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Essay Writing Strategies - How to write a killer college essay

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When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a wood-carver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year. — Annie Dillard, From The Writing Life. Harper and Row, 1989.

What you write now in your personal statements and essays will determine tomorrow. Don’t stop short of inspiring work. It could help open the door to your dream school.

What does the college want in your essay?

Assess your options for the essay question

Some colleges and universities provide specific questions to direct your essay writing. You may be asked to offer your views on a particular topic or issue. (“If you could change anything in the world, what would you change and how?” or “Describe an experience that changed you.”) Others leave the essay topic relatively open-ended and personal, allowing you the somewhat daunting task: “Tell us about you.”

Whether you decide to comment on the state of the Union or to recount an inspirational volunteer job, you often have a few essay questions from which to choose. Study the question that feels most comfortable to you and pick it apart to plan your approach.

Get to the heart of the question

You are anxious to write your college essay about that one life-changing moment. How do you fit that experience into an answer to the college’s question? It’s a good idea to look into what is being asked, address the question directly, and elaborate on your answer to their query with some interesting experiences of your own. The questions offered on the application are meant for you to choose in order to let the college get to know you better, so mold the question to you personally. If you discuss the topics that are asked in the question of your choice and describe personal experiences, you can’t go wrong.

Start Rough, Then Refine

Create an outline / Rough draft

First, organize your thoughts around your topic and outline some important points that you plan to stress. Start with a draft that captures your feelings and images, then return to it again and again to make it lucid and refined.

Do not be afraid of change

Elizabeth Bishop worked through multiple drafts for each of her poems, and her revisions filled pages at times. The most inspiring of poets, bards, novelists, and essayists are unafraid to “kill a few of their babies,” as they say in the literary world. All well-written material reaches fluidity through revision and change. Don’t let the raw emotion of your personal statement be the only strength that makes it impressive. Editing for content, making changes, and reorganizing your thoughts will enhance the quality of your writing. Admissions officers will be unimpressed by writing that is anything less than careful and thoughtful.

Pen to paper (or finger to keyboard): The write stuff about you

Have fun with it (but don’t buy into gimmicks)

You are looking for that edge in your essay that will attract the attention of admission officers who have read more essays than they can count. Something about you is unique and outstanding. Enjoy the chance to use your voice creatively, without simply boasting about your good qualities. Let the admissions officers know you by telling a well-written story and completely selling yourself.

One admissions officer at a top college claims that it is the essay that makes or breaks an application in her mind, and if a student has the ability to take over a creative written space with an essay that sticks with her, she’s sold. An applicant who writes succinctly, well, and with a twist impresses her. A student who wrote about his track career and sent his old track shoes attached to the essay did not.

Honesty is the best policy

The old adage is true: write what you know. Don’t be afraid to be honest and to be yourself.


Keep the school in mind

The essay can be a further exploration of why you are right for that particular school and why that school is right for you. In reflecting on who you are right now, you will also be able to look forward to what you wish to become through your experiences at your future school.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

If something has inspired you to create a piece that really speaks about you, adapt it to fit into various college applications. It’s okay to use one essay for more than one school. After all, the admissions officers at Yale rarely compare specifics with the admissions officers at Berkeley. Some essay topics and questions are flexible enough so that you can tailor your essay to more than one school. You are attracted to these schools for reasons that are personal and specific. The essay is your chance to let them know the things about you that fit with the things you like about them. You are not cheating if you say the same thing about yourself to more than one admissions office.

Don’t forget the finishing touches

Type the essay. Check the spelling. Correct margins and punctuation. Have several readers look it over for you. Sounds like a drill, but neatness and care can’t hurt.

Trust the power of the written word

Let your essay speak for you

Writing is a powerful tool. Unlike speaking in an interview or filling in boxes on an application, writing a personal statement or answering an essay question allows you to think, plan, and revise an interesting, articulate presentation of yourself. Be as complete as possible and don’t be afraid to take risks by telling your own story. Discussing a personal experience takes strength—the chance to use your voice is a gift; wrap it in language and give it to the college of your choice. They’ll open it carefully and, if they remember it, it is a gift that will bring many happy returns.

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Sakib over 7 years ago Sakib

Very helpful indeed. I totally agree with the beautiful girl here. And thanks again.

suzana almost 10 years ago suzana

This article deals specifically with problems I face most of the time when I write. Thanks!