Editor-in-Chief at The Princeton Review, is the company's primary authority on higher education. Over his 24-year career, he has served as a college admissions administrator, test prep teacher, author, publisher, and lecturer. Read more and follow Rob on Twitter: @RobFranek

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