How To Write A Winning College Application Essay

A highly effective way to make college more affordable is to enroll in my upcoming course, The College Cost Lab. You can learn more about the class and enroll here. Lynn O’Shaughnessy

Three Steps to Writing a Winning College Essay

This is the time to start your college essay.

That’s why I am excited to share a three-step method to create a winning college essay. This guest post comes from Janine Robinson, who created Essay Hell, a phenomenal blog that’s stuffed with advice about creating college admission essays.

By Janine Robinson

After working with thousands of students from all over the world on writing the dreaded college application essay for the last eight years, I’ve finally been able to boil down the process to three simple steps.

Yes, just three steps.

If you follow these steps, I believe you will be able to craft a college application essay that will give you an edge in the admissions game.

How?

Each step makes sure that you share information about yourself that will make your essay effective and help you stand out from the competition.

What makes an essay effective?

An outstanding college application essay needs to:

  • Be engaging at the start (hook reader)
  • Reveal something unique about who you are
  • Get personal
  • Connect with your reader
  • Show your grit (raw determination)
  • Express intellectual vitality (how you think and what you value)
  • Have a sharp focus
  • Be memorable

Now, here are the three steps to crafting your own college application essay:

Share a personal story from your life

Explain what you learned from that moment or experience

Explore why what you learned matters

Yup. Just those three steps.

If you can write several paragraphs on each of these topics, and present your essay in this general order, you will have a solid college application essay.

To learn how to develop each step—and flesh it out into cohesive ideas and paragraphs—click on the underscored links to find and read related posts on each topic.

Step One: Writing a College Application Essay

Share a personal story from your life:

Start by finding one of your defining qualities or characteristics, or a core value.

Then brainstorm a moment or incident from your recent past that illustrates the one quality, characteristic or value.

Make sure that moment or incident involves some type of problem.

Craft that moment into an anecdote, which means you recreate that real-life mini-story using fiction-like language.

Include how that moment or incident made you feel.

Provide background to that moment or incident; give it context.

Step Two: Writing a College Application Essay

Explain how you handled that problem:

Share the steps you took to deal with, manage or solve it.

Reflect on what inspired you to deal with the problem.

Explain what you learned in the process of dealing with that problem.

Step Three: Writing a College Application Essay

Explore why it matters that you learned this lesson:

Weave in other examples from your life where you have applied what your learned.

Express how you envision applying what you learned in your future endeavors.

Red Flag

Some students do a great job sharing a personal story, but spend too much of their essay on those details. Make sure at least half or more of your essay explores Step Two and Step Three.

So that’s it. Easy peasy.

Now, you can either get cranking and learn how to crank out all these steps, or read on to see exactly how and why this approach works.

To review, here is how you will knock off all the requirements for writing an effective college application essay:

How STEP ONE Ensures Your College Application Essay Rocks

If you include Step One in your essay, you will give it a sharp focus by only showcasing one defining quality or core value (and you avoid one of the worse essay pitfalls: listing accomplishments and activities and writing a general, dull essay).

And you will make sure your essay is engaging at the start by using an anecdote. You will ensure it’s personal by including a real-life story and sharing your feelings. As long as your anecdote or personal story includes some type of problem, you will show your grit.

Above all, your essay will be engaging and memorable!

How STEP TWO Ensures Your College Application Essay Rocks

If you include Step Two in your essay, you will make sure to reveal how you think and reason and what you value when you share what you thought about and how you handled your problem. When you go on to analyze and evaluate what you learned in the process, you will showcase what you care about and value, as well as your ability to learn and grow.

Above all, your essay will showcase your ability to think, reflect, question, learn and grow–also known as “intellectual vitality.”

How STEP THREE Ensures Your College Application Essay Rocks

If you include Step Three in your essay, you will reveal how you are able to take a life lesson beyond how it affected you, as well as your ability to think critically and reflectively.

If you include other examples from your life where you applied this life lesson, you will naturally share other specific parts of your life. If you express how you intend to use what you learned in your future goals and dreams, you will present yourself as someone who is forward-thinking, ambitious and idealistic.

Above all, your essay will be meaningful and memorable!

See how all that works so perfectly, simply by following those three steps?

The best news is that you can develop each step by reading the related blog posts (the blue links), and within a couple hours of reading and writing, crank our your own killer college application essay.

Good luck!

Learn More…

If you’d like to dive much deeper into how to cut the cost of college, please sign up to be notified when I have more information about the next launch of my popular online course – The College Cost Lab.

I’ll be launching my best class ever in September!

 

Here’s a tip: Choose a topic you really want to write about. If the subject doesn’t matter to you, it won’t matter to the reader. Write about whatever keeps you up at night. That might be cars, or coffee. It might be your favorite book or the Pythagorean theorem. It might be why you don’t believe in evolution or how you think kale must have hired a PR firm to get people to eat it.

A good topic will be complex. In school, you were probably encouraged to write papers that took a side. That’s fine in academic work when you’re being asked to argue in support of a position, but in a personal essay, you want to express more nuanced thinking and explore your own clashing emotions. In an essay, conflict is good.

For example, “I love my mom. She’s my best friend. We share clothes and watch ‘The Real Housewives’ of three different cities together” does not make for a good essay. “I love my mom even though she makes me clean my room, hates my guinea pig and is crazy about disgusting food like kale” could lead somewhere

While the personal essay has to be personal, a reader can learn a lot about you from whatever you choose to focus on and how you describe it. One of my favorites from when I worked in admissions at Duke University started out, “My car and I are a lot alike.” The writer then described a car that smelled like wet dog and went from 0 to 60 in, well, it never quite got to 60.

Another guy wrote about making kimchi with his mom. They would go into the garage and talk, really talk: “Once my mom said to me in a thick Korean accent, ‘Every time you have sex, I want you to make sure and use a condo.’ I instantly burst into laughter and said, ‘Mom, that could get kind of expensive!’ ” A girl wrote about her feminist mother’s decision to get breast implants.

A car, kimchi, Mom’s upsizing — the writers used these objects as vehicles to get at what they had come to say. They allowed the writer to explore the real subject: This is who I am.

Don’t brag about your achievements. Instead, look at times you’ve struggled or, even better, failed. Failure is essayistic gold. Figure out what you’ve learned. Write about that. Be honest and say the hardest things you can. And remember those exhausted admissions officers sitting around a table in the winter. Jolt them out of their sugar coma and give them something to be excited about.

10 Things Students Should Avoid

REPEATING THE PROMPT Admissions officers know what’s on their applications. Don’t begin, “A time that I failed was when I tried to beat up my little brother and I realized he was bigger than me.” You can start right in: “As I pulled my arm back to throw a punch, it struck me: My brother had gotten big. Bigger than me.”

LEAVE WEBSTER’S OUT OF IT Unless you’re using a word like “prink” (primp) or “demotic” (popular) or “couloir” (deep gorge), you can assume your reader knows the definition of the words you’ve written. You’re better off not starting your essay with “According to Webster’s Dictionary . . . .”

THE EPIGRAPH Many essays start with a quote from another writer. When you have a limited amount of space, you don’t want to give precious real estate to someone else’s words.

YOU ARE THERE! When writing about past events, the present tense doesn’t allow for reflection. All you can do is tell the story. This happens, then this happens, then this happens. Some beginning writers think the present tense makes for more exciting reading. You’ll see this is a fallacy if you pay attention to how many suspenseful novels are written in past tense.

SOUND EFFECTSOuch! Thwack! Whiz! Whooooosh! Pow! Are you thinking of comic books? Certainly, good writing can benefit from a little onomatopoeia. Clunk is a good one. Or fizz. But once you start adding exclamation points, you’re wading into troubled waters. Do not start your essay with a bang!

ACTIVE BODY PARTS One way to make your reader giggle is to give body parts their own agency. When you write a line like “His hands threw up,” the reader might get a visual image of hands barfing. “My eyes fell to the floor.” Ick.

CLICHÉS THINK YOUR THOUGHTS FOR YOU Here’s one: There is nothing new under the sun. We steal phrases and ideas all the time. George Orwell’s advice: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

TO BE OR NOT TO BE Get rid of “to be” verbs. Replace “was” in “The essay was written by a student; it was amazing and delightful” and you’ll get: “The student’s essay amazed and delighted me.” We’ve moved from a static description to a sprightlier one and cut the word count almost in half.

WORD PACKAGES Some phrases — free gift, personal beliefs, final outcome, very unique — come in a package we don’t bother to unpack. They’re redundant.

RULES TO IGNORE In English class, you may have to follow a list of rules your teacher says are necessary for good grammar: Don’t use contractions. No sentence fragments. It’s imperative to always avoid split infinitives. Ending on a preposition is the sort of English up with which teachers will not put. And don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction like “and” or “but” or “because.” Pick up a good book. You’ll see that the best authors ignore these fussy, fusty rules.

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