I’ve worked with many students who have developed the germ of an idea into an engaging essay that opened the doors to the college of their choice. Here are five basic steps that can help you to get into a good college, too.
1. The place to start: find your subject
So, you’ve read the essay prompts and maybe you’ve chosen one. Perhaps you’ve even found a narrative you’d like to tell. If so, you’re one of the more well-prepared students.
But to find your real subject, you’ll need to dig deeper. You must figure out what you want to reveal about yourself in your essay. Begin by asking yourself what makes you different from other applicants. What do you have to offer the colleges that you have in mind? If you take the time to work this out, the rest will come more easily.
2. Understand your challenge
Admissions officers are inundated with thousands of essays each year. That’s enough words to make even the most attentive reader snore. Did you always want to become a doctor to help mankind? Did you spend you vacation building houses for the poor? So did hundreds of other students. To get into a highly selective college, you’ll need to have something unique and interesting to say. And you’ll have to write it in way that’s a fresh and surprising.
Early on, it’s wise to read essays that others have written: the good, the bad and the correct but tediously boring. Analyze why some work so well, while others fail. This will help you map your own strategy.
When you have a writing strategy you think will work, take time to discuss it with somebody who’s familiar with college admissions. Ask whether they think your subject and approach would make an interesting essay that would help you get into your favored schools.
It’s important to get this right in the beginning. Every December, I get panicky calls from high school seniors who have written essays they’re sure are almost ready to go. Could I just take a last-minute look and help them catch any little errors? When these students and their essays show up at my office, I often find serious, conceptual problems that should have been addressed long before.
3. Produce a first draft
Once you have an interesting subject that will engage your readers, it’s time to start writing. Loosen up and have some fun with it. Get your first draft roughed out without worrying about details like spelling and punctuation. Focus on two things: the specifics of your narrative and your underlying ideas. How is your tale told? What is its main point?
4. Get feedback to move to the next level
Every piece of strong writing goes through multiple drafts and rewrites before it’s ready for publication. Along the way, a good editor will give the writer feedback based on close reading. You should approach your college essay the same way. Write. Ask for feedback. Rewrite. Get feedback again. Continue until your piece is convincing and memorable.
To beginning writers, this feels like a slow process. But there are no shortcuts. Tennis champs work hard with coaches long before they win their first big games. Concert pianists devote hours to developing their interpretations with musical mentors before making their debuts. Good writing requires as much work and feedback as any other craft. Don’t sell yourself short. Allow for the necessary time.
5. Polish your sentences to a sheen
Before sending your essay to the colleges on your list, make sure it’s polished. Check the grammar, spelling and punctuation. If the essay contains any facts, check their accuracy with reliable sources. Read the piece aloud and listen to the sound of your words. If anything sounds awkward, make the necessary changes.
The takeaway: You can’t put shingles on a house until you’ve built the walls and laid plywood for the roof. It’s the same with writing an essay. You must begin with a strong idea. Without the right structure, your house will collapse. Start work on your essay early. Devote adequate time to the important, first steps. If you think you may need help, seek it from the start. This will pay off in the form of a compelling essay that’s a pleasure to read.
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