How To Organize College Essays

Unlike every other aspect of the application, you control your essay. Make sure that the glimpse you give the admission committee into your character, background, and writing ability is the very best possible. Here are seven tips to help you focus and make the most of your application essay.

In our experience, the main worry that applicants have is that their essay won’t stand out. This is a legitimate concern as you will likely compete with numerous applicants who have backgrounds similar to yours. Therefore, follow these tips to ensure that your essay shines in the competitive admissions process.

1. Analyze the prompt thoroughly

Take three minutes to think about the prompt. If needed, divide the prompt into phrases and look at each aspect. Why would the admissions officers ask this prompt? What do you think they want to know? How does that information relate to your ability to excel in college? Next, leave the prompt for a while and then return to it. Do you see something new? 

With so many other things in your schedule, this process can initially seem like a waste of time. However, it will save you a lot of time in the long run. If you later realize that you misread the prompt, you might need to start the writing process from scratch. 

2. Organize your writing

Like the first item, this isn’t something that should take a lot of time. This is another step that can initially seem completely skippable, but organizing your writing can save you considerable stress and frustration. A good writing plan can streamline or even eliminate the need to do any significant rewrites.

Brainstorm your anecdotes. Create a rough outline, including approximately how long each paragraph needs to be in order to complete the essay within the word count limits. Finally, figure out when you’re going to write. A paragraph a day? The whole thing next weekend? Creating a schedule, even if you need to modify it later, gets your brain in motion. 

3. Show instead of telling

When selecting anecdotes for your essay, pick vivid ones that you can tell succinctly. If a story would require 450 words of a 600 word essay, then you’re not going to have a lot of space to express self-reflection and analysis of the situation. Remember that the admissions officers are more interested in your perspective of what happened than the events themselves.

In addition, keep in mind that the admissions officers don’t know you personally, and that’s why they’re reading your essay. They want to get to know you, and the essay is your first introduction. Because of this, don’t tell them that you’re passionate about public service. Show them through strong examples. Help the admissions officers envision each example as if they’re experiencing the situation alongside you. 

4. Know your vocab

Your admissions essay should reflect command of college-level vocabulary. One of the most common mistakes that we see in essays is using advanced vocabulary almost correctly. Even among synonyms, there are shades of meaning. If you’re using a thesaurus, look online for examples of that word in action. Will it still fit into your sentence?

Avoid overdoing it. Advanced vocabulary should be the spice of the essay to give it flavor, so you’ll use plain language most of the time. Essays that are riddled with advanced vocabulary can seem pompous or even inadvertently comical to the reader. 

5. Write succinctly

Can you say what you need to say in fewer words? Can you substitute an advanced vocabulary word for a phrase? Writing concisely expresses to the admissions officers that can organize your thoughts and that you respect their time. 

6. Combine like ideas into more sophisticated sentence structures

The vast majority of the sentences in your essay should be compound, complex, or a combination of both (compound-complex sentences). Save simple sentences for instances when you need to create impact.

7. Seek qualified second opinions

You should absolutely ask others to take a look at your essay before you submit it. As we work on things, we become blind to mistakes that will be glaringly apparent to others. However, limit the number of people you ask to two or three. Asking too many people for feedback will only confuse you and result in a lower quality essay as you revise the essay according to each person’s advice. Therefore, look to individuals who have background and expertise in the college admissions process.


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A college might ask you to write NO essays (WooHoo!!) or they might ask you to write 8.  No joke.  Sooo, you need to go on their application, or their writing supplement page of the Common App (if they are a Common App school) and copy/paste the actual writing prompt onto a word doc where you will draft your essay. (Do not write your essays in the little boxes because you will have much editing to do and it’s impossible to do it in the little boxes.) DO NOT put the prompt into your own words, and DO NOT abbreviate it.  You need to see the actual question and be sure at all times that you are addressing the actual question they asked.

3.  Copy/paste the word OR character limit for each essay

Some essays will give you a word limit, say 150 words or 500 words, and some essays will give you a character limit, say 200 characters or 2000 characters.  Pay CAREFUL attention to whether the prompt asks for words or characters!  There is a huge difference between 140 characters (a tweet) and 140 words (a small paragraph).  There is a painfully huge difference between 500 characters (a small paragraph) and 500 words (a page long essay).  Every year some poor sucker comes to me (proudly) with a 500 word essay they wrote for a college only to nearly cry when I quietly point out to them that school only asked for 500 characters.  Don’t let this happen to you.  It is really, really sad.

4. Before you start writing, play the Recycle Game

Ok, so it’s not a fun game (none of mine ever really are), but it IS a game that will help save you time.  Here’s what you do: read your *complete* Master List of Prompts that you carefully copied and pasted from each school’s current application (not last year’s app, which is also often still on the internet, for reasons unknown to man but that do seem to strike down innocent students yearly…).  Next, you think: “Who is asking the same question?  Where can I recycle?”  Even colleges asking similar questions can often be slightly tweaked and then recycled.  DO NOT write any essay twice because that is a criminal waste of precious time.  Write only what you have to.  The Recycling Game can often save you from writing 5 essays–no kidding!

5. List the qualities or accomplishments you want to make sure the colleges learn about you

Perhaps list your top ten, and then as you look at all of the essays that one school is going to get, ask yourself: How can I get my top ten into those essays?  Some schools ask you for 1 essay and some ask you for 5, but you want to try to figure out how to get your best selling points into *each* application, so know what your points are first.

6.  Start brainstorming your ideas for each essay

Make sure you have something to say before you start writing.  It sounds simple, but when you are nervous you sometimes just jump right in without planning, and that is always a mistake.  Have something to say for each little essay you have to write, and know what your point is before you try to draft.  This insures that each essay does in fact have a point, which is critical.  Just filling up the space won’t win you any points.  Saying something meaningful, and not repeating yourself and not leaving out big selling points–those are the keys to success.

7. Write

Write from the heart, write it *yourself*, do not get too many editors involved, and always tell the truth but be polite.  No slang, no profanity, remember your audience.  Don’t be flowery; get to the point.  Don’t be philosophical; tell a story that shows the meaning.  Don’t be overly honest; we all have our less then finer moments but this is not a confessional and not the time to air your dirty laundry.  Don’t brag; but do talk about what you love and say why you love it.  The most important part of this writing process is to start early and edit a lot.  Give yourself time to ponder and change things. Ask a teacher or counselor to read and give you feedback.  And lastly, make sure to preserve your own voice and style and your own message.  These are your college essays, and if you follow this plan of organization you will be sure to be a success!

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