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College Admissions Essays: Helpful Hints for Writing a Winner

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The majority of colleges and universities require students to submit an admissions essay along with their college application. Writing a college application essay can be pretty stressful, and it should be time-consuming. After all, you don’t want to give the admissions counselors at your dream school a bad impression based on a poorly written essay that you threw together the night before the due date. Proper planning is essential because you will need to give yourself plenty of time for adjustments, rewrites, and proofreading.

It’s no secret that your high school grades and standardized test scores will play a large role in admissions decisions, but colleges also like to get an idea of what their applicants are really like as a person. Essays are a good way for admissions committees to gain some insight about your interests and values. Essays also provide an easy way for the schools to see a first-hand example of your writing skills.

In most cases, students have the opportunity to write an essay which answers one of several questions. The questions provided are usually basic enough that they give students the ability to discuss things such as their goals and ambitions, their beliefs or opinions, or something important that they have done in their life.

It might be tempting to submit an essay that contains information you “altered” a bit just because you think it will make you sound more important. Writing an essay about your intensive volunteer work with homeless people in a crime-ridden neighborhood won’t work out too well once the school realizes that it was all a bunch of lies and you actually volunteered at a Goodwill store donations center.

Some students even decide to use essays that they didn’t write, but that’s one of the worst ideas you could ever have. College admissions counselors know the typical writing skill level of high school students, so they will most likely be able to see through your ploy. Some students submit essays that they had a friend or relative write for them, or even one that they purchased online—these are all bad plans. You could wind up costing yourself admission into the school and get yourself into big trouble.

Where to Start

Some students make the mistake of waiting until they have access to the actual application essay topics before they start thinking about their college admissions essays. It’s actually a good idea to begin keeping a notebook or list of potential ideas during your junior year of high school. Write yourself notes every once in awhile to keep track of things you’ve done. Your list can include things such as group projects you worked on, school activities that you participated in, church functions, part-time jobs that you’ve had, and even family things that you’ve dealt with, such as divorce. Nearly anything can wind up becoming your essay topic.

Once it’s time to begin writing your essay for real, you’ll have a notebook full of ideas from which to choose. Go through your notes and see if anything seems worthy of using; you can even choose two or three topics as “maybes” and narrow things down as you go.

Decide which essay topic you are going to use, and begin by writing an outline. Even though you may have been told otherwise, your admissions essay doesn’t have to be about something that no one else has ever done. While it’s important that your essay is unique and talks about you, most high school students go through similar experiences … and you don’t want to create an essay full of lies, remember?

Once you begin writing, you’ll probably realize that the experience isn’t as bad as you’d imagined it would be. Just remember that the purpose of writing this essay is to present a personal view of you to the college admissions staff. If the school does not require in-person interviews, your essay may be all they have to go on. Take your time and allow others to read your essay and provide constructive criticism before you turn it in.

Writing Your College Admissions Essay: Five Easy Mistakes to Avoid

1. Don’t write an essay about the qualities of the college. You may think that writing about your dream career and how it will all fall into place when you go to school at XYZ University is a great way to woo the admissions counselors, but believe me: they already realize that you want to go to their school … you’re applying there, remember?

2. Don’t turn your essay into a resume. Your application already contains all the basic information about your grades and your extracurricular activities; there’s no need to repeat everything. While it’s fine to write about your experience of becoming a better athlete by joining the track team or talking about the way your part-time job helped you learn time management skills, it’s not a good idea to write one big life story in hopes of impressing the person who reads your essay.

3. Follow the essay guidelines that were specified on your application. You don’t want it to be too short or too long. Most schools allow typed essays, so they will probably have specifications for font size and spacing; others will request hand-written essays, so be sure to submit your essay in the format that is required.

4. Remember to proofread your essay. Ask others to proofread it, too – your English teacher is a great choice for this job, if they’re willing to help you out. An essay that is full of typos and grammatical errors will look sloppy and rushed.

5. It’s fine to use the same essay with minor revisions for more than one college application, so be sure to save your essay. Keep it on the hard drive of your computer, but burn it to CD or place it on an external hard as well. You never know when your computer may crash and cause you to lose everything. You can even email it to yourself as an attachment.

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Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.


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